Indian Law Firms and Burnt-Out Meat Robots: Savagery at Its Finest

I scrambled into my Fort-bound Uber at 9:50 am today, almost out of breath, with the hem of my new A-line from Vero Moda sticking out of the cab, and managed to mumble: “Bhaiya, thoda jaldi chalaaoge, please? Bahut late ho gaya hai!” 

To give you some insight into the panic plaguing the contours of my anxiety-ridden brain, if I reach my law firm even a minute later than 10:30 am, they dock half my day’s pay.

No, sir, no clemency shall be granted here!

I wish I was exaggerating. It murders my will to live every single time I punch my biometrics at 10:31 a.m. 

Sure, rules are rules. But their brazen systemic hypocrisy manifests itself in the fact that no attorney gets any over-time pay for working till 2 am, or 5 am, or even 8 am. And, trust me, that happens about 2,000 times more often than you would like to believe. Of course, it’s way beyond the official ‘out-time’ of around 6:30 pm. But ‘out-time’ is an alien concept at law firms.

In essence, even if I work 20 hours straight on any given day I was a minute late (which is well within the realm of possibilities at an Indian law firm), not only am I not getting any extra pay, but I’m also being denied 50% of the day’s pay. 

In case you were curious, I reached office well on time today. The roads were deserted. Turns out, the IMD had issued a ‘red alert’ forecasting torrential rains across the city and the government declared a public holiday.

While my law firm couldn’t be bothered to relax the in-time rules even on a day like this, I heard through the grapevine that a couple of law firms did circulate mass emails informing their employees that they may work from home (sub-text: at the risk of incurring the wrath of their bosses, obviously). But this was deliberately, and quite strategically, sent out post 11 am, by which time, 90-95% of their employees would already have braved the weather to reach office.   

Well, forget floods, or elections even, I have worked through Independence Day, Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali, and many, many weekends. On paper, of course, the firm was shut. But its employees were working. Around the clock. Tirelessly. In the office; because akin to ‘out-time’, ‘work-from-home’ is also an alien concept at law firms, and essentially counts as a leave.

Oh, and taking leaves are, to put it mildly, frowned upon at these Satanic vestibules. Oh, you’re sick and dying? Sorry, dying can wait; work can’t.

Because real face-time trumps everything else: productivity, efficiency, you name it. 

It is hardly surprising, then, that mental health disorders are rampant amongst law firm employees; as is drug use. Within merely six months of graduating from college, and joining the banking and finance team at a Tier I firm, I burnt out completely.

Just six months.

I distinctly remember narrowly avoiding a major accident with a truck on my way back from work one (mid)night, where my brain’s immediate reaction wasn’t an elated –  “Phew! What a save! I could’ve died!”; but was a decidedly dejected – “Damn it! Now, I’ll have to go back to work tomorrow.”

Also read: We Need to Talk About Toxic Work Environments

Recently, I overheard an associate tell another, “Dude, can I just kill you so that I can be arrested and put in jail? I can, at least, sleep peacefully there, and not be woken up by calls from seniors/clients at ungodly hours.”

These hallowed edifices that claim to foster and hone the brightest of legal minds, in reality, stunt one’s intellectual growth by denying any form of respite to the brain, thereby impairing promising legal acumen, and reducing one to a thoroughly, and devastatingly, burnt-out meat robot.

That’s a win-win for the law firms, actually. The longer an associate lasts at the firm, the closer they get to becoming an equity partner. Law firms don’t want that, of course. For every associate that gets burnt out and quits, there are a hundred fresh-faced law grads vying for the position because the pay sounds great – although it’s actually pretty terrible given how disturbingly demanding these jobs (of essentially being a glorified clerk) are.  

For the sake of preserving my sanity, and upon my therapist’s advice, I had to quit being a transactional lawyer. Nope, I could not do seven-day work weeks anymore. My former boss, whom I still hold in tremendously high regard, was not only empathetic to my state, but also spent his billable hours helping me figure out career choices, and extended me his support and guidance while I transitioned into a relatively less taxing role in the organisation.

My current boss, au contraire, reminiscent partly of a dung beetle, and partly of the Grim Reaper himself, believes that anxiety and depression are just terms bandied about by millennials. Perhaps, he would get along like a house on fire with our finance minister (I should, perhaps, find out what he thinks of the slowdown in the Indian automobile industry).

In case I forgot to mention, law firms are also a cesspool of misogyny – boys’ clubs, if I may. I have seen, and been subjected to, numerous instances of sexual harassment that have been hushed up, saying, “He was just too drunk ya!”

Yeah, that totally justifies him spanking the asses of female employees despite them asking him to leave them alone. 

Under the Grim Reaper’s crackerjack tutelage, recently, a workplace superior, without batting an eyelid, had the audacity to tell me something as inappropriate and as sexist as: “We hired you because you were profiled as an unmarried woman with no kids. Naturally, you wouldn’t have any other commitments besides the job, you know.” 

Still, this may not be the worst thing I’ve been told by a superior at a law firm. In 2018, when the partner I was working with found out (after some awfully sneaky, and acutely ardent, online-stalking) that I’m vocal about mental health issues on social media, she berated me till I was reduced to tears.

No, I had not discussed any facet of my work-life online. But perhaps I had signed every other facet of my life away to the law firm when I chose to work there. It appears that butchering my self-worth, sucking my spirit, and wreaking havoc on my rapidly crumbling mental health wasn’t nearly enough to satiate the sadistic souls of my corporate overlords. 

Their swanky corridors, lined with plush interiors ranging from antiques to prized paintings – in a bid to wow their elite clientele, and to inspire aspiring lawyers to pledge their souls to a lifetime of what-feels-like bonded labour until an untimely heart attack in their late 20s or early 30s bestows upon them the sweet release of death  are built upon the foundations of more exploitative practices than you can possibly fathom.

The probabilities of me running out of surfaces to slit on my body, of India truly becoming a secular country, and of Shloka Mehta Ambani holding a press-conference announcing that she does not want to have children – are, perhaps, moderately higher than Indian law firms treating their employees as humans.

I kid you not, Trump might actually start respecting women before law firms introspectively acknowledge their despotism and savagery.

Elle Woods is a Bombay-dwelling meat-robot in her late 20s. Having graduated from a top-tier NLU, she surrendered her soul to an industry ruled by Dementors from Azkaban. Mostly drained of her élan vital, she is currently having an affair with depression. 

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty