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. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

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