Law Students Deserve Better Than “Get Tough or Get Out”

ABA Report on high levels of depression, anxiety, and substance useThis week we welcome back guest writer Mihal Ansik, tutor for the Bar Exam Toolbox. She discusses the latest statistics on mental health issues and substance abuse in the legal profession.

In 1986, the year that I was born, Dr. Andrew Benjamin published the first in a series of studies focused on law student wellbeing and mental health. His widely cited reports found that “law students have higher rates of psychiatric distress than a contrasting normative population or a medical student population” and that 40% of surveyed third-year law students reported symptoms of depression. In 2016, the year I graduated law school and entered my first year of practice, a comprehensive study of law student wellbeing found that 42% of respondents thought they needed help for emotional or mental health issues in the past year, but only about half had gotten that help. In the same year, the American Bar Association commissioned a study of attorneys finding that “between 21 and 36 percent qualify as problem drinkers, and that approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.”

So, in my entire lifetime, rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction among law students and emerging lawyers have remained disproportionately pervasive and relatively unchanged. Unsurprisingly, so has legal pedagogy and practice. While the takeaway of many of these studies is that law schools should focus on building access for students to reach out for help (yes, do that!), it is also important to examine institutional responsibility to address why and how law school exacerbates and even creates mental health crises among its students.

Law School Impact on Mental Health

For example, 1L law school classes have looked pretty much the same for almost 150 years, even as law student bodies have not only changed but challenged the very legitimacy of law school structures and practices. Remember, it was only in the last century that legal study was developed exclusively by and for economically privileged white men. One of those men, Christopher Langdell, introduced the Socratic method to Harvard Law School and suddenly that became the only way to teach the law. While it is true that this method of teaching can be highly effective when done well, it is also true that individual students learn differently and therefore different modalities in law school teaching can be even more effective. When not done well, the Socratic method can cause crippling humiliation and anxiety, which creates barriers to learning and understanding, which then further exacerbates the anxiety and sends many students into hellish tailspin.

The Cycle

Law schools can be willfully blind to these institutional failings, even when students overcome the cultural stiff upper lip to disclose their challenges and seek reasonable accommodations. When one student I know reached out to a professor to inform her that his (diagnosed) anxiety made it virtually impossible to participate in and benefit from a class that was based solely on Socratic dialogue, he received a response, with administration copied on the email, that this was how law school was taught and he could toughen up or drop the class. The attitude of “Well, I did it, so you have to also regardless of whether I am actually effectively teaching you” is a common refrain, implicit or explicit, among generations of law professors. As a result, the cycles of anxiety and disillusionment are unbroken and inflicted further.

This attitude follows law students to firms, where they march to the rhythm of the 80-hour work week, as did the associates before them, and the ones before them, despite the fact that people are passing out in conference rooms and dying while on conference calls from stress, overwork, and overdoses. Those who reach out for help are derided as the ones who “can’t hack it,” while the legal profession remains unquestioned and unchanged. Why do law schools and law offices dig in their heels in the face of such rampant anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide? Why must this romanticized idea of ‘grit at any cost’ be integral to the culture of lawyering at the expense of mental and physical health? What value, if any, does it add to our profession and our communities?

What are the values in the legal profession?

Another contributor to these emotional downslides is law school’s tendency to divorce students from the values that may have led them to apply to law school in the first place. While law school advertises itself as a space for critique and curiosity, actual critiques of laws themselves, the contexts in which they were developed, and their impacts on the world at large are dismissed as ‘policy’ or even ‘emotional arguments.’

Effects

The effect of these dismissals are two-fold. First, they serve to uphold the myth that the law is created and administered from a point of neutrality, and deride any perspective that subverts that point of view as illegitimate. This approach ignores the fact that the law is not neutral (see above regarding economically privileged white men), and that all arguments, in order to be made, pass through our limbic systems and are therefore inevitably emotional. The failure to acknowledge and even celebrate challenges to the status quo also demoralizes outspoken or critical students to the extent that they may eventually experience an erosion of purpose, and a growing dissonance with their reasons for attending law school.

This dissonance can manifest as disillusionment, and eventually, depression, as was emphasized in a 2004 paper called Does Legal Education Have Undermining Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values, and Well-Being. This paper highlights findings that “excessive faculty emphasis on analysis and linear thinking” caused “loss of connection with feelings, personal morals, values, and sense of self” among law students. Additional contributors were “teaching practices that are isolating or intimidating, and content that is excessively abstract or unrelated to the actual practice of law,” as well as “conceptions of law that suppress moral reasoning and creativity.”

Just as legal scholarship often serves to maintain the status quo, so does law school culture. Thankfully, there are courses and extracurricular programs dedicated to mindfulness and wellness starting to pop up at some schools and, in the wake of shattering suicides, courageous students are calling for a law school culture that acknowledges that it’s ok not to be ok. While these are important shifts, until some core pedagogical changes are made, the numbers of law students and lawyers suffering in silence will persist for at least another lifetime.


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About Mihal Ansik

Mihal is a tutor for the Law School Toolbox and Bar Exam Toolbox. Teaching has been integral to Mihal’s work for over a decade. Prior to law school, she led creative workshops and academic classes in prisons, tutored elementary school students struggling with reading comprehension, and spent five years working as a Court Advocate in Brooklyn, NY, where she developed trainings and advocacy tools for incarcerated and system-involved youth.

While at Harvard Law School, Mihal continued incorporating education and mentorship into her law school experience. She was a mentor and team leader with Harvard Defenders, chaired the Community Building Committee for the Prison Legal Assistance Project, and joined a research paper team exploring the context and impact of legal education. Mihal graduated with a Harvard Public Service Venture Fund Fellowship and Berkeley Law Foundation Fellowship, went on to receive an Equal Justice Works Fellowship sponsored by Morrison and Foerster, and currently provides legal services and educational tools to women working to reunify with their children and families after incarceration.

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