Counsel on the fast track

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018

A strong defence: Shwetasree Majumdar realises the need for a healthy work atmosphere, as she is intensely aware of burnouts

For a lawyer nurturing a young firm, an overdrive is inevitable until the practice becomes a name to reckon with

Shwetasree Majumdar, 38, tends her workspace with quiet efficiency. Telltale signs of a system well run are visible across Fidus Law Chambers, the firm she heads. Immaculate is the norm here. Hardbound law tomes on the floor-to-ceiling shelves are shipshape. The tea coasters on the conference room table sit at strict angles. Elegant curios do not budge from earmarked slots. Her staff work with precision and a quiet efficiency. Majumdar has put much into the firm that was started almost 10 years ago. She has led it to a point where she can breathe easy, having trained an able rung of juniors and also put a robust succession plan in place. However, she is still learning to slow down. Her juniors were startled when she chose to work from home a couple of days ago. She usually exercises that option only when she is unwell. “I take a day off only when I am too sick to sit up.”

An intellectual property lawyer and a litigator, Majumdar’s work-life follows a rigorous schedule. When I get in touch with her, she is in London on work. She suggests we meet the day she returns to Delhi. Concerns about jet lag are met with a “I’ll be in office — no time for jet lag” text message. Majumdar considers atypical work-hours typical of every busy lawyer’s life. She claims to hardly know anyone in her community who hit the sack before one in the morning. Majumdar is severe on herself too — working around 75 hours a week, including on Saturday, and a few hours on Sunday. Before arriving in court at 10.30 each morning, Majumdar — a hands-on single mother — has already done the roughly 20-km Noida-central Delhi commute twice over. “I drive my son to school. Otherwise, I do not get enough time with him.”

For an organised person who juggles multiple tasks, the time spent in court is the most unstructured part of her day. Hours are spent listlessly hanging around, waiting for a case to be heard. When she gets back to her Noida office, wading through another swirl of traffic, it is evening. Majumdar calls it the real beginning to her day. For a firm that handles international clients there are conference calls and meetings to attend to. Important hearings the next day mean more research and preparation. “On good days, I leave office by 8.30 - 9 pm. On bad ones, I can be here till three in the morning,” She also takes work home. “I work after my son goes to bed. On an average, I sleep five hours a day.”

That kind of schedule is bound to take a toll, and it did too for Majumdar. Haywire eating patterns and incessant travel have left most lawyers with severe gastroenteritis. And they unite in the common scramble for gastroenterologists. “Ask any lawyer and they will talk of physical illnesses. We are ill from an early age,” says Majumdar.

Outsiders may be tempted to think that lawyers live it up as courts have regular vacations. Majumdar is quick to dispel such beliefs. Apart from litigations, her firm handles opinions, patent, trademark and contractual work. “We have enough and more work when the courts are shut.”

The young firm has affected Majumdar’s time with her son and she is acutely aware of it. She has tailored his routine to complement hers, but the situation is far from ideal. Every day, her son visits her at office in the evening. In a little room next to hers, he goes about the work his mother has set for him. “The only relief is that he knows I’m nearby. It is not ideal and I don’t necessarily want to do it. Ideally I want to wind up by six and be home with him.” Majumdar compensates or, as she says, tends to “overcompensate”. She often takes her son on short holidays. And if a light weekend saunters by, she finds herself chalking out activities — a museum visit, a movie. “I never get the time to do absolutely nothing.”

Yet Majumdar knows she wouldn’t be happy if she were to do “absolutely nothing” . “I wouldn’t survive. This is the only life I have known.” It has been so since 2002, when she joined a firm as a young National Law School graduate. Though she fancied being an intellectual property lawyer, she hardly knew how overwhelming it could be. She has been called away on work halfway through a surprise birthday party thrown for her by friends. She has worked without a contract, never mustering the courage to ask for one. Law firms were easy-going and inconsiderate without intending to be so. “Everyone focused on getting work done. There was no concept of time off or work-life balance.” But much had changed when Majumdar became an employer. Her recruits queried her on work-life balance at the interview. She works by a simple rule. “If we are all staying back after 8 pm every day, then we need one more hand.”

Building a firm often made the overdrive inevitable for Majumdar, but she is learning to slow down and say ‘no’. For instance, when a client suggested they meet on Majumdar’s way back from the airport, she put her foot down. She has become more discerning. “I check if a matter is worth my time. Earlier, I tried to do everything.” However, the volume of work the firm handles still leaves her with a packed day. She now invests greater responsibility on others. “As a firm grows, it is important to divest equity and responsibility.” Simple measures save time. Lawyers, she says, don’t use technology well. “The moment you digitise files, it introduces flexibility.”

Majumdar wants a healthy work atmosphere as she is aware of burnouts. The media chases only the success stories, she says. In foreign firms, drug issues among lawyers are a major concern.

“Some take pills to stay awake. A lawyer in a New York firm collapsed and died after going sleepless for 48 hours. Alcohol problem is huge among lawyers.” Majumdar is now fiercely protective of her personal time. But that has come after years of not having the choice to do so.

Published on April 21, 2017

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