Why am I having to do all the working out for my health issues, a bit like you do when solving a maths equation? After all, I trained as a lawyer not a doctor, even though I don’t practice anymore. Shouldn’t experts be able to give me all the answers? The thing is, as I’ve discovered in life, you often find yourself having to do other people’s jobs even if you’re not really qualified in those fields and are paying them quite a lot of money to do the work for you. Dean would understand because his lawn mowing man was very unreliable and he often had to do the lawns himself, no mean feat if you live on a lifestyle block. So even if you’re a partner at glamorous Bell Gully, which for some reason is still the most popular law firm in NZ, you still might have to get your hands dirty outside office hours. Don’t think you can just sit and shuffle paper all day wearing a suit in a nice office.
Even if you are lucky enough to find a good expert (which is hard in this country so you need to look for one that came from the UK like I did), you still need to do the work on your own, a bit like how a personal trainer at the gym can help you but unfortunately can’t do the exercise for you. If only it was that easy! You need to do a bit of thinking beforehand in order to know what questions to ask before you can find solutions. If you consult an expert, you have to work together as a team, just like I do with Alice my personal trainer regarding my weight issues. On that note, people who work at the gym can be more intelligent than doctors, so don’t be fooled by the environment you get advice in. Listen to what people say irrespective of their title and ask yourself the question, does this sound right in principle?
What are my health issues? To recap, they are:
1. Mild schizophrenia – the main symptom seems to be recurrent psychotic episodes, which I established myself. Why could the doctors not tell me what symptoms I presented? Well, you are the one who is in the best position to know what’s inside your own head, despite what anyone, even a psychiatrist, tells you. It’s not like anyone else can read your thoughts. Quite logical, really. I’d still like to know what causes a psychotic episode. It’s not enough to simply say it’s a “chemical imbalance in the brain” fullstop like the doctors all told me. We need to delve deeper and examine the underlying question of what exactly causes this. I know I ask too many questions but you need to get to the root of a problem in order to resolve it
2. Depression – I’ve explored this topic before in this post. I’d like to explore the underlying issue of what exactly causes depression. Also, if you are feeling depressed, take heart that it’s not necessarily completely all your fault. Depression can be triggered by others if they hurt you, examples of which are in this previous post.
3. Type 2 diabetes, which I control just with diet and exercise. It was the continued use of Risperidone, the evil anti-psychotic drug I was prescribed, that caused an enormous weight gain and elevated blood sugar levels, which led to the development of this condition. Doctors don’t disclose this side-effect at the time they prescribe the drug otherwise no one would take it, but I did manage to get my psychiatrist to admit that all his patients suffer from Type 2 diabetes.
Just a little note, despite what I said in an earlier post, I don’t really have bi-polar. My psychiatrist said that I don’t but I self-diagnosed, even though you’re not really supposed to do that. But I have lost my temper around the neighbourhood a lot lately because of the way our neighbours have been behaving. When my aunt who lives across the road told me that her busybody next door neighbour was asking very personal questions about her son’s recent separation from his wife and that it really upset her, I actually said that she should mind her own fucking business. I wasn’t raised to speak like this but was so angry. Some people like our neighbours seem to know all your weaknesses and know how to really get to you, a bit like my physio when he works on my pressure points during our sessions, but at least his intentions are good. If people provoke you, the law is sympathetic to this. That’s why provocation is a defence if you commit a crime and you get a lighter sentence, going back to the compulsory criminal law paper we took at law school, which seems a lifetime ago. I’ll continue to develop this thread in my next post.
In my previous post, I shared the thank you letter that I wrote to two partners at Freshfields for acting as my referees when I applied for a position at Bell Gully notwithstanding having a mental illness. If you want, you can also read the thank you letter I wrote to Bell Gully after I left the firm here. Towards the end of the letter that I wrote to my two referees at Freshfields (which were basically the same so I only reproduced one letter), I remarked that I felt grateful to them for having me in the International Arbitration Group and my training at Freshfields more generally because it helped me get my head around some difficult medical topics, think laterally and come up with a solution to a challenging problem. I want to unpack my comment further in this series of posts.
First of all, I should clarify that it wasn’t solely my experience working at Freshfields (and also Bell Gully for that matter) that helped me work through some difficult health issues which I have been battling in my 30s since my first psychotic episode at the age of 29. I know I’ve revised my position slightly but that doesn’t detract from what I originally said, just like Dworkin’s theory of the law isn’t wrong just because he later revised what he wrote, despite what Hart would say. It’s a bit like amending a contract. The original one wasn’t wrong, it’s just that things have changed and you now see things differently. Surprisingly, it was my passion for running, which I have done over the past 17 years (on and off in my 30s due to health issues), which also helped me develop a way forward since the time of the letter that I wrote to the partners from Freshfields who were my referees for my job application to Bell Gully.
I know I probably shouldn’t get side-tracked in a blog but I might have to return to this point in a future post because I’d like to address a few side issues which have arisen. I’m new to blogging and it’s a completely different style of writing which I’m used to, so forgive me if I’ve broken a few rules along the way.
1. Even if you’ve been lawyering at a Magic Circle firm overseas (or White Shoe one if you’re lucky enough to work in the US), you can’t just walk into a job with a law firm in New Zealand on the back of that, not least because you need a security card to enter the premises. Believe it or not they might not necessarily want to hire you despite how amazing you think your overseas experience is. For starters, they might not be able to create a position due to lack of work or you might not have the experience they’re looking for. Also, they might not actually like you as a person, which is a very good reason not to hire someone inspite of their qualifications and experience. Furthermore, you do actually have to apply to the firm, even if your job interview is essentially over a few beers at a bar sitting out in the sunshine. Mine was a bit different and took place in a meeting room on the firm’s reception level with a beautiful view (which you can see in this post) because I had to have a difficult conversation about my mental health issues with Garry, as alluded to in my thank you letter to my referees from Freshfields. I didn’t want anyone to overhear what we were saying because it was quite personal. I’m sure our nosy neighbours would have loved to have been privy to that conversation.
2. After you’re hired, you have to work your way up if you want to become a partner. Just because you’ve flown into the firm from a glamorous location overseas like the way lawyers working in the field of arbitration do all the time, you don’t get to skip any steps unfortunately. For example, one of my bosses in the Corporate team I was working in at Bell Gully, Dean Alderton, was a Senior Associate for awhile before he became a partner, notwithstanding that he had previously been a partner at Dentons in Dubai for a number of years. Simon Consedine was also a Senior Associate upon returning to Bell Gully in Wellington after working as an associate at Freshfields in the firm’s Paris office. The same applied to my law school friend Tim Fitzgerald, who worked at Slaughter and May and who I referred to in my thank you letter to Bell Gully. It’s a different path for barristers but Robert Kirkness, another law school friend in my cohort who was previously Counsel in the Singapore office at Freshfields and is now at Thorndon Chambers in Wellington, didn’t go straight to becoming a QC notwithstanding his impressive achievements and has to start at the bottom in chambers. Such is life. Even if it may seem unfair, there’s nothing you can do than accept it, work hard and start climbing a new ladder, really. They should all be glad that at least they didn’t have to change practice areas like me and accept a cut in seniority, not that it’s something that bothers me because I enjoyed working in Garry and Dean’s team so much and like Corporate too. That’s me, I always like having a finger in every pie, which no doubt contributed to my weight issues.
So why exactly can’t you just waltz into the partnership at a NZ law firm if you’ve returned home from overseas and you’re some legal hotshot? Leaving Rob aside because his career path is different as a barrister, the reason is because in order to become a partner, you need to first establish a local book of business, which you won’t have if you’ve been working overseas. But it can be hard even if you’re lateralling to another firm in the same city, even overseas. You can’t just simply take all your clients from your previous firm because (i) you might not be allowed to; and (ii) they might not like it if you do that. Who cares what the partners at your previous firm think of you, you might say? I personally don’t think it’s a good idea to fall out with people at your previous firm because legal circles are very small and as I observed in the title of my previous post, it always goes back to Freshfields, as Garry knows too well because he also worked there.
As I keep saying, even in different contexts like running and weight loss, it’s all very circular. That’s why in my view, Nigel Blackaby is much better off staying put rather than moving across town to Three Crowns (not that I know the lay of the land in DC because I’ve never been there but Simon can confirm whether this is accurate as he made that exact transition himself recently). The former Freshfieldiens who founded Three Crowns simply need to accept the fact that they’ll never be able to get away from Freshfields. Now with the addition of another Freshfields partner to Three Crowns, it really is like a mini-Freshfields! All the founding partners have done is simply rebrand and now are sitting in different surroundings, yet still mixing in the same circles. You still can’t escape that arbitration partner at Freshfields that you never got along with, even if they’re based in a different city! Blackaby of course foresaw this problem, not that I’m implying the others didn’t, which is why he’s sitting still. We don’t really need to have this conversation together. The partners at large law firms are very smart and there isn’t anything you can tell them which they don’t already know.
The reason I wanted to make the points above is because I’m sick of people outside the profession thinking that lawyers and judges are powerful people who think they can do whatever they want. Lawyers don’t mind following rules, including the law. Don’t confuse us with politicians who are quite different. We trained as lawyers and are proud to be a part of the profession. We don’t want to be politicians. I’ll leave it here for now and will develop this thread in further posts.
In an earlier post, I shared my thank you letter to my previous employer Bell Gully, who took me on despite disclosing that I suffer from schizophrenia and depression. I was obligated to make a full disclosure of my health conditions because I owed an ethical duty to the Law Society, who are the iCloud of the legal profession. Contrary to what many people may believe lawyers, not even ones in big firms which can be very powerful, are free to do whatever they want. Like Medicine, Law is a regulated profession. The legal profession is governed by the law. It’s all very circular and just shows how you can never get away from law. It’s no wonder so many lawyers leave the profession so they can finally be free.
Why do health conditions need to be disclosed to the Law Society? Mental illness goes to one’s fitness to practice and can affect your ability to obtain a practicing certificate. I also had a duty of honesty to disclose my health conditions with any employer, whether a law firm or not. But before I could be hired by Bell Gully, I had to of course give the names of some of the partners I worked for while I was at Freshfields, who could act as referees. They didn’t know about the onset of these mental conditions as they occurred after I left the firm. I did tell the partner I was going to work for at Bell Gully that he was welcome to mention it when he contacted them for a reference if it would help him make a decision about whether to employ me, but he said that wasn’t necessary. I did also point out that whatever they said about me may no longer reflect my current capabilities due to the development of these conditions. I wasn’t exactly selling myself like you usually try to do in a job interview, but this was a unique situation.
Two Christmases ago, I wrote a thank you note to the two partners from Freshfields that acted as my referees, which I would like to share. I have left out their names as their identity isn’t important. Make no mistake - they are important people but you don’t really need to know who the letters were written to. Be happy with what I am prepared to share in this forum. Don’t be like our nosy neighbours, who have to know everything.
I just wanted to say thank you for giving me a reference so I could work at Bell Gully. The position meant a lot to me, much more than you would ever know. A few months after I returned to New Zealand in 2010, I experienced a psychotic episode. Eventually, I was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It has been a very difficult journey but I am in a good place now. Bell Gully was wonderful. It wasn’t exactly the easiest of conversations but I had a duty to disclose my condition not only to my employer but also to the law society as mental illness is considered to impair one’s fitness to practice. I worked in the Corporate department under a wonderful partner called Garry Downs who in my opinion is New Zealand’s best lawyer. He is the very person that referred me on to Freshfields as he worked there himself many years ago. Over the years, Garry has become my mentor, friend and father figure in the corporate world. I am grateful to you and Y for helping me re-join a truly dynamic law firm and reconnecting us after many years. The role helped me get back on my feet again after a long period of sickness and unemployment.
I have since moved on and launched a start up called Anita’s Garden. While I was too unwell to work, I started gardening, which I discovered to be great therapy. Inspired by the many beautiful gardens I had visited while living in Europe, I was determined to create my own personal sanctuary. I became very absorbed in my project and was surprised to receive a call from the editor of the New Zealand Gardener Magazine one day. She had somehow heard about the garden and asked to feature it in the magazine. Anita’s Garden has grown organically without a business plan. I maintain an active blog and write a weekly gardening newsletter. I run a boutique plant nursery, hold workshops to educate people about how to grow their own food and consult on garden design and development. It’s an exciting journey which is at times terrifying, as I prefer advising businesses on risks rather than taking them myself. What I love is that it has united so many different threads from my life, as you need to draw on a very broad knowledge base and skill set in order to run a business. I work from home. Instead of spending two hours a day on the train commuting to the city, I use that time to train, which is important due to the nature of my work.
Having a mental illness really affected my self-esteem but I was blown away by how accepting other people were, including the partners of Bell Gully. This helped me learn how to accept myself despite my condition. I’m fortunate to function normally 90% of the time. I’m also lucky that my condition hasn’t impaired my cognitive functioning and memory. The role at Bell Gully was a stepping stone to this, which suits me better as I can work around my condition. I work more when I’m well so I can take time off to recover when relapses occur. Medication prevented the recurrence of psychosis but took too high a toll on my physical health, causing excessive weight gain and the onset of Type 2 diabetes. In the end, I decided that I was better off without it. I feel particularly grateful to you and Y for having me in the International Arbitration Group and my training at Freshfields more generally because it helped me get my head around some difficult medical topics, think laterally and come up with a solution to a challenging problem.
Have a wonderful Christmas. All the best for the New Year.
In a future post, I’d like to expound on what I said in the last paragraph, which I have emphasised in bold.
One of the things I’d really like to do in In the Circle is open up about my journey living with schizophrenia. I have already started to do this. You can read my previous posts here. Most people living with such a condition tend to hide it in shame, as I tried to do for many years. There is so much stigma attached to mental illness, but as I’ll illustrate with reference to my experience returning to Biglaw which I referred to briefly in a previous post, the people who are judgmental, ask personal questions and gossip about you behind your back are usually uneducated, like most of the people in our neighbourhood in South Auckland. My personal trainer lives in Epsom, a lovely, leafy affluent suburb in Central Auckland where people are generally refined and educated. They have tact and discretion, which is rare where we live. When she eventually moves out of home, I’m going to ask if I can board there with her parents. Our nosy next door neighbours (who I absolutely loathe living next to) asked a lot of personal questions during the acute phase of my illness, which completely invaded any privacy I hoped to have about my condition. While they may have gotten more information out of me than I wanted to reveal in the past because I was too polite to tell them to mind their own business, they’re not getting any more. Hopefully they’ll shut up and leave us alone, but people like that are never satisfied. They seem to know which buttons to press and actually enjoy upsetting you. People like this are truly evil. I still can’t believe one of the neighbours had the audacity to ring Counties Manukau and made them visit me while I wasn’t well, without first asking my mother who I live with, or my aunt and uncle, who live across the road from me (and live next to her, if it’s the person I’m thinking of). Like I have said in an earlier post, they’re always peeping out of their window, spying on us because they have nothing better to do with their time. Even if I do have a mental illness, at least I use my time constructively and try not to hurt others. In fact, even though I’m the one with a mental illness, their behaviour is actually worse than mine. Also, as I have mentioned previously, after one particularly bad psychotic episode when I ended up being hospitalised, the lady on the reception desk in the mental health ward of Middlemore Hospital told everyone in the Indian community my parents used to belong to about my condition. I have no time for people like this. Some information is private and confidential. If you work at the hospital, especially in the mental health section, you need to behave in a professional manner and keep patient information to yourself. When I worked in Biglaw, I couldn’t go blabbing about details of my cases or transactions to everyone around town, because I owed an ethical duty of confidentiality to clients, not to mention the firm.
Opening up about what has happened to me has actually set me free. I feel a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I want to share my experience with others in the hope that it might resonate with someone else out there who is on the same journey, because I haven’t been able to find many resources to help me. As I have said before, I want to leave a legacy to others and this is it. I have had to map out a treatment plan and devise my own therapy, despite the fact I’m not a doctor. It angers me that I have to do all the thinking from first principles and sell it to my specialist, who is reputedly the best psychiatrist in Auckland. He always ends up agreeing with me, yet I’m paying him to help me. Most of the doctors I have encountered since my first psychotic episode are absolutely hopeless and it makes me wish I became a doctor myself, despite the fact that Science was always my weakest subject at school and I never thought I was smart enough to become one.
One of my former colleagues from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer wrote me a message some time ago, saying how much she liked my blog because she had never read anything quite like it before. This made me feel happy. I highly value originality. The information about schizophrenia on the internet is downright depressing. The only high-achiever living with schizophrenia that I could find was a law professor in the States called Elyn Saks, who obtained a JD from Yale.
I hope to write more about my experience returning to the workforce later on, but for now, I wanted to share the thank you letter that I wrote to my employer Bell Gully upon my departure after a particularly bad depressive episode. Outside the legal industry, big law firms have a bad name. My firm was amazing. They hired me even after I fully disclosed my condition and did their absolute best to accommodate me. It was nice to reconnect with Tim, Belinda and Campbell who were in my cohort from law school and who had progressed to senior positions at the firm. I just love how they had the class not to probe into my unusual part-time working arrangement, which definitely wasn’t implemented so I could spend the afternoons shopping. What a refreshing contrast to our neighbours’ behaviour!
Here is the letter I sent the partners of Bell Gully.
Dear partners of Bell Gully,
A Christmas gift from Anita’s Garden - Jersey Benne and Agria potatoes
By way of background, I was a summer clerk at Bell Gully (2002/2003 intake). I completed a training contract at Freshfields in London (thanks to a referral from Garry) and worked in the International Arbitration department at the firm’s Paris office. I re-joined Bell Gully in 2015 and worked in Garry and Dean’s team.
Every year the partners give staff a Christmas present, but it’s hard to think of a good gift for the partners. Dean and Garry regularly enjoyed fresh produce from our garden, so I came up with this idea. I have always wanted to thank you for accommodating me with a mental illness the second time around. This letter is long overdue and I wish I had written it earlier. Sometimes you just don’t know how to express your gratitude. Employing someone with schizophrenia and depression is not a decision to be taken lightly. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the Board for making the final decision, Haydn and Anna for welcoming me into the Corporate department and Garry and Dean for having me in their team. I would also like to thank Louise Alexander from Human Resources who met with me fortnightly to provide support and Tim Fitzgerald from my cohort who is a wonderful friend and helped me greatly in a time of need.
Since leaving Bell Gully, I launched a start up called Anita’s Garden. I maintain an active blog and write a weekly gardening newsletter. I run a boutique plant nursery, hold workshops to educate people about how to grow their own food and consult on garden design and development. It’s an exciting journey which is at times a little terrifying, as I prefer advising businesses on risks rather than taking them myself. I am forever grateful to Bell Gully. My role helped me get back on my feet again after a long period of sickness and unemployment. It also helped restore confidence in myself. Having a mental illness really affected my self-esteem but I was blown away by how accepting the firm was of me. This helped me learn how to accept myself despite my condition. The fact that the firm was willing to accommodate a novel situation like mine and find creative solutions to my problems encouraged me to find a way to work around my condition. I’m fortunate to function normally 90% of the time. I’m also lucky that my condition hasn’t impaired my cognitive functioning and memory. I work more when I’m well so I can take time off to recover when relapses occur. People complain that law firms are not doing enough to address the issue of mental health but I disagree. Bell Gully actually saved my life. Being a part of the firm helped me to develop a more positive mindset, which has given me the strength to carry on.
I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas. All the best for the New Year.