Law Student Well-Being: It Matters
Guest contribution by Loraine Champion
It is November, and how are you feeling?
And why am I asking?
At Assist (Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society), we care about how you are doing and whether you need support to get through your semester, your year, or your career. We provide professional counselling services to Alberta lawyers, articling students, law students and dependent members of their families, as well as peer support, education and awareness activities, and build community.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, stressed, or distressed, you are not alone. Many law students experience these emotions, especially late in the semester. You don’t have to be stoic or try to replace your feelings with what you perceive as more socially-acceptable feelings—you can contact Assist to access counselling services (1-877-498-6898) or to be connected with a volunteer lawyer who can provide peer support (1-877-737-5508).
Law school is a tough and gruelling experience. We all know this anecdotally, but did you know that researchers have been studying law students and stress for decades?
Why do well-being researchers study law students?
No, this isn’t a setup to a joke about there being more law students than lab rats, or any other potential punchline for that matter. In studies going back to the 1980s, law students were identified as a population which encountered high levels of depression. I graduated from law school in 1986—a long time ago—when we didn’t talk about law student mental health, and no one told us that we were part of a population at high risk for distress.
Instead, many of us thought we were going crazy and that we were the only ones, and since we had no context that we were encountering a depression tsunami, we each hid our distress as we didn’t want our “normal” peers to know we were struggling. Understanding that you are part of a population experiencing stress and distress is an important first step in making law school a healthier experience.
As law students, you are pressed for time, so I am not going to delve into research in great detail, except for two concepts. First, law students frequently begin law school with internal motivation—a desire to help people or to improve our justice system. However, during the course of first year, as law students learn to “think like lawyers” and their motivation shifts to “appearance values:” grades, Dean’s List, Law Review, obtaining interviews and obtaining offers for coveted first year summer student positions. At the same time, the rate of depression increases from about societal norms (around 7%) almost four-fold to 27%. Correlation is not causation—there may be two distinctive forces at play.
Finally, a leading study of lawyer happiness found that intrinsic factors are correlated with subjective well-being. Values like authenticity/integrity, relatedness, internal motivation, feeling competent and having support for autonomy were positively correlated, while high billable hour targets and using alcohol were negatively correlated with happiness. Making partner or being invited to join Law Review were neutral, and money had a mild correlation with happiness believed to reflect the absence of financial hardship.
Now that we have the theory underway, here is how it applies to you:
· You are going through a very stressful experience;
· You are not alone;
· There are actions you can take to reduce distress.
First, remember that you have access to confidential professional counselling through Assist, including 24/7 crisis support with a senior registered psychologist. All you have to do is call 1-877-498-6898 during business days to schedule an appointment, or call that same number, 1-877-498-6898 for crisis counselling and following the prompts, or you can call 1-877-737-5508 to arrange peer support.
Secondly, while studying long and hard is important to law school success, taking care of yourself is essential to your ability to withstand the challenges. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, engaging in moderate physical exercise, and spending time with people who care promote well-being.
Thirdly, please come to Assist’s Psychologist in Residence webinar at noon on November 25th when Registered Psychologist Laurie Zalmanowitz will speak about Managing Stress & Anxiety During Exams. You can also join Assist’s peer support lawyer volunteers for a chat about law school, stress, and career issues at our Gold Mug Coffee Circle at noon on December 9th.
And finally, to thine own self be true. Remember why you applied to law school. Be aware that you are being exposed to some paths to success that involve outward achievements and “appearance values” but you don’t have to follow those paths. Law has diverse opportunities—you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing and you can set the values with which you will approach the practice of law.
As you head into exam season, remember that Assist is here for you. We will be holding a virtual coffee circle on December 9th and hope you will come. Yes, it is close to exams, but we can talk about career issues as a break or we can talk about sure fire study strategies—and how to keep exams and results in the context of a career.
Loraine Champion for AB Lawyers' Assist at UCalgary Law