Why Law Schools?

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 2016 Survey of Law Student Well-Being found troublesome rates of alcohol use, anxiety, depression, and illegal drug use at law schools across the country. Equally worrisome is students’ level of reluctance to seek help for those issues. A large majority of students (about 80 percent) said that they were somewhat or very likely to seek help from a health professional for alcohol, drug, or mental health issues, but few actually did. For example, while 42 percent thought that they had needed help for mental health problems in the prior year, only about half of that group actually received counseling from a health professional. Only four percent said they had ever received counseling for alcohol or drug issues—even though a quarter were at risk for problem drinking.

The top factors that students reported as discouraging them from seeking help were concerns that it would threaten their bar admission, job, or academic status; social stigma; privacy concerns; financial reasons; belief that they could handle problems on their own; and not having enough time. Students’ general reluctance to seek help may be one factor explaining why law student wellness has not changed significantly since the last student survey in the 1990s. It appears that recommendations stemming from the 1993 survey either were not implemented or were not successful.

The Survey of Law Student Well-Being did not seek to identify the individual or contextual factors that might be contributing to students’ health problems. It is important to root out such causes to enable real change. For example, law school graduates cite heavy workload, competition, and grades as major law school stressors. Others in the legal community have offered additional insights about common law school practices, which are discussed below. Law school well-being initiatives should not be limited to detecting disorders and enhancing student resilience. They also should include identifying organizational practices that may be contributing to the problems and assessing what changes can be made to support student well-being. If legal educators ignore the impact of law school stressors, learning is likely to be suppressed and illness may be intensified.

The above reflects a need for both prevention strategies to address dysfunctional drinking and misuse of substances as well as promotion strategies that identify aspects of legal education that can be revised to support well-being. The recommendations below offer some ideas for both.

Create Best Practices for Detecting and Assisting Students Experiencing Psychological Distress

Law schools should develop best practices for creating a culture in which all associated with the school take responsibility for student well-being. Faculty and administrators play an important role in forming a school’s culture and should be encouraged to share responsibility for student well-being.

Provide Training to Faculty Members Relating to Student Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

Faculty have significant sway over students but generally students are reluctant to approach them with personal problems, especially relating to their mental health. Students’ aversion to doing so may be exacerbated by a perception that faculty members must disclose information relating to students’ competence to practice to the state bar. To help remove uncertainty and encourage students to ask for help, law schools should consider working with lawyer assistance programs on training faculty on how to detect students in trouble, how to have productive conversations with such students, what and when faculty need to report information relating to such students, as well as confidentiality surrounding these services. Students should be educated about faculty’s reporting requirements to add clarity and reduce student anxiety when interacting with faculty.

Additionally, faculty members should be encouraged to occasionally step out of their formal teaching role to convey their respect and concern for students, to acknowledge the stressors of law school, and to decrease stigma about seeking help for any health issues that arise. Faculty should consider sharing experiences in which students confronted similar issues and went on to become healthy and productive lawyers.

To support this recommendation, deans of law schools must be engaged. The well-being of future lawyers is too important to relegate to student affairs departments. For faculty to take these issues seriously, it must be clear to them that deans value the time that faculty spend learning about and addressing the needs of students outside the classroom. With the full backing of their deans, deans of students should provide training and/or information to all faculty that includes talking points that correspond to students’ likely needs—e.g., exam scores, obtaining jobs, passing the bar, accumulating financial debt, etc. Talking points should be offered only as a guideline. Faculty should be encouraged to tailor conversations to their own style, voice, and relationship with the student.

Law schools should consider inviting law student and lawyer well-being experts to speak at faculty lunches, colloquia, and workshops to enhance their knowledge of this scholarship. Such programming should include not just faculty but teaching assistants, legal writers, peer mentors, and others with leadership roles in whom law students may seek to confide. Many of these experts are members of the Association of American Law Schools section on Balance in Legal Education. Their scholarship is organized in an online bibliography divided into two topics: Humanizing the Law School Experience and Humanizing the Practice of Law.

Adopt a Uniform Attendance Policy to Detect Early Warning Signs of Students in Crisis

While law students may occasionally miss class due to personal conflicts, their repeated absence often results from deteriorating mental health. Creating a system to monitor for chronic absences can help identify students for proactive outreach. Consequently, law schools should adhere to a consistent attendance policy that includes a timely reporting requirement to the relevant law school official. Absent such a requirement, deans of students may be left with only a delayed, reactive approach.

If faculty members are reluctant to report student absences, a system can be created to ensure that a report cannot be traced to the faculty member. Several law schools have adopted “care” networks or random check-ins whereby someone can report a student as potentially needing assistance. In these programs, the identity of the person who provided the report is kept confidential.

Certain models on this issue include the American University Washington College of Law, which implements random “check-in” outreach, emailing students to visit the Student Affairs office for brief conversations. This method allows for a student about whom a concern has been raised to be folded quietly into the outreach. Georgetown Law School allows anyone concerned about a student to send an email containing only the student’s name, prompting relevant law school officials to check first with one another and then investigate to determine if a student meeting is warranted. The University of Miami School of Law uses an online protocol for a student to self-report absences in advance, thus enabling the dean of students to follow up as appropriate if personal problems are indicated.

Provide Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Resources

Law schools should identify and publicize resources so that students understand that there are resources available to help them confront stress and well-being crises. They should highlight the benefits of these resources and that students should not feel stigmatized for seeking help. One way to go about this is to have every course syllabus identify the law school’s mental health resources. The syllabus language should reflect an understanding that stressors exist. Law schools also can hold special events, forums, and conversations that coincide with national awareness days, such as mental health day and suicide prevention day.

Developing a well-being curriculum is an additional way to convey that resources are available and that the law school considers well-being a top priority. Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law has accomplished the latter with well-being workshops, mindfulness and resilience courses, and meditation sessions as part of a larger well-being curriculum.

Another noteworthy way to provide resources is to establish a program where law students can reach out to other law students who have been trained to intervene and help refer students in crisis. Touro Law School established a “Students Helping Students” program in 2010 where students volunteer to undergo training to recognize mental health problems and refer students confronting a mental health crisis.

Assess Law School Practices and Offer Faculty Education on Promoting Well-Being in the Classroom

Law school faculty are essential partners in student well-being efforts. They often exercise powerful personal influence over students, and their classroom practices contribute enormously to the overall law school experience. Whether faculty members exercise their influence to promote student well-being depends, in part, on support of the law school culture and priorities. To support their involvement, faculty members should be invited into strategic planning to develop workable ideas. Framing strategies as helping students develop into healthy lawyers who possess grit and resilience may help foster faculty buy-in. Students’ mental resilience can be viewed as a competitive advantage during their job searches and as support along their journeys as practicing lawyers toward sustainable professional and personal identities.

Educating law school faculty on how classroom practices can affect student well-being is one place to start the process of gaining faculty buy-in. For example, law professor Larry Krieger and social scientist Kennon Sheldon identified potential culprits that undercut student well-being, including hierarchical markers of worth such as comparative grading, mandatory curves, status-seeking placement practices, lack of clear and timely feedback, and teaching practices that are isolating and intimidating.

Because organizational practices so significantly influence student well-being, we recommend against focusing well-being efforts solely on detecting dysfunction and strengthening students’ mental toughness. We recommend that law schools assess their classroom and organizational practices, make modifications where possible, and offer faculty programming on supporting student well-being while continuing to uphold high standards of excellence. Harmful practices should not be defended solely on the ground that law school has always been this way. Teaching practices should be evaluated to assess whether they are necessary to the educational experience and whether evidence supports their effectiveness.

Empower Students To Help Fellow Students in Need

As noted above, students often are reluctant to seek mental health assistance from faculty members. Empowering students to assist each other can be a helpful alternative. One suggestion is to create a peer mentoring program that trains student mentors to provide support to fellow students in need. The ideal mentors would be students who are themselves in recovery. They should be certified by the local lawyer assistance program or another relevant organization and should be covered by the lawyer assistance program’s confidentiality provisions. Peer mentors should not have a direct reporting obligation to their law school dean of students. This would help ensure confidentiality in the peer mentoring relationship and would foster trust in the law school community.

Law school faculty are essential partners in student well-being efforts. They often exercise powerful personal influence over students, and their classroom practices contribute enormously to the overall law school experience. Whether faculty members exercise their influence to promote student well-being depends, in part, on support of the law school culture and priorities. To support their involvement, faculty members should be invited into strategic planning to develop workable ideas. Framing strategies as helping students develop into healthy lawyers who possess grit and resilience may help foster faculty buy-in. Students’ mental resilience can be viewed as a competitive advantage during their job searches and as support along their journeys as practicing lawyers toward sustainable professional and personal identities.

Educating law school faculty on how classroom practices can affect student well-being is one place to start the process of gaining faculty buy-in. For example, law professor Larry Krieger and social scientist Kennon Sheldon identified potential culprits that undercut student well-being, including hierarchical markers of worth such as comparative grading, mandatory curves, status-seeking placement practices, lack of clear and timely feedback, and teaching practices that are isolating and intimidating.

Because organizational practices so significantly influence student well-being, we recommend against focusing well-being efforts solely on detecting dysfunction and strengthening students’ mental toughness. We recommend that law schools assess their classroom and organizational practices, make modifications where possible, and offer faculty programming on supporting student well-being while continuing to uphold high standards of excellence. Harmful practices should not be defended solely on the ground that law school has always been this way. Teaching practices should be evaluated to assess whether they are necessary to the educational experience and whether evidence supports their effectiveness.

Include Well-Being Topics in Courses on Professional Responsibility

Mental health and substance use should play a more prominent role in courses on professional responsibility, legal ethics, or professionalism. A minimum of one class session should be dedicated to the topic of substance use and mental health issues, during which bar examiners and professional responsibility professors or their designee (such as a lawyer assistance program representative) appear side-by-side to address the issues. Until students learn from those assessing them that seeking assistance will not hurt their bar admission prospects, they will not get the help they need.

Commit Resources for Onsite Professional Counselors

Law schools should have, at a minimum, a part-time, onsite professional counselor. An onsite counselor provides easier access to students in need and sends a symbolic message to the law school community that seeking help is supported and should not be stigmatized. Although the value of such a resource to students should justify the necessary budget, law schools also could explore inexpensive or no-cost assistance from lawyer assistance programs. Other possible resources may be available from the university or private sector.

Facilitate a Confidential Recovery Network

Law schools should consider facilitating a confidential network of practicing lawyers in recovery from substance use to connect with law students in recovery. Law students are entering a new community and may assume that there are few practicing lawyers in recovery. Facilitating a confidential network will provide an additional support network to help students manage the challenges of law school and maintain health. Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is an example of a legal peer assistance group that exists in many regions that may be a confidential network source.

Provide Education Opportunities on Well-Being-Related Topics

Provide Well-Being Programming During the 1L Year

We agree with the Survey of Law Student Well-Being report’s recommendation that law schools should incorporate well-being topics into student orientation. We recommend that during 1L orientation, law schools should include information about student well-being and options for dealing with stress. Communications should convey that seeking help is the best way to optimize their studies and to ensure they graduate and move successfully into law practice. Other vulnerable times during which well-being-related programming would be particularly appropriate include the period before fall final exams, the period when students receive their first set of law school grades (usually at the start of spring semester), and the period before spring final exams. The Task Force commends Southwestern Law School’s IL “Peak Performance Program” and its goal of helping new law students de-stress, focus, and perform well in law school. This voluntary program is the type of programming that can have a transformative effect on law student well-being.

Create A Well-Being Course and Lecture Series for Students

To promote a culture of well-being, law schools should create a lecture series open to all students and a course designed to cover well-being topics in depth. Well-being has been linked to improved academic performance, and, conversely, research reflects that well-being deficits connect to impaired cognitive performance. Recent research also has found that teaching well-being skills enhances student performance on standardized tests, and improves study habits, homework submission, grades, and long-term academic success, as well as adult education attainment, health, and wealth. A well-being course can, for example, leverage research findings from positive psychology and neuroscience to explore the intersection of improved well-being, enhanced performance, and enriched professional identity development for law students and lawyers. Further knowledge of how to maintain well-being can enhance competence, diligence, and work relationships—all of which are required by the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct. The content of a well-being course could be guided by education reform recommendations. Appendix E provides content suggestions for such a course.

Discourage Alcohol-Centered Social Events

Although the overwhelming majority of law students are of legal drinking age, a law school sends a strong message when alcohol-related events are held or publicized with regularity. Students in recovery and those thinking about it may feel that the law school does not take the matter seriously and may be less likely to seek assistance or resources. A law school can minimize the alcohol provided; it can establish a policy whereby student organizations cannot use student funds for the purchase of alcohol. Events at which alcohol is not the primary focus should be encouraged and supported. Further, law school faculty should refrain from drinking alcohol at law school social events.

Conduct Anonymous Surveys Relating to Student Well-Being

Our recommendations for legal employers suggests regular assessment of lawyer well-being. That same Recommendation applies in the law school context.