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From Law Student to Lawyer: How to Successfully Bridge the Transition

By Shannon Callahan and Maureen Kieffer

Despite enhanced recognition, reporting and study, lawyer and law student mental health continues to get worse. Recent surveys and studies by The American Lawyer confirm that the number of lawyer respondents who felt mental health and substance abuse in the legal industry were “at crisis levels” was up to 44% (as compared to 2019 (41%) and 2020 (41.7%). (See “Pandemic Anxiety Wanes, but Legal Industry’s Mental Health Struggles Persist,” May 10, 2022.)

Law student mental health fared no better in David Jaffe, Katherine Bender, and Jerome Organ’s recent study, where they found “[n] early 69% of law student respondents reported that they needed help for emotional or mental health problems in the past year. That’s up from 42% from the 2014 version of the same survey.” (See ‘It is Okay to Not Be Okay’: The 2021 Survey of Law Student Well-Being,” David Jaffe, Katherine Bender, Jerome M. Organ, SSRN, June 2022.)

Despite a renewed focus, lawyer
and law student mental health is not

Despite a renewed focus, lawyer and law student mental health is not improving.

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A closer look at both studies confirms longstanding trends in lawyer and law student mental health with rising rates of depression, anxiety, substance misuse, and stress. According to the ALM survey, stigma in lawyer reporting of mental health conditions remains high:

  • 25% of respondents said they did not believe mental illness is an actual disease.
  • Depression (35%), anxiety (67%), and isolation (44%) in the legal industry remain far above the general population (but had slight downticks from 2020).
  • Lawyers had a more favorable perception of their own condition than they did of their peers. While only 35% of respondents said they are depressed, 63% said they knew a colleague who was. And while 67% had anxiety, 77.6% said they knew someone else who did.
  • Only 45% of respondents said that law firms provide a safe space to report mental health conditions.
  • Almost 1 in 5 respondents (19%) said they had contemplated suicide during their legal careers (a statistic that has remained at this level since ALM started these surveys in 2019).
  • Nearly 75% reported that their work environment contributes to their mental health issues. The top workplace factor negatively impacting mental health is always being on call and not being able to disconnect (72%). A total of 59% cited billable hour requirements, 57% noted client demands, and 55% noted lack of sleep as the top factor impacting their mental health.

Similarly, law students are more in need of mental health support than ever:

  • “Nearly a third of the 5,400 students in the latest survey reported being diagnosed for depression at some point in their life — up from 18% in 2014.”
  • “[A]lmost 40% of the 2021 respondents said they had been diagnosed with anxiety at some point, up from 21% seven years earlier.”
  • “11% of the 2021 survey respondents reported suicidal thoughts during the past year — up from 6% in 2014. (See ‘Our law students need help.’ Study finds higher rates of mental health problems,” Reuters, July 2022.)
What are we as an industry doing about well-being?

Rates of depression, anxiety, and stress were exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic, but data confirms a longstanding trend that existed well before 2020. The question is, what are we as an industry doing about it?

Plenty. After the release of their 2017 Report on Lawyer Well-Being, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being launched a nonprofit organization in December 2020 dedicated to advancing systemic change in the legal profession: the Institute for Well-Being in Law (IWIL). IWIL advocates for systemic change in the legal profession to address the mental health, substance use, and addiction, and stress affecting lawyers. (See “How it all began,” The Institute for Well-being in Law, 2022.)

The ABA, which is involved with the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, has also recently amended Standard 508: Student Support Services. “The amendment to the Standard requires law schools to provide students with information on law student well-being resources.” New Interpretations 508-1 and 508-2 define “law student well-being resources” and “reasonable access,” respectively. Interpretation 508-1 also states that law schools should “strive to mitigate barriers or stigma to accessing well-being resources.”

Even as awareness and action increases, there is room for improvement in assisting law students and attorneys in addressing well-being. Law schools are not always equipped with the budget necessary to provide access to individual counseling, mental health resources, and support groups for students. Law firms very often value their lawyers by their productivity rather than their inherent value as human beings — a contributor to a lack of wellness, according to a recent study by Patrick Krill, “People, Professionals, and Profit Centers: The Connection Between Lawyer Well-Being and Employer Values.” The study found that lawyers who felt most valued for their professional talent/skill or overall human worth had the best mental and physical health and, conversely, that those lawyers valued for billable hours, productivity, and responsiveness had lower mental and physical health.

Given the current state of lawyer and law student well-being and our experiences as the Assistant Dean for Career Services at Loyola University Chicago School of Law (Maureen) and a formerly practicing lawyer, licensed mental health counselor in private practice, and Senior Attorney Development Manager at Nixon Peabody LLP (Shannon), we considered seven questions about how law students can successfully make the transition to legal practice with an eye toward supporting their own well-being and their development as a law firm associate. Here is what we had to say:

QUESTION 1: What are the biggest challenges you see new associates/recent graduates facing in terms of well-being?

Maureen Kieffer: Apart from the challenges the recent pandemic has created, I see the following as chronic issues for the transition from law student to attorney: imposter syndrome, the transition from getting lots of feedback (often positive grades, etc.) to not as much affirmation, and largely constructive criticism. The external motivation and validation that grades provide disappears upon entering the workplace and this can be a tough transition for high academic achieving students. Incorporating a grit/growth mindset is something that many law students could benefit from.

Shannon Callahan: Balancing the need for individual well-being with the inevitable push/pull of client and supervising attorney demands is a major challenge. Serving our clients is our top priority as a law firm, and the inherent 24/7 expectation of immediate responsiveness can come at the expense of the individual (and ultimately the collective) well-being of our lawyers. Asking for and being clear about deadlines on projects, being proactive and checking in frequently on work product, asking for an after-action review following every assignment — What went well? What didn’t go as well? What would you like to see differently next time? — can all help new associates start out on the right foot while enabling them to prioritize appropriately so they can plan their own self-care.

QUESTION 2: How can law schools and law firms better instill well-being into their cultures?

Maureen Kieffer: The ABA amendment to Standard 508 is a good step in the right direction for law schools to strengthen their well-being efforts. I also find the suggestions that Dean David Jaffe provided in the February 2018 NALP Bulletin article, “The Key to Law Student Well-Being? We Have to Love Our Law Students,” extremely helpful, and the recent Jaffe et al study also has some great concrete steps that faculty and administration can take to support students. Those of us in student-facing roles have a unique opportunity to make the law school experience a more positive one and to identify students in need of additional support. We collaborate with student services more closely on assisting students in need and have a Wellness Committee looking at the law school efforts holistically on this topic.

Removing the stigma from asking for help is a huge piece of the puzzle and until character and fitness applications remove questions about seeking mental health support, we will not really be able to ensure students can freely access resources. (See “Are Questions About Mental Health on Bar Applications Harming Law Students?,”, July 2022, and “Bar examiners are asking law students about their mental health. Many aren’t getting help because of it,” CNN, February 2020.)

Shannon Callahan: More and more firms are formalizing their approaches to well-being with firm-wide committees, wellness-focused positions, enhanced programming and benefits, access to mental health counseling services directly through the firm or through employee assistance programs, individual and web-based resources, and signing the ABA Pledge to support lawyer well-being. These actions all help firms to embed well-being into what they do. Firms can up the ante by increasing the professionals and leaders trained in and devoted to lawyer mental health and well-being, providing individual, confidential resources to their associates so that they have a safe space to report challenges with mental health.

Communicating this resource and having firm leaders share their own challenges with mental health and stress creates a space where lawyers can feel safe coming forward for help. Many firms have integrated well-being learning into all firm-sponsored trainings and events to help ensure it is part of what we are always thinking about. Nixon Peabody has added resilience and psychological capital training for our lawyers to help equip them with the emotional and mental skills necessary to create and enhance their own well-being.

QUESTION 3: How has hybrid/remote work impacted your students/attorneys in terms of well-being?

Maureen Kieffer: The isolation and lack of community have been big challenges for students transitioning to practice. What would have been a question you could just pop into someone’s office or ask during an unplanned interaction now takes on a more formalized ask. There is a certain amount of learning by osmosis for new attorneys that is very hard to replicate in a hybrid work environment.

Shannon Callahan: It depends. For some lawyers, especially those who are well-established in their careers, skills, and teams, it’s been helpful to their overall well-being. Those teams tend to have high psychological safety and responsiveness. They check in frequently, can share thoughts and ideas without fear, and are clear about their availability and needs. For some, remote and hybrid work has been helpful to overall family and personal relationships (and a challenge for others!). Remote and hybrid work tends to be harder for lawyers who are new to law firms, either as laterals or new lawyers. Maureen is right that informal interactions with new lawyers are less likely to happen organically in a remote (or even hybrid) environment. That said, our future more than likely includes some version of hybrid and remote teams.

QUESTION 4: After a law student secures an associate position, what does the school or firm do during their remaining academic career to prepare them for the transition to the firm?

Maureen Kieffer: There is no formal process from the law school perspective to assist with this transition. There are programs to prepare students for the summer associate experience, but the primary focus during the 3L/4L year is completing the academic requirements and focusing on bar passage. In meeting with students individually, I encourage them to keep in touch with the attorneys they met at the firm and to remain connected during the final year.

Shannon Callahan: From the law firm perspective, many firms spend a great deal of time helping prepare new lawyers for practice. We host a yearly “Getting to Know Nixon Peabody” conference for new lawyers and new laterals to prepare them for the rigors of practice, along with information on firm operations, resources, and policies like library services, timekeeping, well-being, and ethics. All our new lawyers and laterals are invited to virtual and in-person litigation and transactional bootcamps designed to help them develop practice skills through handson learning.

QUESTION 5: Many students who may passively obtain a job via OCI seem to struggle with job satisfaction later in their careers. Do you think law schools/firms should do more to vet candidates for long term fit? If so, what approaches would you recommend?

Maureen Kieffer: Focusing on personal values and goals in completing a self-assessment and proactive career plan during law school would better serve students in finding long-term career satisfaction in alignment with their professional identities. By creating concrete actionable items for students to execute during law school, it encourages them to take ownership of their own career planning and alleviate some of the job search anxiety. (See “High earnings post-law school don’t guarantee satisfaction, says lawyer happiness study,” ABA Journal, May 2015.)

Shannon Callahan: Yes, I am a strong advocate for providing additional support to students in their job searches. I would recommend a class as part of the law school curriculum that helps students determine values, conduct informational interviews, and talk to numerous practicing lawyers in different fields to help them learn about what it really means to practice. I think this class should also include strategies and research on professional identity, leadership, and how to remain well during practice. We should be discussing the risks of lawyer and law student stress, and the enhanced risk surrounding mental health challenges, suicide, and substance misuse before law students get through their first year.

QUESTION 6: What additional supports need to be in place in law schools and law firms to support underrepresented communities?

Maureen Kieffer: The lack of representation in many legal settings is a concern students face in evaluating their employment options. Finding supportive mentors is critical for long-term career happiness and success. Law schools are providing more structured learning incorporating professional identify formation into the curriculum in accordance with ABA Standard 303. Standard 303(b) has been revised to add that “a law school shall provide substantial opportunities to students for … (3) the development of a professional identity.” And a new subsection (c) has been added to Standard 303, providing that “[a] law school shall provide education to law students on bias, cross-cultural competency, and racism: (1) at the start of the program of legal education, and (2) at least once again before graduation.” (See “Revised ABA Standards 303 (b) and (c): Full Series Now Available,” Louis D. Bilionis and Neil W. Hamilton, NALP Bulletin+, May- November 2022.)

Shannon Callahan: This is an area in which Nixon Peabody has invested heavily. We’ve seen progress but there remains a lot of work ahead of us in this space. First, we do a significant amount of education around various DEI-related issues such as unconscious bias, microaggressions, and inclusive leadership. We ask all our attorneys and managers to participate in diversity-related activities and programming. We offer billable hour credit for the time associates spend on diversity- related activities. We also have six resource groups at the firm (Asian and Middle Eastern American, Black, Hispanic, LGBTQA, Women’s and Veterans resource groups), which focus on the recruitment, retention, advancement, and promotion of attorneys from underrepresented groups in the legal profession. Additionally, we’ve developed a workflow app that ensures our underrepresented colleagues have equitable access to career-enhancing work opportunities. We also have a dedicated DEI professional who reports directly to our Managing Partner, which ensures that DEI is woven into all core functions of the firm and remains a firm-wide priority.

QUESTION 7: Are you seeing any results from your current wellness programming?

Maureen Kieffer: I think students are more aware of wellness issues in general and that is putting them a step ahead of past generations. This also has increased the demand for services and law schools are finding different ways to respond to that demand. There has been progress on the issue of substance abuse as demonstrated by the recent survey by Jaffe et al. “The interesting results here are that law student respondents in 2021 are less inclined to drink enough to get drunk than were law student respondents in 2014 and engaged in binge drinking with less frequency than law student respondents in 2014.” Students are seeking ways to promote wellness during law school and prioritizing employers that value well-being.

Shannon Callahan: I agree with Maureen that our new lawyers are more aware of wellness and have an expectation that well-being is a part of their careers in a way that I never did when I started practicing law. It’s amazing to witness that progress since 2004! I do see people benefitting from our wellness programming. Our RISE with Resilience series taught basic resilience skills to lawyers and professionals and was converted into a story cast series with lawyers and professionals sharing their own resilience stories. More recently, we’ve done programs on depression, burnout, and substance use and received a positive response. We’ve also implemented a program called HERO that teaches lawyers psychological capital and how to build their own leadership and well-being through those skills, which has been successful in connecting and engaging our lawyers.

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Shannon Callahan

Senior Attorney Development | Retention Manager at Nixon Peabody LLP

Shannon Callahan (scallahan@ is Senior Attorney Development and Retention Manager at Nixon Peabody LLP.

Maureen Kieffer

Assistant Dean of Career Services | Loyola University Chicago School of Law

Maureen Kieffer ([email protected]) is Assistant Dean of Career Services at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.