Law school stress kills brain cells

June 18, 2014
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You know you are supposed to eat a balanced diet and exercise, but are you taking care of your cognitive fitness? According to one lawyer, brain cells are dying from the stress of law school.

Debra S. Austin, an attorney and Ph.D., looks at in her article in the Loyola Law Review how stress affects those in the legal profession.

“The stresses facing law students and lawyers result in a significant decline in their well-being, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse and suicide. Neuroscience now shows that this level of stress also diminishes cognitive capacity. The intricate workings of the brain, the ways in which memories become part of a lawyer’s body of knowledge, and the impact of emotion on this process indicate that stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition,” she writes.

Austin also says that the stress in legal education may set the stage for abnormally high rates of anxiety and depression among lawyers.

Data has shown that lawyers are in the top five when it comes to the rate of suicide among professional groups, and they are nearly four times as likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers.

The Dave Nee Foundation says that depression among law students is around 9 percent before matriculation, 27 percent after one semester, 43 percent after two semesters and 40 percent after three years.  It also says that upon entering law school, students have a psychological profile similar to that of the general public, but after graduating, 20 to 40 percent of law students have a psychological dysfunction.

Austin gives examples of the physiological processes happening in the human body as they relate to law students and lawyers. As you know, law school is stressful. You must learn caselaw, analytical and critical thinking skills, how to practice law – and be prepared if your professor calls on you in class. And your stress levels must go through the roof studying for and taking the bar exam.

But the stress doesn’t stop once you become a lawyer – your firm requires you to meet certain billable hour goals, bring in more clients, and encourages you to perform pro bono work. Your clients are demanding and their problems and issues can stay with you.

The stresses of law school (which Austin describes as “legendary”) and your practice can weigh heavy on your mind. You need to take care of that mind.

Austin describes the structure of neural communication networks, neuroscience of memory formation and how learning occurs, and she discusses the impact of stress on the body. She challenges law students, professors and lawyers to develop a neuroscience-based understanding of how to optimize their own cognition. And how does one address the problems she identifies? By exercising more, getting enough sleep and incorporating contemplative practices into your life – such as yoga or meditation. She also cites Google as an example of a company that has adopted a culture that focuses on employee well-being – onsite gyms, work/life balance programs and stress management classes. Google even teaches employees about the power of neuroplasticity.

What do you think about Austin’s paper and her suggestions for taking better care of your mind? Can you take time out of your day to exercise or allow yourself an extra hour or two of sleep while in law school (or practicing law), or does the thought of that stress you out?   

The article is available online.


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  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues