By Lindsey White • January 30, 2018•Writers in Residence
The first rule many of us are taught in legal rhetoric classes is often issued as the commandment to know thy audience and purpose. Audience and purpose – who are you writing to and what for?
Which audience? The legal community: those practicing out in the wild or law students, grinding out the hours somewhere in their first, second, third year. This audience can extend beyond those lines too. To those who love and care about anyone falling into those categories. The point being, the audience needs to be wide reaching. I’d prefer as many people as possible to fill those seats, because the purpose is just too damn important.
Statistically speaking, lawyers and law students are struggling with mental health. A frighteningly high number of us are depressed, anxious, and coping very poorly. Lawyers and law students frequently abuse alcohol and substances, report chronically dangerous levels of stress, and die by suicide at rates that are disproportionately higher than many other professional fields.
When it’s laid out so bare, those facts are pretty scary. Especially given that many of them have been confirmed by research for decades. Mental illness is reframed as a kind of inevitability. One half of the devil’s bargain for becoming an attorney, or so many lawyer-hating jokes would have us believe. Be that as it may, this is the part of the article where I assure you there is hope. I’m not going to do that. That’s cheap. And as many already know, lawyers revel in their cynicism. It’s not my place to take that away from anyone just yet.
We need more than hope right now. What’s more important, what’s necessary, is purpose. There is purpose in shining a spotlight onto some of the pain and ugliness too many in the legal community face alone. Let’s go farther than just reiterating that mental illness is not a form of weakness. That shame is the only appropriate response to a new diagnosis, addiction counseling, or prescription medication. Let’s own our stories and bring them back into the center of our community. Because it needs healing. It needs honesty.
It needs purpose.
I woke up this morning and felt my chest tightening up as I made myself some coffee and brushed my teeth. My worry began to crawl up my throat when I sat down to start another long day of bar prep. I’m more than a month out, but I feel as though I still haven’t learned anything since I’ve started. Bar prep seems to challenge my worth every day. It’s a tough thing to confront on a daily basis. It becomes exhausting very quickly. I’m about to burst into tears over some practice property MBE scores when my phone pings, letting me know I’ve received an email.
It’s from my school’s registrar’s office. They congratulate me and welcome me to the alumni community. I’ve graduated from law school.
Three and a half years. One semester’s leave of absence. Countless flights between Washington, DC and the Midwest. Gaining weight, losing weight, but let’s be honest, it was mostly gaining. Falling in love with self-help as a genre. Prescription medication, therapy, and strange encounters with meditation and non-traditional healing practices. All of this, and so much more. Somewhere along the line, I found the motivation and the drive to finish what I started. Even if it’s purely out of spite and helped along by a healthy degree of stubbornness.
It’s done. I’ve made it this far. The next practice set of MBE questions will go better.
My name is Lindsey Elizabeth White. I’m a recent law school grad. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and generalized anxiety in the spring semester of my 2L year. I am honored to be a Ms. JD’s Writer in Residence in 2018. I believe story telling is important. And for now, I believe in writing about what I know. This column hopes to center on the experience of mental illness in law school. I am thrilled to begin writing. My therapist assures me that writing this column will be a great creative outlet. So, welcome! And please know that statistically speaking, some of us are busy weeping.