Managing stress in law school and beyond
By Roger Whittler, LPC
Being a first-year law student is considered one of the most stressful times during the journey in the practice of law. The transition from undergraduate to graduate school is a challenge for all professions, although the highest levels of stress have been observed in law students as compared to psychology, medical and chemistry students. Some factors that contribute to this stress are lack of clarity, unpredictability, competitiveness and seemingly hostile environment. Faced with these factors, most law students follow one of three paths:
A. They learn to cope
B. They decide to leave school
C. They become emotional and panicky
Several researchers in the 1970s and ‘80s found that law students experience elevated stress levels due to the Socratic Method of teaching, whereby any position taken can be refuted until one is backed into a corner, leaving behind a sense of vulnerability. In 1968, Watson found the style of passive learning experienced in undergraduate to be “more aggressive and assertive in law school.”
As a clinician for the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program, I have heard law school graduates speak about the uncertainty and stress they experience as they endeavor to start a career as a lawyer. It seems there are many different career paths, choices to be made and questions regarding their own abilities. In addition, COVID-19 has suspended hiring in many areas. The ABA recently reported that law students graduate with an average debt of nearly $165,000 in loans, creating stress and restricting career options. Some graduates have reported not being able to make payments at a level to reduce the principal on their loans, leaving them afraid to make plans such as getting married and having children. Financial stress can feel like carrying a 100-pound stone on your back.
The process from beginning law school to joining the ranks of lawyers in the practice of law and beyond, is stress filled and challenging at every turn. Constant stress can indirectly increase the risk of illness by causing lawyers to engage in behaviors such as increased consumption of alcohol, decreased physical activity and decreased social engagement. Prolonged exposure to stress can contribute to a weakened immune system. The management of stress is critical for longevity and sustained attention and dedication to clients.
From a mental health standpoint, the following are tips to consider:
Self-monitor by noticing when symptoms of stress affect your life in a negative way and take action to change course. Chronic stress can lead to depression; your goal is to reverse the symptoms early.
Stay engaged with social outlets, friends, family and group activities when possible.
Stay physically active – try team sports when possible for the physical and social engagement gained.
Avoid increased consumption of alcohol or other substances to reduce stress, as they cause more stress in the long run.
Give yourself time! Most situations handle themselves over time. Our tendency to treat stressors as if they are a fast-moving freight train - coming at us at 140 MPH - is a distortion based on our survival instincts. The reality is, we have plenty of time to manage things (this does not mean procrastinate), rather, calmly take steps to resolve stressors.
Trust yourself. Belief in your own capabilities and capacity is important. Other people trust us, you should trust yourself too.
Avoid the tendency to dwell on all the problems in aggregate, making them seem insurmountable. Spend some time dwelling on successes. Prioritize what stressors are most pressing and work on them one at a time – we are often surprised when working on a stressor, eliminates other stressors, almost miraculously!
As noted above, when facing stress, most law students follow path A, B, or C. In most cases A is the correct answer, which makes these tips appropriate.
For confidential assistance managing stress, please contact the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program at 1-800-688-7859.
Cassens Wiess, Debra (2020), “Law student Debt averages about $165K at graduation, creating stress and restricting choices, survey says.” Retrieved November 3, 2020 from: https://www.abajournal.com/news/article.
Gutierrez Fernando J., (1985), Counseling Law Students, Journal of Counseling and Development, October 1985, Vol. 64, pp 34-37.
Davidson, C. D., Johnson, S. L. ET. EL. (2007) Abnormal Psychology, 10th Ed., Wiley and Sons Publishing Inc., Hoboken NJ., pp. 196.