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Test stress: This law school exam season, take care of yourself

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Test Stress

In a recent article for The American Lawyer, Joanna Litt recounted the suicide of her husband. She attributed his death to the stresses of his law practice and of being a partner in big law. I saw this article posted at first by a single former law school colleague, then another, and another, until it filled my news feed across platforms.

This article struck me for two reasons. First, I have ready countless articles about physician suicide—it is a crisis the medical profession has been grappling with years—but this was the first widely circulated article I’d seen on attorney suicide.

Second, I had recently taken a mandatory 1st year “Intro to the Profession” CLE, and the issue of work place stress, burn out, and suicide were never mentioned. I walked away from this CLE thinking “Wow, the mandatory civility imposed by the courts really works. The legal field has this wellness thing figured out—maybe Medicine should take notes.”

In reality however, I think the opposite is true. Suicide has become such a prevalent issue in medicine that the profession has been forced to own it and forced to deal with it. Medicine has gone so far as to mandate a burnout and wellness curriculum for all medical schools. While attorneys commit suicide at a much lower rate than physicians, perhaps it is time for the legal profession to own up to burnout the same way it has finally confronted addiction.

When I think back on my own schooling – across graduate school, medical school, and law school – law school finals stick out as a time of extreme stress and burn out. While the free coffee in the library was nice, it did little to address the underlying issues. So my hopes here are twofold:

  1. That you make time to take care of yourself this exam season and
  2. That law schools take note and make meaningful efforts to address the issue of burnout, stress, and attorney suicide.

With that here are some tips for this exam season:

One of the biggest contributors to stress is the lack of work-life balance when we dedicate so much of our time to school or work. An important step the medical field has taken to address this issue is to improve efficiency at work in order to reduce the number of hours spent at work.

When I was a law student I worked on this a couple of different ways. The first was approaching law school as a 8-5 job. I committed to being at school from 8-5 Monday-Friday the entire semester. With only 15-17 hours of class a week, this gave me nearly 20 hours a week to get work done at school.

As a result I almost never took home work for evenings/weekends during the semester and in, exam season, did not feel like I had to burn the midnight oil night after night—although let’s be clear that I was still putting in close to 70 hours a week during exam season!

You can improve your efficiency at school too by using things like website blockers that will prevent you from visiting social media sites, etc. while you are trying to get work done. Remember, the less hours you have to spend studying, the more hours you have for yourself. Ultimately though, you got into law school by doing something that worked for you—so continue what worked for you, just apply that strategy smartly.

It is hard to study effectively when you are tired, hungry, hung over, or otherwise not feeling your best. While important throughout the year, it is particularly important to prioritize healthy habits during exam season—which in the fall always coincides with flu season!

Work on sleep hygiene, aim for 7-8 hours of sleep a night, minimize evening caffeine, respect your circadian rhythm, make time to eat healthy, schedule gym time, avoid alcohol, get your flu shot—these are all things that will keep you stick to a normal schedule and feel your best. With the schedule I set for myself I was able to allot time for exercise and meal prep which I think contributed significantly to my well-being both during the regular semester and exam time.

Get help. One of the most heart breaking things about Joanna Litt’s article was how close her husband came to seeking help. As an Emergency Medicine physician, I take care of people who reach the point of contemplating suicide almost daily. More often than I wish, I take care of patients who have acted on these thoughts.

There is nothing to say that if Gabe had made it to an Emergency Department that the outcome would be different, but we could have gotten him into the help he needed at that moment in time, and maybe we could have made a difference in the long run. His fear that seeking help for his depression would end his career is not unfounded.

There has long been a stigma against mental illness. Slowly, some states are making important changes in this regard. Indiana, for example, now asks if you have a condition that presently affects your ability to work as a lawyer. If you have a past condition, or a condition that is currently treated and controlled, these do not require disclosure.

This is a vast improvement over the standard form of the question which flatly asked if you have been treated for a mental health issue in the last 5 years. It is crucial that schools, state bars, and legal employers work to remove consequences from seeking mental health care.

Law schools and the legal profession have a long way to go in terms of eliminating the stigma of burnout and depression. For example, The ABA recently released a Wellness-Pledge they are asking Legal Employers to sign. I will save my criticism for another day, but suffice it to say I find that the pledge falls short on many fronts. It is, though, a step in the right direction.

Perhaps before long, we can get law schools to take a similar pledge, because our profession cannot stand silent as we lose our colleagues to suicide.

Kimi Chernoby Kimberly (Swartz) Chernoby is the first graduate of the University of Florida MD/JD program. She also holds a Masters in Bioethics from New York University. She currently works as an Emergency Medicine resident physician at Indiana University. Her interests are FDA law, reproductive health policy, and wellness. She is a member of the Indiana Bar, and a Trustee of the Indiana State Medical Association. In her spare time she bakes sour dough bread, and spends time with her husband and dog.