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. The Conour embarrassment is an example of why it would be a good idea to NOT name public buildings or to erect monuments to "worthy" people until AFTER they have been dead three years, at least. And we also need to stop naming federal buildings and roads after a worthless politician whose only achievement was getting elected multiple times (like a certain Congressman after whom we renamed the largest post office in the state). Also, why have we renamed BOTH the Center Township government center AND the new bus terminal/bum hangout after Julia Carson?

  2. Other than a complete lack of any verifiable and valid historical citations to back your wild context-free accusations, you also forget to allege "ate Native American children, ate slave children, ate their own children, and often did it all while using salad forks rather than dinner forks." (gasp)

  3. "So we broke with England for the right to "off" our preborn progeny at will, and allow the processing plant doing the dirty deeds (dirt cheap) to profit on the marketing of those "products of conception." I was completely maleducated on our nation's founding, it would seem. (But I know the ACLU is hard at work to remedy that, too.)" Well, you know, we're just following in the footsteps of our founders who raped women, raped slaves, raped children, maimed immigrants, sold children, stole property, broke promises, broke apart families, killed natives... You know, good God fearing down home Christian folk! :/

  4. Who gives a rats behind about all the fluffy ranking nonsense. What students having to pay off debt need to know is that all schools aren't created equal and students from many schools don't have a snowball's chance of getting a decent paying job straight out of law school. Their lowly ranked lawschool won't tell them that though. When schools start honestly (accurately) reporting *those numbers, things will get interesting real quick, and the looks on student's faces will be priceless!

  5. Whilst it may be true that Judges and Justices enjoy such freedom of time and effort, it certainly does not hold true for the average working person. To say that one must 1) take a day or a half day off work every 3 months, 2) gather a list of information including recent photographs, and 3) set up a time that is convenient for the local sheriff or other such office to complete the registry is more than a bit near-sighted. This may be procedural, and hence, in the near-sighted minds of the court, not 'punishment,' but it is in fact 'punishment.' The local sheriffs probably feel a little punished too by the overwork. Registries serve to punish the offender whilst simultaneously providing the public at large with a false sense of security. The false sense of security is dangerous to the public who may not exercise due diligence by thinking there are no offenders in their locale. In fact, the registry only informs them of those who have been convicted.

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