No Time to Lose: Negative Impact on Law Student Wellbeing May Begin in Year One

A new article, No Time to Lose: Negative Impact on Law Student Wellbeing May Begin in Year One  was recently published in The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, Vol. 2, No.2, pp. 49-60, 2011 and posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Preliminary results of a pilot study of law students suggest that, during the first year of law study, students may experience changes in thinking styles, stress levels, and satisfaction with life. Although further inquiry into the cause of law student distress is necessary, the authors consider certain assumptions underlying the legal curriculum – particularly the conception of a lawyer as adversarial, emotionally detached, and competitive – to be possible sources of the negative impact on student wellbeing. It is suggested that legal educators should reexamine their curricula, particularly their conception of what it means to be a lawyer, and think creatively about ways that law schools may encourage healthier approaches to the study of law.

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One Response

  1. As someone who previously taught in a clinic, and now teaches large first year (and upper level classes), I find myself to be conflicted . . . . On one hand, I think one of the most important things we do as teachers is to help students begin to develop a sense of professional identity. To this end, I purposefully talk about how much I LOVE being a lawyer. I talk about the how wonderful it is to help clients solve problems and achieve goals. I talk about the joys of pursuing professional excellence, and the intellectual rewards of a legal career. I talk about the challenges that we face as lawyers when we try to integrate our lives as lawyers with family life and other non-lawyer pursuits. And, I talk about the fact that legal careers are — and should be – incredibly diverse. I want my students to know that they need to define success for themselves, and not be sucked into thinking that there is only one worthy path. I think this is the sort of message students need to hear, especially during the first year, when (perhaps for the first time) they are not at the top of the class, or they realize (perhaps for the first time) that achieving what they always thought was their goal (e.g., large law firm practice) won’t necessarily bring them happiness (professionally or personally).

    That said – and I know this is not a very popular. thing to say, nor is it what the authors were trying to say — I don’t think I can (or should) shield my students from the reality that their work as lawyers (and law students) is subject to commentary, evaluation and (yes, even) criticism. I understand that it can be huge shock for students when they don’t get As in every one of their classes. I understand that it seems unjust when opportunities are available for some students, but not others, based on evaluations of writing samples, test scores, etc. I get that law school assessment is imperfect on every level, and that performance in law school may have little to do with a student’s abilities, or ultimate “success,” however defined. I just think that evaluation is a way of life for lawyers, and hearing that you have room for improvement is a lesson that we lawyers learn (and should learn) every day that we PRACTICE (emphasis intentional) law. Certainly, we want law school to be a place where students can develop a healthy sense of professional identity – one that focuses on attributes other than law school GPA. But sooner or later (and I’d rather it happen in law school), I want students to realize that we lawyers are not perfect, and that criticism and evaluation – though it may seem harsh – are what we need to get better.

    My wonderful colleague Mary Lynch reminded me that competitiveness is not the opposite of assessment. It’s the opposite of collaborative approaches, which have been undervalued in law schools…. .

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