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Handling Law School Stress Well

Mary Lynn Dunnewold

Handling Law School Stress Well

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For the past several years, students at Hamline Law School have been invited to participate in a “Six-Word Story” contest on the topic of the first six weeks of law school. Six-word stories are intended to capture the essence of an experience in just that many words.

Most of the stories submitted to the contest reflect one basic theme: law student stress. For example:

  • Socratic method—and other scary words.
  • Lost: sanity. Last seen: before orientation.
  • Happy people don’t study hard enough.
  • My wife should sue for damages.
  • Can’t clear the fog. So many details!
  • Scared 1Ls, stressed 2Ls, impatient 3Ls.

Stress Is a Problem in Legal Education

Those involved in legal education—students, faculty, staff, families of students—recognize stress is an issue for most law students. And in fact, over the past several decades, empirical studies have confirmed that law students are among the most stressed of all graduate students.

Professor Lawrence Krieger of Florida State University College of Law, a leading researcher and writer on the topic of law student stress, in conjunction with psychologist Kennon Sheldon, has studied the problem in depth over the last decade. Their research, which was conducted at several law schools, including public and private schools, shows that during the first year of law school, students show significant declines in subjective well-being. At the same time, students show significant increases in indicators of stress, including depression and physical symptoms related to stress. These changes occur even though law students enter law school with no unusual levels of stress, at least as compared to undergraduates. And research shows that student stress levels do not diminish in the second and third years of law school (Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory, 33 Personality & Soc. Psychol Bull. 883 (2007)).

Some Schools Are Trying to Help

Some schools and legal organizations have created programs to help law students learn to handle stress well. For instance, Vanderbilt University Law School offers an optional, non-credit Supportive Practices “class” in which students learn stress-reduction techniques. The group meets for 1 hour a week for the first 10 weeks of the semester. Additionally, the ABA Law Student Division has sponsored a Law Student Mental Health Initiative. The initiative offers a Tool Kit for Student Bar Associations and Administrators, to help local student groups address mental health issues in law schools. The Division has also sponsored a National Mental Health Day at law schools and offers extensive suggestions about how to educate law students and promote events about law student mental health and stress reduction.

Your law school or student bar association may have programs like these to help you learn to manage stress. But you may need to be proactive in taking care of your own mental health. While the considerable demands of law school are not going to go away, you can take action to help yourself cope.

How to Approach Stress Management

  • Set deliberate, realistic goals for yourself. It’s true that to land that federal clerkship or the job at the big downtown law firm, you may need to be in the top 10 percent of your class, on law review, and a moot court superstar. But think about what kind of career you actually want and what kind of work and work schedule will be sustainable for you over the long term. There are lots of competent, professionally satisfied lawyers out there doing work they enjoy who were not in the top 10 percent, or even the top half, of their class. You may need to give yourself permission to slow down a little and not always be the best at everything.

    Also, have a long talk with someone in your career services office about what kind of work you want to do. Or arrange to shadow or have lunch with lawyers working in different kinds of settings so you have more information about your career options, which will help you set reasonable goals. You may be surprised about what kinds of lawyers are most satisfied with their jobs.
  • Remember to be yourself. Although there is no objective research pinning down the sources of law student stress, one theory is that some stress results because law students are trained to think about issues, and life in general, in sterile, legally formalistic ways that cut them loose from their moral and ethical moorings. In this legal mindset, every issue has several equally valid approaches, the “correct” approach depends on the circumstances, and there are no right answers. In theory, this “disconnect” causes students to question or lose their individual identities.

    While you do need to learn the skill of objective analysis, which is fundamental to legal reasoning, you need to remember that it’s a skill, and it does not require a personality or morality transplant. You do not have to give up everything you believe in when you enter law school. In fact, you should cultivate the habit of stopping to think about the result of every case you read and questioning whether it presents a “right” answer, according to your own moral and ethical compass. It’s OK to disagree with your professor or your classmates about the outcome of a case. Also, note that when you are a practicing attorney, the Rules of Professional Conduct allow you to take into account the moral, social, religious, and ethical implications of a situation when advising a client. So maintaining your individual moral and ethical identity can actually help you be a better attorney once you’re out in practice.
  • Stay connected. Most of us need other people to hang out with, to have fun with, and to provide moral support. So maintaining relationships with family and friends should be a top priority. We are by nature social creatures, and we need other people to be happy. While you may feel some frustration at the demands your family and non–law school friends make on you, and you may feel like they don’t understand the pressures you are under at school, give them a break.
  • Ask for help. If you find that, despite your best efforts, the pressures of law school are beginning to overwhelm you, don’t try to tough it out and handle it alone. In addition to friends and family, there are many resources available through your school or state bar association to help you deal with stress. Most schools have a counseling center, and often services are free. If you are struggling academically or with time management, consult your school’s academic support professionals. That’s what they are there for. Finally, most state bar associations have a lawyer assistance program to help lawyers, and law students, find resources and support for dealing with mental health issues, including substance abuse. The ABA website provides a list of state lawyer assistance programs at
  • Maintain good “life habits.” The maxim “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” exists for a reason. Face it: Studying all the time is not a sustainable lifestyle. While you need to meet your school and work obligations, you also need to spend time relaxing and attending to the other important things in your life. For starters, follow your mother’s advice: Exercise, eat healthy food, and get enough sleep. Block off time to go for a run, play basketball, or walk the dog. Block off time to prepare and eat meals, preferably with friends or family.
  • Monitor your alcohol consumption and partying. If drinking is interfering with your class performance the next day or causing trouble in your relationships, you may be overdoing it. In fact, because drinking can cause you to be at less than peak performance, it may well cause more stress than it relieves. In addition, many lawyers who get into professional trouble have substance-abuse issues as part of their complex problems, and often those issues begin in law school. If your drinking is following you home from the bar in noticeable ways, cut back. If cutting back is difficult, ask for help.

    The pressures you face during law school are real, as are the pressures you will face later as a practicing lawyer. Becoming a professional does not mean you need to learn to avoid difficult or stressful situations. Rather, you need to develop skills for coping and maintaining a healthy life, despite stress. The effort you put into learning to manage your stress while in school will pay off once you’re in practice.

ABA Resources

The ABA website offers many resources to help law students cope with stress, including a confidential listserv for students confronting alcohol and drug dependency issues. You can also order a copy of Professor Larry Krieger’s booklet, The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress, from this page.

Click here for more links to stress-management resources and to get ideas for planning a mental health day at your law school.