Mental Health in Law School

By Deborah Cho

I was recently pointed to this poignant post on mental health within the legal profession.  The post is the first of a three-part series that is titled “We Need To Start Talking About Why So Many Lawyers Are Killing Themselves.”  Parts 2 and 3 can be found here and here, respectively.  Please refer to the original posts for a deeper exploration of the original author’s experience with depression and anxiety as a legal professional.  I am by no means an expert on this topic, nor am I able to fully grasp everything the author has written about, but I want to explore some of what is touched upon as it relates to law students.

The author, law professor Brian Clarke from Charlotte School of Law, cites the following statistics: “[B]y the spring of their 1L year, 32% of law students are clinically depressed, despite being no more depressed than the general public (about 8%) when they entered law school. By graduation this number had risen to 40%. While this percentage dropped to 17% two years after graduation, the rate of depression was still double that of the general public.”

What this signals to me is confirmation of something I’ve suspected all along: There is something wrong with our law school experience.

It has to be more than the high-level of academic achievement expected in graduate school or the competitive nature of the job market that creates this distinctive culture within legal education.  As this is my third time through graduate school, I can’t help but feel that there is something very different about law school that adds to the malignant atmosphere.

A part of it is what Patrick Krill, a lawyer, clinician, and board certified counselor alluded to in his opinion piece accompanying the original CNN article that served as inspiration for professor Clarke’s article.  Krill states, “lawyers are both the guardians of your most precious liberties and the butts of your harshest jokes[; i]nhabiting the unique role of both hero and villain in our cultural imagination….”

This is made painfully clear throughout law school.  We are simultaneously told two conflicting messages throughout our time as students that leads to unmanageable expectations and self-deprecation.  First, that how we spend each moment is extraordinarily important because the future of the nation relies on us.  Second, that our efforts are meaningless — either because we’ll never really make the difference we’re seeking or because we’ll just end up a pawn within some nefarious conception of corporate America.

The purpose of this post is not to dwell on the faults of the legal education system, but on how it is affecting students and, more specifically, their mental health.  There is undoubtedly more nuance to the issue than what I described above, but I believe it is not an inaccurate generalization of one of the greatest causes of the law student’s struggle.  To address this struggle in a healthy way, students need to be given both the guidance and the forum to learn how to function within that unique role that lawyers inhabit.  Unfortunately, in my experience as a law student, a significant difference I’ve noticed between law school and other professional schools is that we seem to distance ourselves from the world around us.  We never quite figure out where we fit in, so we grapple with our identity and our worth to society.

In medical school, we often faced similar questions. Were we doing enough? Was what we were doing even helping those patients who came back time and time again with the same problems? Did our patients appreciate our endless days and sleepless nights? What about those patients or families who seemed to despise us?  Like law students, there were times of extreme pressure, doubt, and even pain.

But there was one big difference. We were forced to talk about it.

At my medical school, we had what we called Touchy-Feely Tuesdays.  It was of course called something more professional and official by the administration, but that is unfortunately the only name I remember.  During those Tuesdays, we were forced to talk about our feelings.  Many of us hated it, but we were forced to do it just as much as any other part of our curriculum.

Some weeks we simply talked about personal difficulties we were facing as students.  Other weeks, we ventured into questions of professional ethics.  Many weeks we heard from speakers who were formerly patients (otherwise known as people).  We learned what was important to people and that, unsurprisingly, it was not always that they receive the newest and greatest medical innovations.  We acknowledged our own humanity and we acknowledged our limits.  Ultimately, we decided what was important to us and worked with each other to figure out how we could realistically accomplish to those goals.

Law school has been a huge contrast to this.  There have been, without a doubt, many fantastic professors and aspects of the curriculum that have shown great concern for our well being as students and individuals.  Nonetheless, the culture that pervades is not one that prioritizes our health, either mental or physical, even though, if only for the sake of producing good lawyers, this should be just as embedded into our curriculum as torts or property.

Last year, several heartbreaking national and international tragedies occurred, with some closer to our home here in Cambridge.  Our school did a wonderful job extending mental health services to students, and I cannot broach this subject without mentioning that one of my professors was compassionate and discerning enough to open up space for discussion on how we were doing at the beginning of class after the events of the Boston Marathon.  However, the sad truth is that it also somehow became the norm to use these tragedies as examples in class and even on exams. Perhaps some thought it was too great of a learning opportunity to pass by, but the message many heard, regrettably, was that nothing, not even your sense of personal safety or feelings of loss, was more important than being a successful law student.

If we are to learn how to function within what is already a uniquely difficult role, we cannot be trained within a system that strips us of our humanity. Of course, not all of the statistics listed at the beginning of this post can be “blamed” on law school, and much more can be said about the current state of mental health and its treatment within the United States.  I only write here to say that our system of legal education could, and indeed should, be a process that builds us up, instead of something that we need to recover from after graduation.

2 thoughts to “Mental Health in Law School”

  1. I am a lawyer who has suffered from depression and created the website lawyerswithdepression.com 7 years ago to help law students and lawyers find help and know that they’re not alone. I think the issue of the causes of law school depression is a complex one. The rate of depression for law students is about 20% or twice the rate of depression in the national population. When put in perspective, that means that 65,000 of this country’s 150,000 law students are struggling with depression right now. Law school can and should do a lot more to address this problem, but often do not.

  2. I am a lawyer who has suffered from depression and created the website lawyerswithdepression.com 7 years ago to help law students and lawyers find help and know that they’re not alone. I think the issue of the causes of law school depression is a complex one. The rate of depression for law students is about 20% or twice the rate of depression in the national population. When put in perspective, that means that 65,000 of this country’s 150,000 law students are struggling with depression right now. Law school can and should do a lot more to address this problem, but often do not.

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