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Six strategies for law school happiness

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Happiness

On average, 1Ls start law school with a happiness level as high as undergrads’.  But by the end of the first semester, their happiness starts to tank—a trend that continues through the end of law school.

There are many sources of law school unhappiness, from the massive loans to the high-stakes exams.  Some of this is structural; you can’t do anything about it.  But there are changes you can make to improve your law school life—not only to survive, but to thrive while you’re there.  My recent book, How to Be Sort of Happy in Law School, draws on the experiences of students from over 100 law schools and outlines many strategies for learning to do precisely this.  Here are six key pieces of advice to help you manage your own well-being.

When it comes to happiness, think small.

One of the questions I asked law students was, “Describe the time in the past week you’ve felt the happiest.”  Their answers ranged from “throwing a ball for my dog” to “calling a friend” to “cooking spaghetti while listening to music.”  They described small moments, usually requiring little time or money—yet they’d brought law students more happiness than anything else they had done in the past 168 hours.

The lesson?  When you’re looking for happiness, think small.  Improving your life doesn’t require a week-long vacation or a complete reboot of your fitness regime.  Happiness is about creating, recognizing, and savoring the activities that make you feel like your truest self.  Strum your guitar.  Take a walk and listen to a podcast.  As you do these things, be mindful of your actions in the moment.  Pay attention to the details, the tastes, the smells.  Learning to savor the small stuff will save you over the long run.  Commit to doing something every day for at least 10 minutes that you don’t have to do—that you’re doing because it makes you happy.

Do what you want.

I am shocked how much time law students expend on things they genuinely dislike, whether it’s bluebooking, a boring internship, or a class they don’t want to take. Law school seems to cultivate a “should” mentality: I should apply for this opportunity; I should take that class. Think less about what you “should” do and more about what you intrinsically want to do.  Just because everyone is doing law review, or applying for a certain job, or taking a particular class, doesn’t mean you need to follow suit.  Law students spend too much time wondering if a missed opportunity will somehow put them “behind” their classmates, and too little time figuring out what intrinsically excites and motivates them.  The more you follow the crowd into “safe” choices, the more you risk losing touch with what makes you thrive.

Try something you think is beyond your capability.

Confidence can come from success, but it can also come from doing something you thought would be too hard.  Apply to be a research assistant for a professor you love but find intimidating.  Try Moot Court if it seems interesting but you don’t think you have what it takes.  If something intrigues you but seems beyond you, sign up.  Make a pact with yourself that you’re trying something so ridiculously hard that anything short of quitting counts as success.  (This approach can also help you deal with imposter syndrome—another theme I discuss in the book.)  People who are the best at everything they do are not brilliant people; they are people who are not challenging themselves enough.

Ask for help.

Many law students take pride in self-reliance, and they’re used to pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.  But a secret about the big endeavors in life, whether you’re writing a book or raising a kid or going to law school, is that no one ever does it alone.

Law students have a hard time with this one.  They try to handle everything themselves, like they’re going for a merit badge in Sisyphean suffering.  I get it.  I was like that, too.  During first-semester finals, I had pneumonia and my heat was out (my landlord wouldn’t fix it).  Did I tell my Dean of Students?  Did I ask to take my finals later?  No.  I powered through and ended up with the lackluster 1L grades to prove it.  It was stupid, but I bet some of you can relate.  Among the 250 law school alums I surveyed for my book, dozens told me about situations in which they wished they had asked for more help—from professors, from administrators, from friends, or from a therapist.  In contrast, zero said that they wished they’d asked for less help.

Real self-reliance doesn’t mean you never rely on anyone else.  It means you’re smart enough to take advantage of the resources at your disposal, even when those resources are other people.

There’s a lot of discontent beneath other people’s shiny surfaces.

More than one in three law students screen positive for anxiety.  Another one in six screen positive for clinical depression.  One in ten engaged in self-harm in the past year.  Alcohol dependence is rampant as well—one in four.  In law school, there’s a great deal of pressure to hide your problems, and a sense that being open will make you look weak.  So law students conceal the stuff they’re going through, whether it’s a mental health challenge or a family member’s illness.  The result, of course, is that everyone feels more alone in their suffering.  I can’t tell you that coming out about your depression in law school is risk-free.  But I can tell you that lots of your peers are going through the same thing, and that there are many sources of help and support (including confidential ones) available.

There is no right way to do law school.

Law students tend to be plagued by a sense that there is an ideal way to “do” law school—one that involves law review, perfect grades, and a prestigious clerkship.  Any other path, they conclude, is an inferior approximation.  But the truth is that the law school “ideal” doesn’t exist.  Law review isn’t right for everyone.  Clerkships aren’t right for everyone.  Law firm jobs aren’t right for everyone.  I’m not saying this in a don’t-feel-bad-if-you-can’t-get-these-things sort of way.  I’m saying that even if you can get these things, it doesn’t mean you should.  Your job is not to approximate an ideal; your job is to find your right way to do law school—one that keeps you feeling true to yourself, intellectually engaged, and energized enough to want to tackle the next challenge law school sets in your path.

While unhappiness is common in law school, it is not inevitable that those three years take a massive toll on your confidence, your mental health, or your zest for life.  Rather than passively letting law school shape you, think about how you can use law school to shape yourself into the kind of lawyer, and person, you want to be.  If you can find a path through law school that’s intrinsically meaningful—not that looks good on paper, nor impresses your peers, but that truly satisfies something at your core, you’ll be well on your way to wherever you’re meant to be.

More from Professor Young

In this episode of the ABA Journal’s Modern Law Library podcast, Young talks with host Lee Rawles about tackling impostor syndrome; advice that alumni wish they could give their younger selves; and techniques for getting along with your fellow students. 

Kathryne M. Young Kathryne M. Young received her JD from Stanford Law School and her PhD from Stanford University. She is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she teaches courses on criminal procedure, courtroom evidence, and social psychology. Professor Young is the author of How to Be Sort of Happy in Law School, and was recently interviewed for the ABA’s Modern Law Library podcast.