Beginning law school is a fun time. You’re excited to launch your legal career. In addition to your journal, pens, and expensive textbooks, you may need glasses, a nightguard, and a supersized bottle of ibuprofen to counter the physical impacts law school can have on your body.
Lawyers and law students are at higher risk for impaired eyesight, most notably becoming near-sighted; increased headaches; psychological dysfunction, depression, and suicidal thoughts; and alcoholism. Some of these issues are driven by the stress of law school and everything it brings.
How Stress Physically Sets In
Stress negatively impacts your body, mood, and behavior. You might experience muscle tension and pain, sleep problems, irritability, a lack of focus or motivation, outbursts, isolation, and more.
At my own school, the University of Massachusetts School of Law, a number of students have experienced flare-ups of eczema, breakouts of stress rashes and hives resulting in a painful peeling of the skin, and recurring yeast and urinary tract infections. Joselyn Sharpe, a 2L, has even suffered stomach ulcers and kidney stones.
Stomach Ulcers and Kidney Stones
“I had a lot of stomach problems,” said Sharpe. “First semester, I had stomach ulcers the third week in.”
Sharpe recalled feeling significant stress before the semester started when the assignments began to pile onto one another, and she had to complete the work in a short turnaround. “I was stressed, and my body felt anxious, but I knew I had to get it all done,” she explained. “I didn’t take a lot of breaks at the beginning. I wanted to be prepared, and I didn’t want to look stupid.”
The pressure of comparing herself to her peers added to Sharpe’s stress. “You’re surrounded by a lot of really smart people, and I wasn’t sure I reached their level,” she stated. “I pushed myself more because I felt stupid compared to everyone else. However, after the first couple weeks, you realize nearly everyone feels the same way.”
Later in the semester, Sharpe was diagnosed with kidney stones. “I wasn’t taking care of myself and my body the way I should,” she said. Sharpe said her professors were kind and made time to answer any questions she had; however, by the end of her first year, Sharpe had run her body into the ground twice, all in pursuit of a good grade.
Heart Palpitations and Near-Fainting Spells
Hillary Vaillancourt, a family and estate attorney based in North Carolina, experienced stress in many forms during law school, including heart palpitations and near-fainting spells. Vaillancourt has several food allergies, though she wasn’t diagnosed during her time in law school.
When Vaillancourt moved to Boston for law school, she was unable to arrive in person to secure housing. So she moved in with a few students from the school she met through the school’s messaging board.
“I quickly learned my room was infested with bedbugs,” explained Vaillancourt. “I had to find another place to live and move at the very beginning of the semester. When one thing like bedbugs can cause everything else to fall out of place, you know you have too much on your plate.”
High Expectations for Yourself
Martin Gasparian, a personal injury attorney based in California, stated he experienced stress the first time while preparing for first-semester final exams. “I wanted to perform well,” he admitted. “I’m somewhat of a perfectionist, and I put a lot of stress on myself to achieve that.”
Gasparian called himself self-motivated, saying a main factor for his drive was not wanting to disappoint his parents.
Despite his own experience with hair loss and weight gain, Gasparian didn’t realize how stress was affecting him until he went home over Christmas break. “My sister jokingly asked if I’d noticed how much weight I’d gained—which I hadn’t noticed during my time at school,” he said.
Gasparian noted that the weight gain had a negative impact on his self-esteem, but he refused to let that interfere with his studies.
Vaillancourt believed law students often overextend themselves. “There’s a certain kind of person who goes to law school—a lot of type A people who can put too much on their plate,” she said.
She said she and others like her have difficulty knowing when to slow down and ask for help. During her time in law school, Vaillancourt didn’t tell anyone in the school’s administration about her experiences with stress. “I’m not sure who I would have spoken to,” said Vaillancourt.
A Schedule Stacked against You
Law school is filled with overachieving students. Gasparian was confident he’d succeed, given that the school had chosen him among their thousands of applicants. However, other students aren’t as confident, and many feel isolated, especially during their first year.
“During law school, the symptoms I’d been experiencing for years became so bad,” said Vaillancourt. “I was seeing multiple specialists to try to identify the root cause of my near-constant heart palpitations, breathing problems, and chronic pain.”
Vaillancourt now knows these symptoms to be anaphylaxis; however, at the time, numerous doctors credited these symptoms as stress. Many doctors advised Vaillancourt to simplify her life. Her response? “I’m in law school. The schedule is as simple as it’s going to get.”
Sharpe experienced similar circumstances. Often, when she informed her professors of the stress she was feeling, they’d let her know there were counseling services available. “They told us about these resources and warned us of what not to do in terms of burnout,” she said. “But there was still so much to do. I thought, ‘I’m glad that exists, but when do you expect me to pencil that in?’”
Worsening Symptoms at Exam Time
Sharpe’s stress would get worse in the face of midterm and final exams. Despite the physical responses from her body, she pushed through until the end of her exams. “For a couple of days after the exams, my body shuts down, and I have to focus on recovery,” she explained.
Sharpe knew attorneys through college internships who warned her of law school stress. “When I told them I was going to law school, they kept telling me to be prepared,” she explained. “But they didn’t tell me what to be prepared for. I knew a lot was coming, but I didn’t know what they meant.”
Stress Continues into Law Practice
For Gasparian, the stress continues into law practice and can sometimes become more severe than it was in law school. During one of his first jobs in Washington, DC, many of his coworkers smoked. “If you had a question, they’d invite you to smoke,” Gasparian said. “The non-smokers become smokers.”
Also, during that time, two associates at the firm committed suicide in consecutive years. Though Gasparian didn’t know the men personally, it reinforced the fact that being an attorney can trigger severe stressors.
Sharpe spoke with her roommate during the first semester and found comfort in the fact that she wasn’t alone in her feelings. However, Gasparian and Vaillancourt don’t recall speaking to their peers about the stress of law school. Today, Vaillancourt discusses the stress of her caseload with her best friend, who’s also a partner in her firm.
“She has helped me a lot when I need help,” said Vaillancourt. “I also remain in touch with a few of my classmates, especially on Facebook. But they never say they’re stressed. We all put our best foot forward and try to hide the difficult things.”
What Can You Do?
There are actions you can be taking today to dial back stress during law school. It’s vital to maintain a strong connection with your support system to get through the monumental struggle that is law school and to put up boundaries as needed.
Sharpe learned a lot about setting boundaries in college and knows implementation can be difficult. She stressed the importance of telling herself, “Yes, I’ll always have more to do, but I need to sit and relax, or I might get stomach ulcers again.”
Gasparian’s boundaries have positively impacted his practice and his family. “Once I step outside the office, I try to leave work there,” he explained. “There’s a clear separation between my work life and my family life. It has allowed me to be more present with my kids and with my clients.”
Good Diet + Exercise + Relationships = Healthy Mind and Body
A good diet, regular exercise, and community connections through volunteering or maintaining relationships with family and friends can also help you maintain a healthy mind and body. Law school stacks the cards against us when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. However, creating a schedule you can sustain while in law school and later during your practice will lead to success.
“We’re our best when we’re healthy,” stated Vaillancourt.