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Law Student Outlook: Mental health and the legal profession

October 31, 2018

Law Student Outlook By Francesca Camione and Amanda VaughnAs law students, we regularly face new and constantly compounding stressors. The topic of our last column highlighted the immense amount of pressure put on the internship and job search that countless law students endure. As 2Ls who recently, and very thankfully, came out of a challenging season of firm recruitment successfully, a small fraction of that stress is no longer weighing on us, but that does not change the overall mental health landscape typical of law school. Beyond that, the workplace culture that we will enter upon graduating and passing the bar is nearly guaranteed to continue that cycle.

Before entering law school, we were warned of the demanding course load that would consume our lives for the next three years. Advisers who were clearly invested in our well-being and the school environment reminded us to take stock of who we were and what defined us and our happiness before deciding to come to law school. “Remember to eat,” and “make sure to allot time to talk to your family and loved ones outside of law school,” they said. Sitting in the audience, we wondered how we could ever forget such simple things. Even in the face of stress, how can we possibly forget to do things so essential to our everyday functioning?

Those doubts about their statements were met with PowerPoint slides with statistics that claimed law students faced higher rates of depression and anxiety than students in medical school and other graduate programs. In a weird and somewhat indescribable way, the statistics felt like a noble badge of honor, defining the rigor of the education we were about to receive. More statistics highlighting the concerningly high rates of students and lawyers who developed substance abuse issues in lieu of healthy coping mechanisms forced the magnitude of the warnings to set in.

While law schools have the capability to create a supportive environment that fosters the growth of healthy habits — and have the advantage of the ability to work wellness efforts into a student’s day — employers have a greater challenge in balancing their need for work product with paying attention to the mental health of their employees. Further, in a school setting, seeking help may be perceived as more acceptable than in the workforce.

As cited in a recent article by Above the Law, attorneys in their first 10 years of practice experience the highest rates of health and wellness issues.

The American Bar Association has developed a mental health toolkit targeted at law students and is actively working to raise awareness of the importance of mental health in the profession. The ABA touts that eight of 50 states have begun requiring mental health CLE courses for practicing attorneys. The Indiana State Bar Association House of Delegates last month approved a recommendation that the Hoosier state join suit. Part of the work at the ABA is reducing the stigma tied to seeking help to improve your mental health. Part of what the ABA suggests for law students and practicing lawyers is to be realistic with yourself about where you are in your life, setting realistic expectations for what you can do. The ABA also encourages you to enjoy life outside of school or the profession. Being able to enjoy things that make you happy, as cliché as it sounds, can help ensure you aren’t swallowed up by your other responsibilities.

The Indiana Judicial Branch has created the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, which provides a free and confidential outlet for law students, attorneys and judges to seek help. JLAP echoes the ABA in aiming to reduce the stigma of asking for assistance. While the organization so far deals primarily with substance abuse and mental health, it aims to help improve wellness in other aspects of legal professionals’ lives, as well.

The ABA has also released a toolkit for legal employers to help ensure attorneys have access to mental health resources. A growing number of law firms are signing a pledge to recognize the issues facing the legal profession and pledge to work to improve what is being done to help members of the profession. This includes items such as the six dimensions of lawyer well-being: occupational, emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual and social.

The legal profession has been evolving in the last few years, and it is a step in the right direction that the ABA and other organizations are committing themselves to improving the mental health of their colleagues. As law students, we see around us every day the problems common to lawyers. One of the first places to start is to remove the judgment associated with needing assistance and to focus on wanting to help our colleagues. We are joining a profession that is focused on helping others, but as a collective profession, we need to work together to help those in the profession who are struggling. Only then can we help our clients to the absolute best of our abilities.•

• Francesca Campione and Amanda Vaughn are second-year law students at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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