Reconciling Person with Profession

BY TREVOR GARDNER

Every profession places a unique set of demands on the minds of its practioners. Law is no different. As students step away from the workplace or an undergraduate academic setting into the arena of legal education, they often undergo a significant cultural transition. The Office of Student Life Counseling seeks to ease this transition. Dr. Mark Byers, the director of the office, and his staff, work to provide psychological support services for normal developmental issues in the law school experience.

Byers maintains that legal practitioners must continually assess the interaction between the demands of the profession and the lawyer’s sense of self.

Byers said that from the start of law school, students must learn to situate themselves within the field according to the nature of their personality, beliefs and values. The reconciliation of the personal and the professional is a problem students regularly bring to the office.

“Law deals with social constructions and strives for a kind of objectivity that feels uncomfortable when you’re first exposed to it. It almost demands that you come to terms with your personal values and your other identifications in order to figure out where you fit in the profession,” Byers said.

However, Byers identifies the most common problem among HLS students as being the question of “competence and calling.” He said that when determining future careers, high achievers generally ask, ‘What am I good at, and what am I good for?’ The question, ‘What do I enjoy doing?’ is often secondary, if considered at all.

“A lot of [students’] decision making is based on the assumption of continued competence,” Byers said. “You sometimes talk to people who say that they had the option of going to Harvard Law School or a business school and they only got into one Harvard school, so that’s the one they went to. At a certain point you run out of being good at everything and you have to decide what it’s good to be.”

Byers has also worked closely with Prof. David Wilkins to help students think through the formulation of occupational identity as a third idenity, joining community and personal identities. Students often struggle with the challenge of orchestrating the three identities, and must determine whether they are committed to making the three co-exist. According to Byers, the students best able to negotiate these various identities are those who reflect regularly on their life experience.

“[Entering law school with] almost any other experience in life gives you binocular vision. It allows you to see [the law school experience] with two different sets of eyes. The more varied your experience in life, the more varied you’re going to view legal education, the more you’re going to want to reflect upon it.”

The Office of Student Life Counseling has introduced a number of services intended to encourage such reflection. One of the office’s more recent initiatives is an event series called, “Balance in Life and Law.” The series includes yoga workshops which run through Dec. 19, taught by Brenda Fingold, formerly of Hale and Dorr. Brenda worked as a partner in the litigation department for 17 years, and then as the firm’s partner responsible for training and development.

Byers, and the office’s two other counselors, Dr. Tracy Newburgh and Dr. Sheila Statlender, each offer an area of specialization within psychology that provides benefits to the HLS community beyond individual counseling sessions. Newburgh has worked with women’s groups at the law school, and focuses on issues of women in the law, multi-cultural settings and speaking phobias. She was instrumental in bringing Renee Myers, a diversity consultant and alumnus, to work with the Black Law Students Association in assessing the classroom experience of minorities at the Law School. Her collegue, Statlender, spends much of her time educating students about the work-family balance in law school and in the legal profession generally. She serves as staff liason for the HLS Parent at Law School (PALS) organization.

The most recent research on the legal profession confirms that the Office of Student Life Counseling is critical to serving the basic needs of the law school student community. Lawyers are said to be more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than other professionals, and suffer severe emotional distress over the course of a career.

Byers said that he has encountered a wide range of responses to the law school experience, few of them being mild. “[Research data] says to me that legal education is an extreme situation in a person’s life. It may be extremely gratifying or extremely frustrating, but it is a high-demand and difficult situation. People’s reactions are predictable and there is no point in pathologizing them. Much of the psychological distress goes with the turf and it isn’t a reflection on the students’ moralities, ethics or gumption. It’s a tough place.”

The Office of Student Life Counseling is located in Pound 309.

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