The move towards wellness programs at law school is both puzzling and important. Important because, in some ways, it is terribly overdue. But puzzling because it is happening at all. At law school of all places.
Law school is hard. It always was. But conversations with alumni of the past sixty years have really convinced me that law school today is harder than ever. It is certainly harder to get in – our students have higher LSAT scores than ever, and stunning academic achievements. The move toward holistic admissions means that these attributes are just a starting point. Once admitted, law school remains (as ever) a reasonably competitive place. But we work so hard to counter that, that the competition itself is sublimated somehow, unsayable, and thus harder to address. And certainly, law school is more frenetic than ever before. At a ‘wellness’ focus group last spring, student leaders at our law school presented data that the average law student belongs to seven clubs or teams. That’s the average. And this is just the ‘add-on’ stuff, what we used to call ‘extra-curricular’. It’s a huge amount of activity before even taking into account that classes are more dynamic, and thus more demanding, than ever before, and that students are older and thus many more of them have more diverse and complicated lives and responsibilities outside the school.
It’s no puzzle at all that a wellness revolution of is required. But in this atmosphere of frenetic activity, high achievement, and sublimated competition, how does a focus on wellness ever get off the ground?
This is worth some thought. Two important forces together drive the wellness imperative and meet in law school: campus culture and the legal profession. The lessons from campus culture are that we must pay more attention to the mental health of university students. This is a prime age for diagnosis of serious mental illness. And the campus culture we build isolates people from their support networks, stresses them in ways they have never been stressed before, and simultaneously delivers the message that they are now independent – responsible for themselves – and ought to be able to cope. When you step back and think about it, it’s amazing that so many actually do cope. But as our society moves to a better understanding of mental health, we begin to unearth what was always present on campuses – the age range for diagnoses like psychosis and schizophrenia, and the breeding ground for illnesses like depression and anxiety.
The legal profession has its own wellness challenges. Notoriously stressful, a persistent macho culture (sometimes sublimated), and shockingly high addiction rates. This is all well known, but shockingly resistant to change. A good example is alcohol. Because we’ve been working on changing what one might call ‘the alcohol culture’ at law school, I have lots of conversations with about this. Why is there so much booze? Do students demand it at law firm events? Will firms be passed over if they do not pour freely? Or is it the other way around, do you have to drink to get a job? Will people assume there’s something wrong with you (addition? already?) if you decline an after-interview glass of wine?
Part of tackling wellness at law school means asking these questions. Although of course, answering them would be better. We think of a focus on wellness as part of a professional education, trying to put these issues on the radar now, while the stakes are just a wee bit lower than in the early years of a legal career.
As law schools move into the wellness space, the puzzle returns. We need to find ways of putting wellness on the agenda, without having it turn into simply more free yoga classes, running clubs, seminars and reflection sessions about ‘how to wellness’. We must also make space to see the whole picture. To see that building more activities, more opportunities for lightly sublimated competition, more things on the ‘to do’ list also risks being anti-wellness. At law school, by far the hardest piece of the puzzle that is actually doing less: asking less of oneself and one’s students, accepting a less than perfect result, and being satisfied, truly, with 80% of one’s best effort, or maybe even 50%.
This is point where the conversation usually stumbles. And it is the most acute challenge – to begin to think of wellness, in our competitive, frenetic, high achieving space, in a way that address those very values.
Stop reading. Go outside for a stroll.