Law school’s trauma


An interesting characteristic of the legal profession is that so many lawyers leave legal practice and/or express severe dissatisfaction with their career choice. It is widely known that practicing lawyers have a high rate of psychological distress. Some of these psychological problems may be endemic to the profession, but they originate in law school. Like other studies, Ann Iijima’s article, Lessons Learned: Legal Education and Law Student Dysfunction, indicates that “law students were within normal psychological ranges when they started law school, but became disproportionately dysfunctional soon thereafter, and experienced increasing dysfunction as they progressed through their legal education.”

Andrew H. Benjamin’s well-known and thorough study — The Role of Legal Education in Producing Psychological Distress Among Law Students and Lawyers — also found that law school causes a range of psychological symptoms, including interpersonal sensitivity, obsessive-compulsive behavior, hostility, anxiety and depression. The Paper Chase and Scott Turow’s One L fictionally depict what has been empirically established: Law school is a stressful and often traumatic experience. Aspects of the law school experience that contribute to the emotional ills of students include the stress of grades, the competitive environment, the lack of personal time and the pressure to conform to law school’s “professional” culture. In addition, law students often identify legal education’s omission of personal values as a source of distress. According to Iijima, the academic emphasis on suppressing feelings and personal opinions results in an unhealthy internal confusion.

Women are particularly susceptible to the stresses of law school. In Becoming Gentlemen: Women’s Experiences at One Ivy League Law School, Professor Lani Guinier and her coauthors found that “[T]he women students we interviewed almost universally expressed stronger and more passionate feelings of alienation and outrage than the male students…. In particular, almost all the women we interviewed described their first-year experience as a radical, painful, or repressive experience.” Studies examining why women do not perform as well as men in law school suggest that the psychological stress imposed by the law school culture contributes to the differentiation in academic performance.

Forging a positive relationship with a professor is one way to mitigate the dysfunction of law school. This necessitates that students take the initiative to talk to their professors during office hours or to talk to other professors they would like to meet. Luckily, the HLS faculty is very accessible.

Another way to maintain emotional health is by exercising regularly. According to Iijima, “[T]here is compelling evidence that exercise would help relieve most of the emotional dysfunctions that lawyers and law students suffer, including depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.” Most important, though, is maintaining a sense of self and occupying your time with activities that have personal meaning.

It is important to identify and express the initial issues that cause emotional disturbances before they escalate. Law school does not have to be a place of emotional thrashing, but preventing psychological distress requires both student and institutional concern for these issues. Dr. Mark Byers, Director of HLS’s Office of Student Life Counseling asserts, “What kind of lawyer you will be is what kind of person you will be.” For most of us, our work lives will occupy a large portion of our remaining conscious hours. While some people are comfortable compartmentalizing, for others, it is critically important that the work they choose reflects and supports their personal values. It is while we are in the Law School with its tremendous facilities and support that we should make the choices that will allow us to comfortably reconcile our work selves and ourselves more generally.

The psychological stress, feelings of alienation and pressures to involve oneself in behaviors that are both intensely competitive and detrimental to both social and psychological health are very real here at the Law School. It is critical that we as law students recognize the dangers involved with our work and become proactive in addressing them. With careful thought and dedication, it is possible to avoid at least some of the expected traumas in the life of a lawyer.

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