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Law school stress: It’s not about you, and it’s all about you

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Depresssion

Do you ever have the thought that if you had known what law school was like prior to starting (truly knew what it was like), you might have chosen to become a professional bee keeper instead?  There are many experiences in life that you cannot fully understand prior to living them.  Law school is definitely one of those experiences.  Law school is more stressful than most previous educational experiences by an order of magnitude – for many reasons.

Think back to when you started college.  That was also a time of great change and adapting to a new environment.  Your objectives probably included: learning some new things, getting decent grades, making new and more varied friends, finding different kinds of peer groups than were available in high school, and enjoying yourself.  Law school on the other hand is an educational experience that is directly tied to a career and professional identity.

When you started law school, whether you were motivated by long-held ambitions or by a wish to find an expedient route toward some kind of professional vocation, you knew that there was a connection between how you would perform and your future capacity to make a living and have a career.  And most likely, you are taking on very large student loans that make future income all the more important. Throw in the reality that the supply of qualified new lawyers far exceeds available well-paid positions, inflating the element of competition, and you are left with a stressful experience like few others in life.

Competition can be a good thing.  It can motivate you to perform or to challenge yourself beyond what you thought was possible.  Competition can also be harmful – particularly when it separates and isolates you from others.  The implication that law school is a Darwinian environment where only the strong survive can be an explicit message or an implicit suggestion in many programs.  Whenever competition is high and vulnerability is viewed as something to exploit (for competitive purposes), isolation and increased pressure result.  Depression is an all-too-common byproduct in this scenario.

In many instances, these values are not completely aligned with your pre-existing sense of yourself and your world, and they certainly are not necessarily healthier for you.  This is a world that is highly competitive and adversarial, and may not be high on qualities like empathy or altruism (with many exceptions, to be sure).  In addition, many law students report that heavy drinking is seen as a reasonable way to cope, and to get a quick, if artificial, break from all the stress.

You will be in a better position to deal with academic performance pressures if you are thinking mostly about what interests you about laws, and about how laws, regulations, suits, etc. affect people – and devote less mental energy to self-judgment.  In that sense, it’s about the material, not about you.  When, in the future, you are conferring with clients to gather information, prepare and support them, or with colleagues to creatively develop strategies or do relevant research, it will be much more helpful and gratifying to focus on wrestling with legal concepts, intricacies, and precedents than to wrestle with self-esteem.

Helpful: “Oh, it would help in this case if I learn more about this point of law.”
Unhelpful: “Why don’t I already know more about this point of law; maybe I’m not smart enough.”)

On the other hand, it’s all about you, if that means that you are staying in touch with yourself.  Are you, for example, finding some moments of pleasure in each day, including the satisfaction that is derived from working hard to master new challenges?  Are you getting enough rest?  Having some fun?  Connecting with people you care about?  Are you feeling compelled to compromise your principals, or forced into interactions that feel creepy or insensitive?

Despite your best efforts, you would be in good company if you do develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, alcohol/drug misuse, not to mention common conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which would predate law school, but which can make it that much more challenging.  If so, we hope you won’t be so concerned about seeming “strong” that you avoid seeking help.

The concept of “resilience” applies here – it doesn’t mean avoiding or denying difficulties; rather, it is the ability to overcome barriers.  Learning new ways to discuss, understand, and work through challenges is how you build resilience.  It is important to recognize and resist the temptation to acknowledge a challenge but justify putting off addressing it.  “Once X happens, then I’ll take care of myself.”  The “X” is often graduation, finishing the semester, completing a course, or simply when you feel like you have the time.  The harsh reality is, there will always be an “X” to get in your way.  Act despite the myriad of “X’s” in your life.

Taking action can begin with the dean of students, the law school counseling center, or your state’s lawyer assistance program.  The amount of time and energy required to take care of your mental health is a wise investment in yourself that will produce large dividends for years to come.  The earlier these kinds of problems are addressed, the less of a toll they are likely to take on your life and career.

Join the ABA’s Law Student Division, Young Lawyers Division, Law Practice Division, and the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, along with with authors Jeff Fortgang and Shawn Healy on March 23 for a free webinar that discusses “The Full Weight of the Law: How Legal Professionals Can Recognize and Rebound from Depression.” They will discuss the high rates of depression among law students, the various contributing factors, ways of recognizing distress, and suggestions for getting help and staying healthy.