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‘Wake-up call to firm owners’: HSF India head Chris Parsons talks to Balbir Singh about alcoholism, depression, mental health in the legal profession [VIDEO]

HSF India chief Chris Parsons talks openly about what many in India still would rather not ever have to ever talk about
HSF India chief Chris Parsons talks openly about what many in India still would rather not ever have to ever talk about

These days there are probably few if any lawyers who, locked up at home for weeks and often 24 hours a day, has not pondered about their mental health.

It is something we should be pondering a lot more often and speaking out about, according to Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) India head Chris Parsons.

Parsons recently talked about his own and the legal profession’s wider challenges in dealing with alcoholism, anxiety and depression in a video interview with Delhi-based senior advocate (and former DSK Legal senior partner) Balbir Singh.

“On the face of it, you know, you’d have assumed that I was the sort of the archetypical success story,” Parsons recounted to Singh. “On the face of it I had a good job, I just been promoted to equity partner, you know the ultimate goal if you like, within a firm like Herbert Smith [as it then was], I had a nice home, I had three lovely boys.”

And even his father was at least a little bit proud of him.

But in reality, inside feelings of anxiety and depression he could not control were taking their toll on him, he told Singh. Parsons said he had started working even harder and self-medicating with alcohol to the point of alcoholism, creating a somewhat vicious cycle.

Parsons said: “That’s the sadness with with depression: is that you can’t see into somebody’s mind, you can’t see into their pain, whilst everything may look fine, it often isn’t and the danger is, I think, in the whole mental well-being space, is that it’s very easy to be able to point at somebody else and saying, ‘but look they’re all right’, ‘they’re coping like me’.

“And of course it looked like I was coping, it looked like I was fine, it looked like [...] I had all of the attributes of somebody who should be fine.”

Back then, around 1995 in the UK, said Parsons, things with respect to mental health were “probably a little bit like India today”. “Nobody talked about this stuff,” he said, “people were embarrassed to engage on this topic, I was embarrassed to engage on this topic.”

The narrative that he had built up for himself and that others had in part willingly helped him build, was that “Chris had been working too hard and needed recharge his batteries”.

“And that was a narrative that I was happy to support because it it was a narrative consistent with a successful partner who just been working too hard, [instead of actually saying] there were much deeper troubles,” he said.

But Parsons has changed this narrative and for several years now has become an active ambassador for mental health, particularly in the UK legal profession as well as at HSF.

“Part of my story is a story of hope, that there is life after depression,” Parsons said, noting that the majority of people recover from mental ill-health.

He was doing much better now with his alcohol addiction under control and his depression and anxiety more manageable, though both required constant vigilance and self-awareness. For Parsons, he said, “aspects of lawyering were a trigger”, but it took him many years to realise that about himself.

“Leaders need to change their attitude,” said Parsons about the best way of improving mental health care in the legal profession, and that “leaders have a responsibility to acknowledge” the issues.

And at HSF, for instance, change had been more rapid than expected after Parsons was amongst those spearheading more dialogue. “Not only have partners spoken out about mental health issues, but also secretaries, associates, trainees [have shared their stories] with 6,000 employees at HSF globally.

“And they were willing to do it because a) they felt the culture was accepting of it, and I think most brave of all, to believe that it would not affect their careers.”

It was “extraordinary how quickly things can change”, with much of the improvements having only happened in very recent years, said Parsons about the UK legal industry and the wider business landscape.

“It ought to wake-up call to owners of businesses and law firms in particular,” Parsons noted. “Because [...] what we’re talking about here is that actually if they can build an environment where people feel safer better and that their mental health issues are taken account of, they could also build much more resilient and actually much more ultimately profitable organisations.”

In a way, that’s a no-brainer: a workforce that is suffering from fewer mental health issues and is supported by the organisation they work at, is likely to be more productive and more engaged with the firm culture.

Singh noted in the interview that as far as mental health issues go, “there is no backup” in India for most lawyers.

Parsons agreed, though he added: “There has definitely been some movement in a Indian law firm community around trying to address mental horizon.” He said that he’d had positive discussion with Indian law firms about the issues though he is not sure what progress has been tangibly made in practice.

Parsons was the first video interview of Singh’s, who has recently started a website called Live View Point, as a bit of a lockdown hobby project, where he intends to carry video interviews that would hopefully be interesting to the legal profession and others under lockdown, with an “objective of creating collective wisdom and thought process to enable professionals to deal with concerns and show some light in future”.

Watch the edited 30-minute conversation between Singh and Parsons below.

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