Wood: Papers chased — law students’ plight and how JLAP can help

jlap-wood-eric“I like video games, but they’re really violent. I’d like to play a video game where you help the people who were shot in all the other games. It’d be called ‘Really Busy Hospital.’”
– Demetri Martin

When I stumbled upon this quote from comedian Demetri Martin, of course I chuckled. It’s a funny thought. Then I found myself reflecting on the work we do here at JLAP. We, too, gather in sufferers of collateral damage, as if collecting wounded characters from some video game universe, and stitch them up again to be ready for the next battle. Before coming to JLAP two-and-a-half years ago, my perception about attorneys in need was probably shaped by Paul Newman’s character in “The Verdict.” A boozy, down-on-his-luck plea peddler whose better days are years behind him, Frank Galvin is circling the drain. He manages to pull his face out of a glass of scotch long enough to land a career-salvaging, “Hail Mary” of a case. While there are plenty of old Frank Galvins out there practicing law on a hope and a prayer, my time at JLAP has taught me we can do the state a host of good by also focusing an appreciable amount of our efforts and resources at the other end of the career-span spectrum: our law students.

My understanding of the plight of law students could have been informed to some degree by my viewing of “The Paper Chase;” that is, had it not occurred 20 or 30 years ago. I remembered enough of the film to recall the iconic character of Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. Actor John Houseman cut a spectacular swath as the stern and intimidating Harvard Law professor who kept the students in his contract law class squirming in their seats with his blistering facility for the Socratic method. First-year student James Hart, unprepared for the first day of class, ends up in the men’s room tossing his lunch after such an exchange with the wry and acerbic professor. Aside from depicting a clever story of Hart’s errant love affair with Kingsfield’s daughter, the film also shows in spine-tingling clarity the churning meat grinder that is law school. The intensity even drives one student [SPOILER ALERT] to attempt suicide before dropping out. While easily dismissed by some as Hollywood fantasy, “The Paper Chase” delivers for others a stark reminder of a painful era in their lives. I have yet to meet a law student who can’t identify with the staggering sense of self-doubt depicted in the film and the terrifying notion that maybe this law school thing was a terrible mistake.

There are four (soon to be three) law schools in Indiana. In an effort to increase our presence on campus, JLAP has established consistent office hours at three of the schools. During my initial campus visits, I encountered several students who manifested the stressors of their academic environment in a number of ways. Some had turned to alcohol and other drugs to “take the edge off.” For some of these students, this coping strategy resulted in serious consequences, such as DUI arrests and academic probation. Other students demonstrated noticeable signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

One student I met identified a toxic presence that had grown to defeat her confidence and erode her self-esteem. Paige Donnelly’s nemesis wasn’t a sharp-tongued, sardonic professor hell-bent on demeaning her into submission. Rather, the bane of her existence was in the guise of classmates who saw her as a rival for academic placement and sought to undermine her at every turn. I struggled to relate. In my graduate program in clinical psychology, I experienced a competitive academic environment. We sized ourselves up against one another and asked too personal a question about grades on occasion. It’s human nature, unfortunately, to thrive on such comparison. But at no time during my graduate experience did I ever utter the term, “cut-throat,” to myself or anyone else in identifying my peers. And yet, those were the very words Donnelly used to describe her peer relationships.

Donnelly recorded some of her law school experiences in a blog article she wrote for Thomson Reuters, reprinted here with her permission:

“Over the course of the next three years, I watched as students self-destructed, visiting the local bars six days a week, and going to class hungover and/or high on drugs. Conversely, I also watched as some students packed up their apartments at the end of 1L or 2L year because the pressure and burden to succeed with a high GPA, secure a clerkship before the end of the year, and build an impressive resume had become too great.

“Things really took a dive when I began to see students sabotage each other. I knew, having already experienced all of the hurdles to get into law school, that the journey was not going to be an easy one; however, I never anticipated students self-destructing, much less trying to take their peers down with them… .”

Is Donnelly’s experience unique, an outlier we could rationalize or ignore? The research says no. In her upcoming article, “A More Human Place: Using Core Counseling Skills to Transform Law School Relationships,” Susan Wawrose, Professor of Lawyering Skills at University of Dayton School of Law, suggests in addition to the numerous stressors law students encounter academically, they also suffer a “connection gap” with their peers. In her article, Wawrose adeptly cites numerous studies that have concluded law students suffer mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and substance use disorders, in far greater numbers than their non-law school peers. She also notes these categories of distress increase at an alarming rate throughout the three years of law school. What is perhaps more troubling, these elevated levels of distress are accompanied by a growing deterioration in peer connectedness. In other words, as students are experiencing greater distress, they are feeling less inclined to reach out for support from their peers. Despair and isolation make for a crippling combination.

In addition to our growing campus presence, JLAP has sought to improve its accessibility with students. All the schools have designated a faculty person to serve as a JLAP liaison. We have sought to involve students in quasi-volunteer activities, and the JLAP therapy dogs (and cat) have become mainstays during wellness fairs and final exams week. We have also begun a support group for bar exam retakers. With this group, we hope to bridge that connection gap for folks feeling the sting of self-doubt one encounters after taking a beating from the 800-pound gorilla of all exams. It remains our hope at JLAP’s “Really Busy Hospital” to bind the wounds when that paper chase feels more like a paper cut.•


Eric Wood is a licensed clinical addictions counselor and clinical case manager at JLAP. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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