November 14, 2018 Articles

How Mentorships Can Improve Mental Health for Young Lawyers

Vanderbilt Law School is ensuring that students graduate not only with a JD but also with a support system.

By Ryan McKenney

Law school is difficult, and the process of learning to “think like a lawyer” can, for many, feel like one long set of mental gymnastics. Finding time to make friends and maintain a somewhat normal sleep and social schedule can be difficult, especially in the first year of law school, when doctrinal law and legal research and writing are the focus in the lecture hall.

The concept of mental health looms large in every aspect of life, and it is no wonder why that is the case. From celebrity culture to the politics of higher education, from social media to school shootings and constant connectivity, life as a young person in America has arguably never been more stressful to navigate. For law students, too, stress is a major factor. Certainly, the time between undergraduate schooling and law practice is already a crossroads, and mental health and wellness initiatives have never been more important.

At Vanderbilt Law School, the administration, students, and staff are working to improve the mental health and wellness of the student body, ensuring that students graduate not only with a JD but also with a support system.

Stress-Reducing Initiatives

A couple of the initiatives recently implemented at Vanderbilt include meditation and relaxed socializing. There is a guided meditation session held in the law school where students are invited to reduce stress and build resiliency alongside fellow graduate students. In addition, there is a weekly “Blackacre” session on Friday afternoons, where students and faculty can relax after a busy week and connect with one another in a casual social setting.

The Co-Counsel Mentorship Program

Additionally, over the past two years, Vanderbilt has devised and implemented a new mentorship program, appropriately named the Co-Counsel Mentorship Program, focused on first-year law students. The program aims to match each first-year student with a second- or third-year student who becomes not only the first-year student’s go-to person for everything from academic advice to adjusting socially but also, most importantly, someone who can serve as a wellspring of knowledge about campus opportunities and resources on mental health and wellness.

Through the program, the upper-class mentors receive training enabling them to identify and assist students who may need to access the wide network of mental health resources on campus. Students also receive leadership development training and a special session with best-selling author Lisa Smith about addiction and recovery in the legal profession.

Armed with a deep knowledge of campus resources, the mentors meet regularly with the four to five first-year students in their group. Each small group is part of a “circuit” comprised of seven to eight groups that host several large social outings throughout the year. This allows first-year students the ability to meet and become acquainted with classmates in and out of their sections. It also puts first-year students in contact with upper-class students and creates a community melting pot that tears down the walls that can often isolate students from classmates amid the stresses of law school academics.

Personally, serving as a mentor has shown me the myriad ways in which law students can help one another. The mentorship program has also helped me take stock of my own mental health as a I prepare for practice. As an incoming first-year associate at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, a large firm in New York, I felt it was important to work at a firm that was supportive of and dedicated to the mental health and professional well-being of its firm members.

Paying It Forward

As law students, we are, of course, being trained as future attorneys and not as therapists, yet each of us can be more mindful of how we treat one another and look out for the mental health of our fellow attorneys just as the ethical rules implore us to look after the ethics of those alongside whom we practice.

The Co-Counsel Mentorship Program is an important step toward creating a broader legal community that better acknowledges and addresses mental health and well-being issues. The program helps to promote positive self-care practices while instilling a sense of accountability for fellow members of the profession that goes beyond the actual legal services that we deliver to clients.

The sense of loyalty and camaraderie engendered by the Co-Counsel Mentorship Program has helped to make Vanderbilt a healthier law school in every way. And, in turn, I have no doubt that my classmates and I will be better advisers to our clients, better associates to our colleagues, and better people for it.

Ryan McKenney is a third-year law student at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, Tennessee. After graduation, McKenney will be working in the litigation department at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP in New York.

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