Law school too hard? Why the struggle could be a good one

Studying law can be confronting and can lead some students to depression or anxiety. But what can be done about it? Law school graduate image from www.shutterstock.com

As law teachers, we have plenty of hopes for our students. Upon graduating, we want them to have a good grounding in legal knowledge and to be creative thinkers.

We also hope they will come out of law school with good mental health and wellbeing. Unfortunately for many law students we know that starting their studies is the first step towards a downward psychological spiral.

In a discipline where students are implicitly promised status, success and power, our goal is to make students’ experience of legal education grounded in meaning, purpose and values. For law students to be psychologically healthy, engaged and motivated, they need to embrace the idea of struggle and change.

Law schools and mental health

Law school is a challenging time. It is – like the beginning of university for most students – a time of significant personal change.

In 2009, we began to study the psychological wellbeing of law students at ANU, prompted by decades of American literature which had belatedly been recognised as relevant to Australia.

Our surveys revealed that students entered law school as psychologically healthy people with positive expectations. They expected law study to be intellectually interesting; to help people with their legal learning; and that law school would sharpen their personal values.

The results also showed that students, on average, entered law school with very few symptoms of depression. They were less distressed than the average young Australian, even if they were slightly anxious about commencing their studies.

By the end of the first year however, their levels of depressive symptoms were substantially higher not only when compared to new students, but also significantly higher than their peers in the community.

After a year in law school, around one-third of students in our study had levels of psychological distress which would likely have caused substantial impairment to their studies, relationships, work and everyday life.

These results aren’t good. But we’re still trying to find out whether law school students have particularly high levels of psychological distress, or if this is something common to university students in general.

Looking ahead

There’s no reason to give up on law study just yet. There’s still plenty to be optimistic about, even despite our research findings and other Australian studies.

Law schools attract and graduate highly intelligent, motivated and passionate people. The majority of students stay psychologically healthy and go on to do good work in their post law-school lives. Most law students we surveyed were motivated to study law by their personal desire to do “good in the world” and to see social justice increase.

We need to “humanise” legal education through building positive relationships and nurturing positive emotions, but we also can’t ignore the reality. The study of law is a survey of the worst, most traumatic, painful, violent, shameful and inexplicable aspects of life. The legal outcomes of the cases are often contrary to intuitive notions of justice and fairness.

Students are often taught from day one to separate law from justice, and to approach each problem with dispassionate analytic skills.

But this kind of forced emotional detachment is wrong – the experience of distress is appropriate in certain circumstances. Sadness, disgust or anger can and probably should be felt in the face of gross injustice. Negative emotions and experiences are an unavoidable part of the study and practice of law.

We can’t eliminate such experiences, but we need to create ways in which they can be mindfully acknowledged and responded to.

To be clear, we do not want to attempt to rationalise away or justify any harmful aspects of the teaching of law and in the culture of law schools. Instead, we want to do precisely the opposite: to name struggles when and where they occur – whether they are inside or outside the classroom, in the study of law or in the law itself.

Fight the good fight

Law can be distressing, but the law is also predicated on change. We want students to feel that transforming the status quo is possible.

A good struggle is one that is motivated by purpose and meaning. Students only have to look to the careers of any number of inspirational lawyers whose lives are worth emulating. Mahatma Gandhi, Alan Dershowitz, Sir Thomas More, Thurgood Marshall, Nelson Mandela, Michael Kirby and many others, are among the lawyers who made significant sacrifices to support and revolutionise the law and their country’s judicial system.

For us, US lawyer Jack Greenberg is a stellar role model. Over three decades, Greenberg played a key role in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund, handling cases about school desegregation, equal employment, fair housing, voter registration and the death penalty. He argued 40 cases to the US Supreme Court, including as co-counsel in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education.

Of course, Greenberg, like most lawyers, had his share of dismay and disappointments. But he always kept a steady focus on his values and the purpose of his work as a lawyer.

In contrast, we know that up to a quarter of our students start law school without a strong sense of why they are there. We need to help students articulate their own motivations and teach in a way that acknowledges the full range of emotions involved in studying law.

Law study, and the law itself, will always be a struggle, but surely we can do something to ensure that the struggle is meaningful.