Alter Ego

The Emotional State of Lawyering

It has been a difficult year full of changes at the office. There was a lot of work to be done within a limited time. Stress and fatigue left me exhausted at the end of each week. I remember just collapsing into bed each Friday in the month of July, only to get up unwillingly each Monday. I did not want to go out during the weekends, nor engage in the usual routine of talking to my mother, nephew and niece on the telephone.  The Wife had mixed reactions of empathy and worry. She finally said to me after seeing my refusal to get out of bed weekend after weekend, “You are always a success in my eyes. You don’t need to continue running the firm if it gives you so much pain. I know you will find something else to do and excel in it. I am sure of that.” Little did she know that her very words would spur me to get up and return to my hectic routine.
I recalled how I buried myself in work about 14 years ago when my personal life was in shambles. I would work endlessly and go back home only when I was exhausted. All I wanted was to be alone during the weekends. I remember taking long walks in East Coast Park, walking aimlessly at Parkway Parade and sitting alone in the cafes at Siglap Centre near my parents’ home, with a book, deep in thought. I would travel alone and enjoy my own company in solitude.
Fatigue and stress is common in many lawyers’ lives. Sometimes, finding the stamina and energy to keep on helping clients is a difficult thing to do. No matter how you feel or what is going on in your personal life, Court hearings and demands of clients will have to be attended to.  There is no avenue for an outlet except to hide away at home and bring stress to your loved ones in turn. 
Keeping burn-out at bay, resting and relaxing is easy advice to give, but hard to put into practice. The continuous support and understanding of family, close friends and well-meaning colleagues are vital support systems during these difficult periods.
There are three women who have kept me going during the last nine years of running my own practice. My niece was one year old when I started my law firm. I used to wake up each day looking forward to her smile. I would carry her from her bed and down the stairs of my parents’ home. I would look forward to going home in the evenings to carry her and put her to sleep. She is now 10 years old. My antidote for a long day at work now is to call her and talk to her. She would say, “Hi, Periyappa” (Uncle in Tamil), and all my troubles and fatigue will melt away. I will feel re-energised and happy again. We will talk about trivial subjects such as the happenings in her day and her meals.
My mother is another important person in my life. Due to my hectic lifestyle, I do not get to see her much. However, we are so close in each other’s thoughts that I can almost feel her presence in my everyday life. Most of our bonding is done over the telephone. She would start off by asking me about my last meal. She helps me de-stress by about talking about her favourite daily pursuit – cooking! She would also talk about her health, relatives and friends. She never fails to bring a smile to my face and leave me in wonder at how her life can be so simple yet so full of joy. 
Besides my mother, the Wife is the most long suffering woman in my life. I met her five months after starting my firm. She has been more than a pillar of strength through thick and thin. As a person who relishes challenges, I always enjoy juggling many activities at one time. But starting a law firm and at the same time entering into a relationship is the ultimate challenge. I remember telling her at the beginning of our relationship that she is going to be on a journey of hardship with me, especially financially. I provided the discovery and sufficient responses to any interrogatories she had during the initial phase of our relationship in the true style of a family lawyer. She was not fazed. Love is indeed quite powerful. Sometimes what you fear always comes true. 
Life for us has been nothing but challenges even today. I find my entire strength in her. She keeps me going every single day of my life. I shudder to think how my life will be if she was not around for any reason.  
The business has grown to enable us to enjoy a certain lifestyle today. The Wife’s belief in me nine years ago has come true. She has often told me that all the material gifts that I can offer do not matter to her. She wants something which I cannot give even today – my undivided time. She still cannot win me from the clutches of a demanding and controlling mistress – my law practice.
Friends always ask me how I handle the emotions involved in family law practice. This is one of the reasons why family law practice is not attractive to most lawyers. We work with clients who are at the lowest emotional points of their life. They unconsciously and unintentionally transfer their negative emotions onto us. I will not say that it does not affect me. I still have to continuously remind myself that they are not venting their anger and hurt at me. 
There are many stories of how lawyers have been affected emotionally by work stress. Some display psychotic problems. But for many, these problems are not visible. How do we then manage the stress of practice? Pro bonowork, volunteer work, hobbies and holidays may be stress relievers. Yet sometimes they are not enough. What does one do then? This is the situation I am finding myself in now. 
Besides relying on support systems, one has to continue to find meaning in life pursuits. As clichéd as it sounds, what else can one do if you have clients, staff and a business to take care of? You just have to find the deeper meaning in your vocation to keep yourself going. I keep reminding myself why I do this work – simply because I love this work. Be it mediation in the Child Focussed Resolution Centre or even a Mention in Court 1 in the Family Court, helping people and making a difference in their lives is the meaning of my life. I also find renewed passion and energy in my committee work with the Singapore Academy of Law and the Law Society, as well as my mediation work in the Family and Subordinate Courts and in the Singapore Mediation Centre. It gives me that much needed respite from law practice and fills me with positive energy so that I can face another day at the office.
One has to engage in interesting and meaningful pursuits each and every day and find happiness in even the small and simple things in life.

Rajan Chettiar
    Rajan Chettiar & Co
    E-mail: [email protected]