The most intense stress of Ali Mosser’s life came during her first round of law school final exams.
Before exam day, Mosser, a second-year student at Baylor University School of Law, had a cloud over her head, and she feared that she would never complete everything on her long to-do list. Her anxiety kicked in just before tests, giving her clammy hands and “those nervous feelings” in her stomach, Mosser said.
“Those were my first grades I would have, so I felt I was about to enter in the season where my performance over four or five days would define me,” said Mosser. “Something I learned the hard way is never go out to lunch after a final and compare answers. I did that after my first final, and almost had a panic attack.”
As Texas law schools enter another final exam season in December, they know that students are stressed, and they’re trying to help. On the lighter side, they distract students with fun events—puppies on campus—or relax them with neck massages. On a serious note, schools present students with information about appropriate and inappropriate ways to cope with stress, and they provide free counseling services.
Experts say that students themselves can take action to alleviate anxiety by staying healthy, reaching out to friends and family and maintaining the right perspective about the importance of exams in the grand scheme of their lives.
“Panic mode” kicks in about a month before finals for Ciara Perritano, a third-year law student at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio. While studying, she steers clear of the law library because she doesn’t want to be around other anxious students. She’s seen people crying, or getting angry over nothing.
“The vending machine not taking their money would make you think someone killed their dog,” Perritano said.
As the stress is building, students also let their appearances slip a little, said Carissa Christensen, a recent graduate of Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock.
“They stop really getting ready in the morning. They don’t do their hair—come with your hair wet, because you just got out of the shower. I definitely see sweatpants,” said Christensen. “If you really listen to them, everything that comes out of their mouth is either a complaint or something negative.”
Law school is always stressful, but during finals, it’s like a cardiologist putting a patient on a treadmill for a stress test. Any weaknesses come out, said Bree Buchanan, director of the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, which helps law students, lawyers and judges with mental health and substance use struggles.
“The level of anxiety and fear it induces can be extreme. In a lot of ways, the law students can be their own worst enemies,” Buchanan said.
Anxiety among law students is particularly high, with 37 percent of respondents screening positive for anxiety, according to the 2014 Survey of Law Student Well-Being, a study of 3,000 law students at 15 law schools.
Stress relievers One tactic that Texas law schools use to help stressed-out students is to offer fun distractions for study breaks.
Baylor hosts “Midnight Breakfast” events just before exam periods, and Texas Tech has a breakfast-for-dinner night when professors serve pancakes to their students. The events are a moment of levity during a stressful period that builds a sense of community.
St. Mary’s has held a “puppies with the dean” event with real fur babies. Texas Tech, Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas and the University of Texas School of Law in Austin bring therapy dogs on campus, offer massages and provide snacks for study breaks.
On the more serious side, multiple Texas law schools include a segment during orientation focused on healthy ways for students to cope with stress.
For example, Baylor’s orientation includes presentations by TLAP and the Baylor Counseling Center to tell students how dangerous it can be to deal with stress inappropriately, said Stephen Rispoli, Baylor’s assistant law dean of student affairs and pro bono programs. The school keeps the information flowing by offering quarterly seminars on wellness issues, he added.
Southern Methodist’s counseling department teaches law students how to use deep-breathing exercises to reduce stress and improve their emotional well-being, said Steve Yeager, assistant law dean for students at Southern Methodist. Law students can also get one-on-one counseling, and the center keeps counselors on call on nights and weekends.
Multiple schools provide students with similar counseling services.
Southern Methodist also hosts a weekly meeting of a chapter of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a group that helps law students, lawyers and judges to support each other through mental health or substance use struggles, Yeager said.
The first step to getting law students the help they need is recognizing there’s a problem. Law schools often depend upon law professors as a first line of defense in battling students’ anxiety. Amy Hardberger, associate law dean at St. Mary’s, explained that professors notice when students are absent from class—often a first sign there’s something wrong.
“We really worked hard to create a culture where faculty have people they feel they can reach if they see a student struggling,” she said. “We work together to try to contact the student, meet with them and see what’s going on and make adjustments in their schedule or get them to the counseling center.”
Administrators and law professors started wellness programs at Texas Tech four years ago, but now, students have begun creating their own wellness initiatives, said John Delony, associate dean for student life. Wellness has become part of the law school’s culture, he said.
For example, Delony said the student bar association last year diverted money for its annual party to instead create a fund to help students get mental health services. At a busy time of year last spring, law students packed an event in which professors discussed their own law school experiences and mental health struggles. The student bar last year created a student wellness director position.
“I’ve been really moved by them taking it on,” Delony said about students’ involvement. “Once it becomes a norm and part of your culture, you can get to the business of addressing systemic things and making sure that people are well.”
Coping with stress Mosser, the Baylor student, said her best stress-coping mechanism is going home to three roommates who are not in law school. She doesn’t bring her thoughts about law school home. Mosser explained, “We are not talking about it at home, other than saying, ‘How was your day?’” Christensen used to schedule out an hour of exercise in her daily planner during finals season at Texas Tech.
“You can spare an hour. At least go walk on the treadmill or walk outside or do something physical. For me, that helps release a whole lot of stress. I also make sure I’m eating well,” Christensen said, noting she prepares meals ahead of time. “I grab it out of the fridge, warm it up and go.”
Exercising, eating well and sleeping enough are some of the top ways that students can relieve their stress, said Buchanan, who noted that she and other TLAP staff attorneys get an influx of calls from law students during exams, and when they get their grades.
There are many other ways that students can cope with exam stress.
Buchanan said students should maintain perspective by reminding themselves that they are more than what their grades are, and by keeping in touch with friends and family outside of law school.
“You can get into the environment of the law schools and the stress levels—it’s like an echo chamber and the level of anxiety and stress ramps up exponentially when your whole world and perspective is in those four walls,” she said.
While shifting their perspective, Buchanan said students also should try to let go of some of their perfectionism.
“Pretty common is the shocking fact that 90 percent of law students are not going to be in the top 10 percent,” she said.
Law students should call their friends and family when they need help managing stress. “Spend time talking on the phone, or take a break and go to lunch, or call me up and make a date for us to go walk in the park,” Buchanan said.