October 10th is Law School Mental Health Day! (And World Mental Health Day!)
Law school is not just another educational experience, not just a step toward a career that begins after graduation and admission to the bar. Your professional career begins now, in law school. What appear to be easy choices down the road are often deceptive. Unsustainable work patterns only get progressively more difficult to disrupt. Law School is your best chance to build the foundation of a career you really want.
Stress is definitely part of the experience, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Stress, in moderate amounts or when adequately managed, can provide motivation and drive. But sometimes it’s difficult to figure out how to keep it under control. Sometimes people need help developing new thought patterns that can address stress better. (See #9)
It’s normal for law students, especially 1Ls, to feel quite overwhelmed and debilitated by stress. In fact, studies have demonstrated that “law students experience precipitous declines in their mental health during their first year.” (Sheldon and Krieger, 2007, available here.)
The choices you’ll have to make might often sound easy, but the professional culture surrounding you will make it more difficult. Law School is your last best chance to develop the habits that will lead you to a sustainable and rewarding career.
You might need support to sustain these habits in an environment trying to mask its toxicity as desirable. If your best efforts to follow our guidance fall short, come talk it through with us. We can help you recognize what forces are working against you and how to conquer them.
1. Seek information and skills rather than to achieve a certain rank in your class. Career success and satisfaction are not highly correlated to class rank. They might look determinative of your first step out of law school but the industry is changing more than you might hear about on campus. The first workbook in our Career Research & Development series can help you figure out what skills you should focus on — even if you’re not yet sure of your path.
2. Practice self-care to stay mindful of your priorities. Affluence, fame, and power are seductively alluring but are correlated with relative unhappiness. Focus on actions that are intrinsically rewarding: Making healthy choices for yourself, serving a purpose in alignment with your values, and forming healthy connecting to others. External measures — money, prestige, recognition — do not measure REAL success. Practicing self-care in the legal profession isn’t always easy — but you need to do it.
3. Be careful choosing how you cope. If you routinely rely on an unsustainable method, it’s easy to find confirmation bias and ignore risks and other negative consequences that should alert you to stop. Firms can benefit from your work even while you’re on the road to burnout, alcohol overuse is normalized in the culture at large, and illegal drugs can be easy to access. Most people need help breaking dependency and addiction. Whether it’s for yourself or someone else, we can help. And find reflections on sober curiosity for lawyers and law students here.
4. Let go of perfection. You won’t reach it, and you won’t grow to your potential if it remains your target. True, the consequences for mistakes in law practice can be tough, even damaging. But you are human, you will make mistakes, and any mistake you own and learn from will be redeemable in time. Avoid drawing self-defeating conclusions about mistakes — these lessons will be your most powerful teachers. Here’s more on rebranding your mistakes as the lessons they really are.
5. Understand the Airplane Oxygen Mask Principle, and take care of yourself first. Don’t wait to start a mindful meditation practice — it will be your best tool to figure out what actions you need to take for resilience in a confusing professional culture. Avoid McMindfulness and other superficial forms of self-care. Don’t indulge habits that feel rewarding in the short term at the expense of long-term emotional resilience, which requires sleep, nutrition, exercise, time invested in personal relationships. Here’s more on how you can prioritize self-care, even when it seems impossible.
6. Invest in time management. Organizing and planning your work improves its quality and your feelings. And do it even when the long-term investment requires a short-term tradeoff. If you need help figuring out exactly what tradeoffs to make, talk to a clinician, practice advisor, or both — depending on your circumstances. Find out more here about how to set up a time management system that works for you.
7. Live within or below your means, both in law school and after. If you’re incurring a significant amount of debt, stay mindful of this stress factor. If your finances don’t feel sufficient at any point, take a harder (and maybe painful) look at your budget. If further reductions would require you to sacrifice basic needs, you’re in an incredibly stressful position. Talking to a clinician to get through it, and ours are free if you’re in Massachusetts— Find more here.
8. Actively reflect on your values. Hold onto those that serve you well, and remember that you’re growing. Actively consider values when you’re making choices and taking action — speak or write the actual words that represent the values for your brain to process them better. The second workbook in our Career Research & Development series can help you figure out which values will help guide you to your most rewarding work.
9. Practice good responses to stress. Some people “thrive” under stress, right? Only with the right threat perception, and probably only under certain conditions. You can improve your response to stress, but sometimes you need to healthier boundaries about what conditions you tolerate. Our 3-Step Law School Survival Guide breaks it down.
10. Don’t hesitate to use help for any reason — especially concerns over the character and fitness examination. Most humans need help at some point, including lawyers. Act responsibly enough to seek the help. Again, law students in Massachusetts can talk to one of our clinicians for free (and confidentially) — Find more here.