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January’s Secret: Recognizing the Challenge

No law student started law school thinking it was going to be easy. Many students knew that they would probably have to work harder than they ever had before. But here is something that most law students don’t know: while students enter law school suffering from clinical stress and depression at a rate that mirrors the national average, the rate sharply increases during the first year. “The theme for law students is consistent: you must work very, very hard, and you must excel in the competition for grades and honors in order to feel good about what you have done, have the respect of your teachers and peers, get a desirable job, and generally be successful,” says Professor Larry Krieger of Florida State University in his Journal of Legal Education Article “Institutional Denial About the Dark Side of Law School, and Fresh Empirical Guidance for Constructively Breaking the Silence.” Stress, depression, anxiety, chemical dependency, substance abuse, and other mental health issues among law students and attorneys have begun to spark a national dialogue among faculty, staff, and students at many law schools.

This challenge doesn’t go away after law school and there are some pretty daunting statistics that I don’t think any law student or attorney can ignore.

- According to a Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 occupations, researchers found that lawyers lead the nation with the highest incidence of depression.

- In 1996, lawyers overtook dentists as the profession with the highest rate of suicide.

- The ABA estimates that 15-20 percent of all U.S. lawyers suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse.

- Seven in ten lawyers responding to a California Lawyers magazine poll said they would change careers if the opportunity arose.

- And the worst for women: an ABA Young Lawyers Division survey indicated that 41 percent of female attorneys were unhappy with their jobs.

Aside from taking classes, law school is the time to build a “toolkit” for dealing with the mental health challenges of law school and the legal profession. While not every law student will experience a clinical mental health issue, I think all law students would agree that at times they could be “happier”. By creating a dialogue and awareness about mental health challenges and refusing to ignore them, we can live happier more fulfilled lives as students and attorneys.

The ABA, in their Mental Health Toolkit, has identified three main causes of mental health issues that occur because of law school.

1. The Crush of Hopes, Dreams, and Aspirations. During law school, many law students suddenly feel like they will not be able to fulfill the dream that motivated them to start law school in the first place. There are many reasons they may feel this way; whether it is because of high student debt, low grades, or job availability. If one allows law school to destroy a major motivation or passion in their life, then unfortunately, depression may be right around the corner. Law students become depressed over the realization that they have lost one of the driving motivations in their lives.

2. Living an Unbalanced Life. Law school is known for late nights, high doses of caffeine, ignoring your family, and locking yourself away in the library for a month to study for exams. The idea of living a balanced life sounds great, but the reality is very few law students are able to pull it off. This unbalance can lead to stress, depression, and anxiety. If law students fail to learn how to maintain a work-life balance while in law school they risk letting it affect their future career and ultimate personal fulfillment and happiness in life.

3. Law School Becomes One’s Identity. Another major cause of law student mental health issues occurs when law students allow their success in law school to define their own personal value and worth as a human being. It is often believed, albeit falsely, that unless a student performs well in law school they will never be able to land that high paying dream job, and their life, as a result, will end up being a complete failure. When students allow their success or failure in law school to define who they are as a person - they are in a no win situation. Pure statistics make it clear that 90% of law students will not be in the top 10% of the class. Law students must realize that law school is not the end all be all for their career and future happiness.

In the spirit of being authentic, I admit that at one point or another I have experienced all of feelings described above. So if you are experiencing these feelings, you are not alone! I’ve been there and I know that more than likely before I finish law school I will probably experience them again!

There is good news! You can be a law student and be happy, healthy, and have a balanced life! Over the next twelve months, I will be sharing with you secrets of happy law students and together we can work to lessen the impact of mental health challenges in law school and in the legal profession. The first secret is recognizing the challenges of mental health in law school and the legal profession. Remember, if you have experienced one of the emotions that I described above you are not alone and with some work you can change the way you feel! Check back next moth for the next secret to becoming a happier law student! 

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