Rebecca Stellato had no idea what to expect when she showed up at Georgetown University Law Center last fall. Her self-described “hippy-dippy” upbringing in Northern California, her undergraduate degree in public policy and a year of international health work hadn’t prepared her for the “shark tank” that is law school.
“It was kind of overwhelming, and I just felt really out of my element,” said Stellato, now a 2L. “There were a lot of Type-A personalities, and they make it so much more stressful than it needs to be. It’s not healthy for anyone.”
Law school has long had a reputation as a grueling experience, leading not only to high levels of stress and anxiety but also elevated rates of depression and substance abuse. Legal educators and students alike report that the dismal job market and growing debt loads have heaped even more pressure onto already taxed students. Some schools are responding with programs designed to help students navigate the emotional and psychological minefield that is law school.
“I have noticed a much higher level of interest in these issues, particularly since the economy has tanked,” said Wynne Kelly, president of the Dave Nee Foundation, formed following Fordham University School of Law student Dave Nee’s suicide in 2005 to fight depression and suicide among law students. “Schools seem to be wanting to do more. We’ve been getting a ton of unsolicited emails from deans and students wanting us to come do a presentation on their campus.”
Law students tend to seek help from their individual schools rather than reaching out to lawyer assistance programs, according to officials at a number of state bar associations. The Nee Foundation does not keep track of the number of calls it fields, Kelly said. Nevertheless, the problem is serious enough to have inspired law school administrators to experiment with ways to help stressed-out students cope, including well-being programs offering informal meditation, yoga, organized support groups, counseling programs, mentoring and seminars to discuss both emotional well-being and professional development.
It was Georgetown’s Lawyers in Balance Program — a voluntary eight-week, noncredit seminar — that helped Stellato adjust. Participants meet for two hours per week in small groups to meditate and discuss their aspirations, challenges and responses to difficult or stressful situations.
“They said it wasn’t a therapy group, but that’s how I thought of it,” Stellato said. “You talk about what’s going on in your life, and you understand that everyone is struggling with personal issues in law school. It helped me to change my mindset about situations.”
Stellato credits the weekly meditation with helping her become more productive, focused and self-aware — and with teaching her not to define her success solely by external markers such as grades and class rank.
The Nee Foundation recently honored Georgetown dean William Treanor and dean of students Mitchell Bailin for their efforts to help students maintain emotional and psychological health. In addition to Lawyers in Balance, the school operates a counseling center with two full-time clinical psychologists and a part-time psychiatrist. Georgetown’s Center for Wellness Promotion offers discussions of topics ranging from mental health to test anxiety. A five-session seminar called The Search Before the Search helps 1Ls assess their strengths and goals and reduce anxiety about choosing classes and positioning themselves for a career, Bailin said.
“Law students tend to have a hard time admitting to themselves and their peers that they are struggling,” Bailin said. “In part, the downturn in the economy has created more openness to talk about these things.”
Although some schools are getting serious about mental health and emotional well-being, legal education as a whole has a long way to go, said G. Andrew Benjamin, a law and psychology professor at the University of Washington who was one of the first to study mental health among law students. As early as 1986, his research concluded that only 4 percent of incoming law students show symptoms of depression, but that the rate hits 40 percent by the 3L year — outpacing the rate of depression among medical students.
“Law school has to be the worst, pedagogically, of all the professional schools, and it hasn’t changed in decades,” said Benjamin, who has spent the past 15 years counseling University of Washington School of Law students. “Law schools haven’t really addressed the problem. What I’ve seen is kind of patchwork.”
More recent research has begun to illuminate why law students suffer higher rates of depression and substance abuse, not to mention anxiety and stress. Florida State University College of Law professor Lawrence Krieger and University of Missouri psychology professor Ken Sheldon have spent the past decade examining why legal education exacts such a mental toll.
Krieger pointed to a number of problems, from the structure of law school to the way many law students lose their sense of self and values. New students are primed to expect a stressful, competitive environment, Krieger said. The strict grading curve and the reality that first-year grades often boil down to one exam mean that new law students — strivers accustomed to being the smartest in the class — have to adjust to a new reality.
“If you take a student who has never seen a C before, and you force those Cs with a curve, what is that going to do to a student who had to have As and Bs to get into the school?” Krieger said.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to depression and anxiety is that law students tend to value external measures such as grades, class rank and journal membership over ones that actually lead to happiness — self-improvement, close relationships with other people and a sense of competence in their work, Krieger said.
Thinking like a lawyer — the core training mission of law schools — also presents problems. “In their first semester, students are taught to basically ignore their feelings and values and take on a new value system in which the best argument wins,” Krieger said. “It’s no longer about caring for people, who students now refer to as ‘parties.’ ”
Law students sometimes allow that way of thinking to invade their lives outside the classroom, leaving them disconnected from other people and unmoored from their feelings and values, he said. University of Wisconsin Law School professor Elizabeth Mertz recorded similar effects among law students in a study she conducted for the American Bar Association in 2007.
Molly Hall felt the pressure of a heavy workload and classroom competition when she arrived at Vanderbilt University Law School in 2010. As a 2L last year, she decided to participate in the school’s Supportive Practices program, in which students meet for a half-hour twice a week for “mindfulness exercises” such as guided meditation and qigong — a Chinese method of reducing stress through breathing and movement.
“It’s easy to get frustrated and disappointed with yourself in law school, and this gives you an opportunity to be kinder to yourself,” said Hall, who plans to continue meditation exercises during her 3L year. “I think I’m more patient with myself, and it helps cultivate the ability to relate to other people.”
The Supportive Practices program is just one in an extensive slate developed by assistant dean for student affairs Julie Sandine. For the past six years, the school has held a noncredit course for 1Ls called Professionalism in Practice; new students explore their future roles in the legal profession, discuss ethics and sources of stress in law school, and connect with classmates in small groups. Additionally, the law school has brought in yoga teachers and representatives of the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program and the Vanderbilt counseling center for a stress-management program the week after grades come out.
“My goal has been to ensure that students don’t lose touch with their sense of self,” Sandine said. “We try to get students to realize that you have to have balance in your life.”
The University of Miami School of Law is also on the forefront of these developments. It has offered an expanding series of programs since 2008 that are geared toward helping students focus on the present, connect with others, reduce distractions and improve their response to stress — practices known as “mindfulness.”
The school’s first-of-its-kind Mindfulness and Law program includes both credit and noncredit classes in which students explore mindfulness in the context of professional responsibility and learn to leverage emotional intelligence throughout their legal careers. Additionally, about one-fifth of the school’s new students each year participate in its voluntary Jurisight program, spending eight weeks focusing on the challenges that law school presents and how to meet them.
“It changes the 1L experience, because they’re learning to relate to the uncertainty and challenges coming their way,” said professor Scott Rogers, who directs the Mindfulness and Law program. “Rather than see these things as problems, they begin to say, ‘Ah, something that’s unknown. How interesting is that?’ ”
Two years ago, Miami launched another program, a Student Development Initiative, requiring each 1L student to meet with a counselor at least once during their first semester. This “student development director” is not an academic adviser, but listens to students and guides them as they acclimate to law school. The directors also refer students to the university’s counseling center if they are struggling with more serious problems.
“They are really a go-to person for students when they need someone to listen,” Rogers said.
The Association of American Law Schools in 2007 approved the formation of a Section on Balance in Legal Education, which brings together educators interested in making the law school experience more fulfilling for students. Earlier this year, the section met to discuss efforts to that end at law schools around the country and later published the results in the Touro Law Review.
According to the article, “Symposium Introduction: Humanism Goes To Law School,” the City University of New York School of Law has been offering meditation and yoga to students since 2001. In 2008, the school expanded its offerings to include a course called Contemplative Practice and the Law, which incorporates a retreat to a Buddhist meditation center.
Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in 2010 began organizing stress-relief groups for 1L students after they received their first-semester grades. Later that year, the school moved to a Students Helping Students system in which 15 upper-class students were trained to provide support to classmates. The student helpers don’t offer counseling themselves, but serve as a conduit to other resources.
The University of Washington School of Law has enlisted attorney mentors to help 1Ls adjust to law school life. The school pairs new students with practicing mentors even before the first day of classes, and students meet with their mentors throughout the year for advice and to help develop a sense of professional identity.
Convincing ambitious, aspiring lawyers to put down their books for a little while to focus on their emotional well-being isn’t always easy, according to educators who lead such programs. But they agreed that the tight job market and worries over debt are taking a toll on law students’ spirits, and that the efforts can only help.
“I think the Lawyers In Balance program should be offered nationally,” Stellato said. “Law schools should encourage weekly sessions with classmates to discuss what’s happening. I don’t think law students usually talk about deep things. We say, ‘Oh, I’ve got so much reading for this class.’ ”
Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@-alm.com.
Scott Rogers: His program helps students relate to “the uncertainty and challenges.”