Here’s the Secret to Law Student Wellness

law student wellnessI attend a lot of legal profession awards and I always see the same thing. No matter the occasion or award, no matter how extensive the professional accomplishments, every awardee ends his or her speech with the same thank you’s to their mentors, to their friends and to their family. Thank you to my spouse for supporting me on this journey. Thank you to my parents for always believing in me. Thank you to my children for reflecting the best in me.

I have thought about that recently, and what that means for lawyers, particularly as we roll out one of our signature programs here at the Commission – law school professionalism orientation.

For the past eleven years, the Commission on Professionalism has worked with law schools in Illinois to orient incoming first year law students to the ideals of the legal profession. The bedrock of our program is having judges speak to incoming classes on their experiences as lawyers and judges, and then issuing a Pledge of Professionalism to the incoming law students.

This year, however, we asked the judges to do one thing slightly differently. While before they have spoken expansively on what professionalism means at various stages in their career, this time we asked them to mention one topic in particular – law student wellness.

As I’ve watched the judges deliver these remarks, I’ve often thought about what I would share on law student wellness. And that’s when I think back on those award ceremonies and the relationships those award recipients highlight. Because law student wellness goes beyond managing stress and abstaining from alcohol and drug use. It also recognizes this: it takes a village to do a lot of things, including living a healthy life as a law student.

The Problem of Law Student Wellness

Last week, our 2Civility blog post discussed the recently released report from the ABA Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change. That Task Force Report mentioned two additional reports on attorney wellness. The first concerned law student wellness. The report, Suffering in Silencefound that up to a third of law students had alcohol, drug and/or mental health challenges. The typical law student path to those challenges is especially disheartening:

Law students start law school with high life satisfaction and strong mental health measures. But within the first year of law school, they experience a significant increase in anxiety and depression. Research suggests that law students are among the most dissatisfied, demoralized, and depressed of any graduate student population.

The reasons for these findings are not mysterious. Law school creates a hyper-competitive atmosphere where many Type-A personalities directly compete with each other to obtain the best grades and rankings. It’s an atmosphere where some flourish and some do not. And unlike other professions, the difference of a fraction of a GPA point can have a tremendous impact on immediate job opportunities. Plus, there is also one crucial difference between law and most other professions – the adversarial nature of the law. Many of law’s practice areas are opponent-driven, whether your opponent is across the courtroom or the negotiation table. Representing your demanding client in opposition to another lawyer’s demanding client is often seen as a zero sum game, one that can take a toll on mental and physical health.

It’s many of those law student wellness challenges in school that lead directly to the wellness challenges facing the legal profession. The second report mentioned in the Task Force Report, the ABA-Hazelden Report, found higher levels of substance abuse and mental health challenges in the legal profession than in the general population, and even in similar peer professions. The resulting parade of difficulties also includes “suicide, social alienation, work addiction, sleep deprivation, job dissatisfaction, a “diversity crisis,” complaints of work-life conflict, incivility, a narrowing of values so that profit predominates, and negative public perception.”

When I first read those words, another report immediately came to my mind. It was a earth-shaking report two years ago by two professors from a place very familiar to me, my alma mater Princeton University.

The Case-Deaton Study on Mortality

In 2015, two Princeton professors, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, shared their research on the dramatic increase in mortality rates of non-Hispanic white Americans. They updated both their research and their hypotheses in 2017. While midlife mortality continues to fall in other rich countries, and in other racial and ethnic groups in the US, middle-aged non-Hispanic white Americans with a high school diploma or less have experienced increased midlife mortality since the late 1990s. The increase hasn’t been driven by the usual suspects of cancer and heart disease, but rather by drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol. These are what the authors call, “deaths by despair.”

The reasons are complex, but Case and Deaton hypothesize that it has much to do with the “despair” afflicting whites without college degrees over the past several decades. In particular, the professors talk about the loss of religious identity, lack of community, a decrease in marriage and family stability, wage stagnation, family dissolution, and loss of moral identity. And while the opioid supply isn’t the sole reason for the increase in death rates, as the professors explain, “the prescription of opioids for chronic pain added fuel to the flames, making the epidemic much worse than it otherwise would have been.”

Why should these statistics matter for law students seeking advanced degrees? Because many of the same causes that the professors identify play a significant role in increasing the already attendant stress on a law student’s life. How many law students have you heard talk about the debt they incur or their job prospects upon graduation? How many law students start law school knowing why they wanted to be a lawyer, only to progress through the legal profession struggling to remember those ideals in the first place? And, crucially, how many law students turn to addictive substances or suffer from mental health challenges after they start law school? As the reports say, the number is far too high.

But it was Case and Deaton’s primary hypothesis that made me think of law student wellness, and those many award ceremonies that I attend. See, according to Case and Deaton, much of the “despair” relates to the loss of community and community values, whether the community basis of religions, or jobs, or neighborhoods, or churches, or family. It’s community and the loss of community that play a significant role in why much of our population is suffering in new and troubling ways. Finding that community, and discovering the relationships that formed the basis of that community, becomes crucial in addressing the wellness challenges in our larger population, and I would propose, in our law student population as well. And don’t just take it from me; take it from one last study, a decades-long one on the secret to happiness.

The Harvard Study on Happiness and Longevity

In 1938, researchers at Harvard University started studying 268 sophomores to find out an answer that has longed troubled us all – what is the secret to happiness and long life? After almost 80 years of research, the answer for both, they found, was easy: relationships. Relationships matter, more than genetics, intelligence, money or fame. According to the study, “[t]hose ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.” As one of the study’s authors pointed out, there were other factors as well – absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, resiliency, healthy weight, and education included. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

Relationships Are The Secret to Law Student Wellness

Build relationships. That would be my wellness advice to the new law students attending orientation programs here in Illinois and around the country. Build relationships that will sustain you throughout law school and your career as a lawyer.  To paraphrase a classic law school example, “Look to your left, look to your right. One of those people might save your life.”

Find people with whom you can be your authentic self, not the try-hard social media self, but the people who know the real you, the ups and the downs. The ones who, when you’re struggling with stress, or depression, or over-work, you can turn to them and ask for their support. Start a book club, join a bowling league, run a fantasy football team, do yoga on your university quad. Many of you are living in a new town or city – take a new friend to explore parks, museums, or beaches. Yes, good grades are essential to your initial success as an attorney. That fraction of a GPA point does matter. But for your longevity as a law student, an attorney, and a human being, the people you surround yourself with and the relationships you build are equally important as well.

And if you believe that you are not the one in need of help, that the stresses of law school and your legal career will not lead you down a well-trodden path of anxiety or depression or substance abuse, then reach out your hand and help your fellow students who are struggling. The time will come, it always does, when you’ll need their hand as well. Because the community you have and the relationships you build, that’s the secret to law student wellness, happiness, longevity and success. Remember to thank them when you win your next award.

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism
After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism
After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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