Column

Wellness at Law School

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.

 

Comments

  1. Totally agree. But much of what “busy” being “busy” has to do with is self-esteem or lack of – if it’s what everyone else is doing then I have to do it too. Fitting in is key – constantly being connected (even though much of the connection is superficial) is the so-called norm. Yoga is “it”! Everyone has a yoga class to rush off to and to fit into their schedule because it’s being mindful to schedule mindfulness into your busy schedule because you’re “it” – you’re an influencer (or at least so you think) because an awful lot of people want to be just like you because everyone wants to fit in. The more activities you’ve on your CV well the more rounded you are and an achiever no less. Most people want to do what’s fashionable because no one wants to be left behind. It takes an awful lot of self-esteem and courage to do your own thing – and much of the time doing your own thing means not fitting in. There goes your job prospects because you don’t “fit” in. On the bright side, if you don’t fit in you may become an entrepreneur telling others how to do their own thing.

  2. Is society really being served by lawyers who come out of such an intense milieu? It sounds to me similar to certain other education / indoctrination processes, for example, the training of military personnel. Might be worth thinking about that particular comparison. There are some interesting differences as well as obvious similarities.

  3. While it is possible that things have changed over the past few years, my experience with law school was less than a decade ago, graduating 5 years ago.

    I did not then and would not now characterize my law school experience as stressful or time-consuming. The time and stress of law school do not compare to my experience of the practice of law. The time I spent on the material in law school was less than I spent in the 35-40 hour/week full time job I held prior to law school. There was some additional extra curricular involvement, but much of that was social rather than academic. The number of hours I spend working is now significantly higher.

    In law school I was not particularly concerned about my performance relative to my classmates, and I enjoyed the opportunity law school provided to learn, reflect on, and occasionally debate the law. I went to law school to do that–and of course to secure a job after graduation. While I did not do the best I could have in law school, I learned a lot, enjoyed the experience, and did well enough to keep my employment options open.

    Law students (and lawyers) act like stress and being busy are cardinal virtues. I suspect that this is because most law students (and lawyers) are high-achieving Type A personalities. It is this personality type that creates the stress more than anything else. Dealing with this is a life skill. I am not convinced that it is the law school’s responsibility to teach it.

    That said, there are students with child care or other responsibilities, and I have no doubt that they have a more difficult time juggling the demands of law school with the rest of their lives. However, it was usually the students with the least outside responsibilities that complained most about the stress and time demanded of law school.

  4. Kristen Sivertz

    It’s an interesting and unsettling idea that the pursuit of “wellness” itself might trigger a competitive response among already highly-strung and reputation-conscious law students. I don’t think that should be the focus of concern, however – free yoga, running groups, and even primal screaming sessions are great extracurriculars to offer, in my opinion. I don’t *think* that students who feel they have too much resume-building commitments on their plate already will feel pressed to add wellness classes/activities to it. More likely, in such cases, the latter will get left along the wayside. I think those are the students to worry about.

    I graduated from Allard about five years ago (how times flies…). My experience was that students were very concerned about how they compared with their peers, especially around OCI time, but that they relished opportunities to take part in fun law school activities like Law Revue, 80s dance parties, primal screaming sessions, etc, and made time for them. Talking to my former classmates (now fellow lawyers) these days, I get the sense that they still do their best to pause and smell the roses, but that the opportunities and sympathy they were granted as stressed-out law students haven’t carried over into practice – to no one’s surprise. No one said that law practice would be easy or stress-free, in fact, we were repeatedly told (even warned) it would be the opposite. So, I think many law graduates are already prepared to suffer in silence and deal with their stresses in isolation. And maybe that’s not the healthiest mindset to have.

    While it is not the responsibility of law schools to prepare students for work/life stress, if they are truly interested in their students’ wellness, perhaps they could offer some stress management sessions or courses – or maybe at least let students know the availability and value of some accredited courses. Larger law firms might even be interested in sponsoring some mental health/wellness programming, if they aren’t already.

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)