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Mental Health in the Legal Profession: Law Students

General

Law school is no walk in the park and that is reflected in the universal experience of law students. The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) describes law school as "challenging" as well as "an intense, competitive environment." An overview of LSAC's discussion about first-year curriculum and extracurricular activities can be found here.

Throughout law school, students will face a variety of struggles as a result of exams, law review assignments, moot court and mock trial competitions, and other activities. The various factors within the law school experience greatly impact mental health, often in a negative way.

Shocking Statistics

For more information about the survey these statistics came from, see the ABA report here.

Causes

The overall law school experience is a stressful one. Sources of stress include, but are not limited to:

  • Deadlines for assignments
  • Examinations
  • Extracurricular activities (moot court, mock trial, law review, etc.)
  • Fear of failure
  • Worry about the future
  • Sexism
  • Lack of diversity

Further exploration of these stressors, as well as statistics on how a student's Myers-Briggs Type Indicator correlates to drop-out rates and grade point average, see Nancy J. Soonpaa, Stress in Law Students: A Comparative Study of First-Year, Second-Year, and Third-Year Students, 36 CONN. L. REV. 353 (2004) (available on HeinOnline).

For a more in-depth discussion of the various factors that cause and increase law school stress, see Lawrence Krieger, The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress: Avoiding the Mistakes That Create Unhappy and Unprofessional Lawyers (2015). This book is available for purchase on Amazon here.

Character & Fitness

Mental health issues can continue to worsen without proper diagnosis and treatment. Although law students are often encouraged to seek counseling from school services or professionals, there is one key factor that prevents many students from seeking help: Certification of Fitness. Before being admitted to their state's bar, law students must obtain a Character & Fitness Certification, which states that the student is fit to practice law. Because students must disclose mental health diagnoses and any aspect of their lives that may impact their ability to practice law, law students may avoid seeking help that would reflect professional diagnoses. A court in New York is considering dropping that question for certification (read more here).

For further discussion of why these questions should be dropped and how other states are addressing this issue, see Kristen Clow, Mental Health and the Character and Fitness Examination: The Tide Is Shifting, 95 N.D. L. REV. 327 (2020) (available on HeinOnline).

More detailed information about Character and Fitness Evaluations can be found in the following American Bar Association (ABA) book:

Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2021 (Claire Guback & Judith Ann Gundersen, eds., 2021) (available for purchase on the ABA website here and also available in the law library's collection).

Manifestations

One member writing for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, the only lawyer assistance program in Massachusetts, suggested that law students ask themselves the following questions:

  • Are you sleeping poorly or not enough?
  • Is your nutrition suffering either because you’re grabbing junk food or your appetite has diminished?
  • Does your daily and weekly life seem to be devoid of gratification?
  • Are you barely able to drag yourself out of bed in the morning?
  • Are you missing classes and isolating yourself from peers and professors?
  • Are you often immobilized by anxiety?
  • Do you no longer enjoy law school and other things in life that you used to find pleasurable?
  • Do you find yourself yearning each day for the time when you’ll be able to drink or get high?
  • Are you feeling distant from those you care about?

Rachel Casper, The Full Weight of Law School: Stress on Law Students is Different, Law. Well-Being & Mental Health: Mass. LAP Blog (Jan. 18, 2019), https://www.lclma.org/2019/01/18/the-full-weight-of-law-school-stress-on-law-students-is-different/ [https://perma.cc/3K9M-7Q9Q].

All of these questions, if answered in the affirmative, indicate mental health and substance abuse issues. There are other common manifestations of stress as mentioned in the "Attorneys" tab of this LibGuide, but the questions mentioned here are specific to law students and thus important for identifying issues in that environment.

Gender, Racial, and LGBTQ+ Discrimination

The legal profession is not nearly as diverse as it should be. This fact can leave many women, BIPOC, and members of the LGBTQ+ community feeling isolated. In addition, there are often many microaggressions that are made in both law school and workplaces. For more information about these struggles, see the following resources:

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