Volume 19, Number 3
Welcome to GP Mentor, GPSolo's new column expressly for law students-but some of you seasoned lawyers may find some helpful information as well. We want to help you find your way as you go on job interviews, study for the bar exam, cope with law school stress, work at summer jobs and internships, and learn to write like a lawyer. We want to explain what it's like to be a solo or small firm lawyer and what to expect in your first year as a general practitioner. Look for our column in every issue of GPSolo. Want to see a topic covered in GP Mentor? Send an e-mail to email@example.com.
By Di Mari Ricker
It's midnight. You've been reading since late afternoon and there are still 75 pages of cases to wade through. Tomorrow you'll be expected to know the material cold-without showing any signs of fatigue. You may be a law student, a recent bar examinee, or a seasoned lawyer. The game's the same: Practicing law (as well as learning to practice law) is physically demanding.
Dan O'Malley, a deputy district attorney in Northern California, counsels new prosecutors on how to reduce stress and build the stamina needed to be what he calls a "trial machine…When we recruit at law schools, we tell students, 'This isn't book work. Male or female, we're looking for athletes.' You have to be able to go the distance to handle the kind of caseload we have." O'Malley's athletic analogy has taken on a literal application at his office, where once a month they engage in an athletic event such as a softball game or a golf outing. "Physical exercise and team activities promote a sense of well-being and foster camaraderie," he believes, elements that often suffer in what can be the isolating and cerebral profession of law.
In addition, the demands of practice and high billable-hour requirements make it difficult for lawyers to find time (or to justifying setting aside time) for exercise. The law firms of the 1980s installed showers so associates could work overnight; 1990s law firms built exercise rooms in their office suites or located to complexes that had on-site gyms. The law firms in the 21st century who are paying top-dollar to starting associates, however, may prefer they sweat over cases, not crunches.
A senior associate with a large Washington, D.C., firm used to forgo lunch every day in favor of a quick swim and a workout at a YWCA a few blocks away. "My billables were as high as anyone else's, but I still got sarcastic comments from the partners when they'd see me in the elevator with my gym bag," she recalls.
As the legal profession is slowly becoming enlightened about the merits of mental and physical balance, so are law schools. There is no standard law school class in Stamina 101, but a number of schools have begun to offer programs-often during orientation-that provide guidance on managing the demands of study. In conjunction with its counseling center, Widener University School of Law in Delaware implemented a two-day workshop on "Surviving Law School" for incoming students, much of which focuses on the stress-stamina quotient. It is a required component of the students' orientation.
"Descartes' old mind-body split is way outdated," says Dr. Amiram Elwork, director of the law-psychology program at Widener University and a faculty member at the law school. "There is no such thing," he says, because eating well-to cite just one example-changes the brain's chemistry and the functioning of the nervous system. "Proper nutrition enables you to withstand stress."
The same goes for exercise. "When you exercise, you are in fact doing legal work," Elwork believes, building up your psychological muscle to be able to withstand your schedule. Not doing so can be life threatening. "There is a definite scientific link between cardiovascular disease and a chronic state of hostility," he says, citing a study that tracked a group of lawyers for 25 to 30 years of practice. As law students, they had scored extremely high on the hostility scale; 20 percent of them were dead by age 50, compared with only 5 percent of the nonlawyers studied.
Similarly, a positive mental outlook and healthy values can keep you going when your energy flags. "If you go into law with the idea that it's just about money, that won't last very long-and neither will you," Elwork says. You may enjoy the paycheck, but a cynical sense of the worth of what you're doing can lead straight to burnout, substance abuse, and even leaving the profession.
For law students, overload begins early on
, and there is no downtime. "The sheer quantity of work when you enter law school is overwhelming," says Marion Newbold, dean of students at Widener University School of Law. She likens the experience to being "an English-speaking student without a science background who applies for a graduate program in physics-and finds out she has to learn it in Japanese." Adjusting to the analytical learning style required in law school drains even more energy, she says.
Newbold recommends that students review their strengths and weaknesses. "If it's going to take you five hours to learn something in a study group that you consider a waste of time and can learn more quickly on your own, don't join the group," she advises. "Learn in the way you learn best. Conserve your energy."
No matter how much introspection you do, you cannot control all your professional demands. Law students and new lawyers should be realistic about how much work will be expected from them. Then you can build stamina-related activities into your day. Schedule active playtime into your routine, whether it's a weekly basketball game or a yoga stretch class.
Says one director of student affairs at an East Coast law school: "When I see people studying until midnight, I tell them, 'No, your assignment is to walk the long way home. Your assignment is to talk to the people you pass in the lobby of your apartment building.' Practice can eat you up. There are monsters out there. When judges, clients, and billable hours come nipping at your heels, you have to know how to preserve yourself."
Di Mari Ricker is a lawyer and legal journalist in Los Angeles. This article is an edited version of an article that appeared in the November 1998 issue of Student Lawyer.