It’s that time of year again. Eager, young, talented, passionate, driven minds converge on law schools across Canada to begin what they hope will be a rewarding and exciting journey in the legal profession.
This cohort represents the best of the best of the undergraduate population.
They have mastered the daunting task of accumulating the stratospheric marks necessary for admission into the very exclusive club that is law school. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it isn’t.
As most who have been down this path before know, law school teaches one how to “think like a lawyer,” how to distinguish similar cases, how to effectively and succinctly advocate positions on either side of an issue and how to master subjects from contracts to constitutional law.
All of this is in service of gaining the necessary expertise to become a successful lawyer — a member of an honoured and (mostly) respected profession.
However, as study upon study has shown, the law school experience can induce significant distress in students, rendering the experience painful and often traumatizing.
In one study of law student depression, for instance, Andrew Benjamin found that at the beginning of law school, the law students he studied had the same incidence of depression as other undergraduates.
However, by the end of first year, 32% of those students now suffered with depression. As well, by the end of third year, a full 40% of those same students had the condition. It is as though law school made them sick. Other studies have confirmed these findings, in addition to documenting significantly elevated risk for anxiety and substance abuse. So, law school can be a place that builds you up and it can be a place that tears you down.
The latter, however, is not inevitable, and it can be counteracted.
The reasons that the law school experience can be painful are varied and unique to each individual. However, there are some common themes that emerge when examining the law school life.
To begin with, when the best of the best I referred to earlier — the “A” students — reach law school, who gets the C when everyone’s used to being an A?
Further, with the ever-growing law school tuition and debt burden associated thereto, the pressure to earn marks that will lead to a lucrative, debt-eradicating job correspondingly grows.
The classmates one should ideally share the law school experience with become competitors and obstacles to one’s career and financial prospects. This was true in my day when law school tuitions weren’t so oppressive, so now, the pressure is that much worse.
Law students have a habit of turning up the pressure on each other. They talk about what it takes to get a good job, what it takes to be a good lawyer and how exceedingly diligent and hardworking they are in the pursuit of that endeavour.
The problem, respectfully, is that law students have no idea what they’re talking about.
They have no experience in the practice of law and they circulate stress-inducing conjecture and rumour through this echo chamber of ambition and fear leading to well-earned anxiety, depression and worse.
Finally, while the anticipation of attending law school is flush with optimism and images of a rewarding and fascinating career, for some, law school doesn’t turn out as they had envisioned.
The truth is that some, including me, go to law school because it seems like the logical next career step, but when they get there, it doesn’t resonate.
I recall in law school often feeling that I didn’t understand concepts and hiding that self-diagnosed intelligence deficit from my colleagues out of shame and fear.
Not sharing those struggles and doubts, as well as other challenges, leads one to think that we are the only person suffering, not good or smart enough.
Everyone else in law school seems so bright and talented. “I must be the only failure in the bunch.” That myopic cognitive distortion is inherently stress-inducing.
The good news is that there are proactive ways to create an infrastructure of self-care that will carry you successfully through your law school experience.
First, make sure you sleep. Look up the term “sleep hygiene” and follow the guidelines you find.
Sufficient sleep is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Secondly, readjust your expectations. In a bell-curved world, most people in law school don’t get As.
I even heard one law student describe how she entered law school with the mantra of “Cs get you degrees” and she went on to have a rewarding, successful law school career and has since moved on to a successful life in law, all without the unnecessary burden of perfectionism.
Some other wellness ideas that work include a daily mindfulness practice, good nutrition, exercise, keeping a gratitude journal to counteract the inevitable pessimistic law student mindset and maintaining a strong, supportive and non-judgmental social network.
When your personal or professional life gets out of control or overwhelming, there are many services geared specifically to helping law students.
Law schools have become very good at supporting their students, including a few who have hired in-house clinical professionals to assist students.
And across Canada, every jurisdiction has a free, confidential lawyer assistance program that, despite the name, also supports law students with services as varied as counselling and peer support. The help exists when you need it.
And, finally, one last piece of good news. If, after everything, you come to the realization that law school is just not for you, take solace in the fact that law school isn’t the mafia: You can get out if you want to.
On the other hand, if, like most, law school is the beginning of an exciting journey of professional fulfilment, get started now building your own wellness infrastructure. It’ll serve well through law school and beyond. Congratulations to all of our new law students. Here’s wishing you a great ride.
Doron Gold is a registered social worker who’s also a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the Member Assistance Program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice. He’s available at dorongold.com.