« The Marvelous Ms. Professor | Main | Dean Search, The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law »

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Curricular Response to Law Student Depression—With Particular Focus on Newer Law Professors

We in legal education have a logistical problem when it comes to bringing new law professors up to speed—each law school is so small that often only a few join every year and we don’t have standards for orientation that includes a review of the literature on legal education.  It’s been my honor for many years to participate in some of the extensive programming that the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) provides to newer law professors-which is how I know that this lack of continuity doesn’t come from a lack of interest among new faculty.

So, here’s a quick overview of one important issue--Law Student Depression as well as some resources for combatting it given the current structure of legal education, some analogies from medicine (of course)—and some thoughts about how our curriculum makes it worse which I hope spur your thoughts on structural change.

Before we go further--if you  or anyone you know is considering suicide please immediately contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, 24/7 Crisis Hotline: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network, your local Lawyer assistance program, 911 or the more detailed list of resources at the end of this post.

So what do know about depression among lawyers and  students. The first source of information is the David Nee Foundation which honors Mr. Nee’s memory by combating the social stigma associated with depression and by seeking to prevent the loss of life through suicide, especially among young people and those in the legal profession.  The ABA also has excellent resources.

 This Yale article provides a good summary of the literature-- law students start as first years with the same rates of depression as anyone else but starting almost immediately and increasing throughout the process acquire depression rates far higher than comparable students in other fields. It’s an issue we’ve been talking about for a long time—look here, here, and here.  Depression in legal study and among legal professionals is an issue in Australia (and here) Canada, South Africa, and perhaps beyond. We also are well aware that unhappy law students become unhappy lawyers. Medicine has similar issues regarding depression in students and in physicians. and currently most schools are very active in developing curriculums like this one at Stanford intended to extend from training to practice.   The suicide rate among doctors in the United States is horrifying.

One of the real and persistent structural issues in law and medicine that make it hard to address depression, and substance abuse which also accompanies depression, is the persistent insistence of licensing boards in many professions (as NAMI explains) but particularly in  medicine (and osteopathy) and law to act in ways that hinder rather than encourage students to seek help.  The AMA’s Section Council on Psychiatry “wants state medical boards” to stop “asking applicants…about a history of” mental illness or substance abuse treatment and instead to “focus only on current impairment” but hasn’t gotten very far.   We in law are doing somewhat better, see here and here but it is still a concern.  This fear extends past school to preventing physicians from seeking help post-licensure.

Many of the issues which contribute to law student depression are structural.  In my recent post on the LSAT I suggested that we should reject the narrative that students’ ability in areas like logical analysis and reading comprehension are “fixed” at the level of their LSAT Score and recommended that law students be encouraged to practice these skills through access to the now freely available and excellent materials provided online through a collaboration of LSAC and Khan Academy.  But another aspect to the LSAT mentality is that it serves as an immediate sorting mechanism and unlike the relatively benign sorting hat of Harry Potter fame, this one is quite harsh and judgmental.   Students may start school with the misperception that they are already behind other “better” students at “better” schools.

Prof. Larry Krieger identified many of the factors that research has found contributes to law student stress and depression.  One in particular is the constant emphasis on imagining “what can go wrong” which, when translated into real life, is a very destructive world view.   Attorney Kate Mayer Mangan explains features like grades based on single exams, artificial grading curves (something I’ve written about), and overly aggressive Socratic questioning by well-meaning professors who believe that part of their role is to “toughen up” students for the imagined rigors of law practice.   The hiring process is also quite stressful-as I wrote earlier, after first semester grades are in 90% of the first year class can be under the impression that they will not be excellent lawyer and, because they lack information about the job market, may even wonder if they will be employable.

Less documented is the grim window law school provides into some of the worst aspects of human existence.  Law students  face a steady diet of  crippling accidents, violent crimes, workplace discrimination, and domestic discord. This phenomena is much discussed and studied among medical students.  We don’t have much hard data about the curriculum makes law students unhappy, but there is speculation that lack of information about the profession is a factor. Our focus on appellate decisions also creates an artificially binary world where someone always wins, and someone always loses.   This masks the far more usual situation where lawyers help people get what they want through negotiation and drafting of appropriate documents or assisting clients comply with existing regulations.  A related issue is the mostly well-intentioned efforts to “toughen up” students for the “realities” of law practice—a tactic that deserves more time in a lawyer post.

To end on the practical--much is written about very important interventions like efforts to make students aware of the stress they are under and offering coping tools.  Many legal academics work hard to combat the factors underlying law student depression.   Prof. Lawrence Krieger’s has devoted considerable energy to documenting and combatting Hidden Sources of Law School Stress .  Another terrific resource as is Prof. Peggy Cooper Davis, Ebony Coletu, Bonita London, and Wentao Yuan’s Making Law Students Healthy, Skillful, and Wise. one of the best available resources.  Laura Rothstein has been tireless in her scholarship about and advocacy for law students with all kinds of disabilities.

Finally, to stay current,  Staci Zaretsky, Brian Cuban  and really the whole team at Above the Law has made an important commitment to covering the mental health of lawyers and law students.

Resources for Immediate Help:

1-800-273-TALK (8255) (Veterans, press 1); Crisis Text Line
Text TALK to 741-741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7; Veterans Crisis Line
Send a text to 838255; Vets4Warriors; SAMHSA Treatment Referral Hotline (Substance Abuse)
1-800-662-HELP (4357); RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline
1-800-656-HOPE (4673); National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline
1-866-331-9474 ; the TrevorLifeline now at 1-866-488-7386., The National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800.656.HOPE.

Posted by Jennifer Bard on September 23, 2018 at 02:45 PM | Permalink


The comments to this entry are closed.