A Parliament of OWLs (Older Wiser Learners): Resilience and stress

Hello again, dear reader.  Can we chat?  I think it is time to discuss stress in the law school. 

No, I know, stress is all anybody around here is talking about, but I don’t really approve of the hyper caffeinated, gaunt, I’m-so-miserable behavior.  I think the memes are cute, but seriously?  It’s time to pull up your big girl pants (and big boy pants) and stop the drama.  Let’s get a little perspective.

School exams are, by an order of magnitude, less stressful than your life will be when you are a lawyer.

According to a study published in the February 2016 Journal of Addiction Medicine, 61% of lawyers reported suffering from anxiety at some point in their careers, and over 45% reported symptoms of depression.  Problematic alcohol use was noted in 28.9% of attorneys who were in their first decade of practice, with declines to 20.6% among those in their second decade of practice.  A whopping 32.3% of lawyers under the age of 30 had problems with alcohol. 

In an earlier study, alcohol abuse among lawyers was determined to be double that of the general population.  (Benjamin GA, Darling E, Sales B. The prevalence of depression, alcohol abuse, and cocaine abuse among United States lawyers. Int. J. Law Psychiatry 1990; 13:233–246. ISSN 0160-2527.)  Do you hear what I’m telling you?  A fifth of experienced lawyers have drinking problems, more have mental health problems, and it’s worse than that for the new kids. 

These numbers should tell us something about the challenges we will face when we become lawyers.  That whole great army of practitioners, the folks at the alumni gatherings, the guy who comes to talk about his career to the star-struck 1L’s, the people interviewing you for your summer internship – they could probably tell us a thing or two about stress.  They have real clients in real danger of jail time, real clients caught in the wringer of an ugly divorce, real clients facing the consequences of medical malpractice.  The buttoned up world of corporate law isn’t free of real stress just because everybody has expensive suits.  Making one mistake, missing one detail, leaving one accidental loophole, just one whisper of incaution, and a professional relationship, or even a whole career can go sideways in the blink of an eye.  Being a lawyer is stressful, and managing that stress poorly leaves a lot of lawyers facing mental health and addiction troubles. 

We are here, though, for a reason.  We are the ones who can handle it.  We have all heard, “If anybody can do it, it’s you.”  We are the ones who always spot the anomaly, who always catch the wayward detail.  We fuss over a brief for class the way we fuss over a newborn baby, checking out every perfect detail.  When I told some of my colleagues I was planning to go to law school, despite the initial shock, every one of them had the same reaction – that it is a perfect fit.  I bet you all had the same response.

So now here we are.  We’re toddlers in law.  We’re still at the point where the grown ups only give us safe toys.  The stress we are managing now?  Exams?  That’s the big deal?  C’mon, we’re tougher than that.  We have to be.  No, really, we HAVE to be.

Take a walk across campus.  The leaves of the maples are still blazing here in Virginia.  The willow oak across from the Weinstein center, its view framed by the arched portico, is raining twirling tiny yellow leaves.  Earnest parents and their teenaged children are being herded in packs around our campus, wondering if this might be the answer, the place where academics and joy and opportunity and romance can all be perfect; I watch them with the same love and empathy as if they were pushing strollers.  The law school has brought in chair massages and therapy dogs.  Professors share cupcakes and philosophical reflections.  The climate, the institution, the people, even the therapy dogs are all here to support you. 

All you have to do is what you do so well.  Get organized.  Make that meticulous outline.  Nail down the details.  Spend time with friends who can stay on task, and talk through the sticky parts.  Get a good night’s sleep.  Have a healthy breakfast.  The exam is when you finally get to demonstrate that you understand.  You do understand it; that’s what you’ve been working on since summer, and you’re ready.

Practice resilience.  You’ve got this.  

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