Thinking Like a Lawyer

Congratulations on beginning your legal journey. Here are two important questions to consider as you start your first year of law school: first, what are the costs of learning to think like a lawyer, and second, how can you create a meaningful career for yourself while learning to do so?

The legal community that you are joining faces serious challenges. The statistics are sobering: drinking is a problem for one out of three lawyers, and over thirty-two percent of lawyers under 30 qualify as problem drinkers.[1] A study by the American Bar Association and the Betty Ford Foundation found that 28% of lawyers struggle with depression, 19% reported experiencing anxiety, and 23% said they experience stress.

According to a National Law Journal article that quoted this study, these statistics “paint[] the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people.”[2] Although medical students and doctors also face competitive environments, high educational debt, and stress, these statistics are specific to the legal community; lawyers have the highest rate of major depressive disorder of any profession, and among the highest rates of alcoholism.[3]

So why are many lawyers unhappy to the point of turning to substances to cope with life’s problems? And what can you do as a beginning law student to ensure that your career is professionally and personally satisfying?

Consider the following; an American Bar Foundation study from the 1990s concluded that beginning law students had similar rates of mental health issues and substance abuse as the general population. By graduation, however, the proportion of law students with serious mental health and substance abuse issues had quadrupled.[4]

Anthropologist and law professor Elizabeth Mertz studied students at various law schools, and discovered that at each school, the process of teaching students to think like lawyers encouraged them to adopt a purely analytical approach, instead of relying on their moral values. This style of reasoning distanced students from their emotions and values, and as a result, students became isolated and were less likely to ask others for support.[5]

According to legal academic Stephen Wizner, the process of teaching law students to think like lawyers causes them to suppress the very “feelings and moral concerns that they brought with them to law school, and . . . brought them to law school.”[6] Wizner argues that students should learn not only how the law promotes political purposes, but also how to evaluate whether those purposes are “democratic, fair, and just.”[7]

To be clear, substance abuse and depression are serious diseases, and I am not implying that if you suffer from those diseases that it is because you have not sufficiently examined the relationship between law and morality. If you are in this situation, you need to take care of yourself and get the help that you deserve to live a full and healthy life. But as you train to become a lawyer and throughout your career, whenever you find yourself feeling stressed or starting to disregard your values, remember that you are first and foremost a human being.

Every lawyer I know studied a case that personally affected him or her during law school. The toughest, most popular guy in my section even admitted (after the consumption of a few beers) to literally being moved to tears over one such case. As your career progresses, these responses will become quite rare. It is necessary to harden ourselves to some extent to become professionals, but we need to also keep that spark of humanity and compassion alive within us.

There is no lawyer who is always happy. That would be pathological. As you progress during your legal career, give yourself the “permission to be human.”[8] If you find yourself turning to substances during your career because of the stress of your profession, take a moment and think about what it really means to think like a lawyer.

As lawyer Anne-Marie Slaughter expressed so eloquently, “thinking like a lawyer is thinking like a human being, a human being who is tolerant, sophisticated, pragmatic, critical, and engaged. It means combining passion and principle, reason and judgment.”[9] Never lose that perspective.

Learn now what it takes people their entire careers to understand. At the end of your days, you can’t take with you the money you earn, nor the luxuries you will acquire. But you will leave behind the legacy of how you live your life and the ways, for better or for worse, that you touched the lives of others. Always think like a lawyer; but an informed, moral lawyer, with intellect and values.

[1] See Karen Sloane, Drinking is a Problem for 1 in 3 Lawyers, Study Finds, The National Law Journal, (Feb. 3, 2016), http://www.nationallawjournal.com/id=1202748754010/Drinking-is-a-Problem-for-1-in-3-Lawyers-Study-Finds?slreturn=20160714194531.

[2] Id.

[3] See Susan A. Bandes, Why 1 in 3 Lawyers Are Problem Drinkers, The National Law Journal, (Feb. 29, 2016), http://www.nationallawjournal.com/id=1202750792679/Why-1-innbsp3-Lawyers-Are-Problem-Drinkers.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] See Stephen Wizner, Is Learning to Think Like a Lawyer Enough?, 17 Yale L. & Pol’y Rev. 586 (1998).

[7] Id.

[8]See Tovia Smith, Finding Happiness in a Harvard Classroom, NPR, (March 22, 20016)., http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5295168

[9] See Anne-Marie Slaughter, On Thinking Like a Lawyer, Harv. L. Today, (2002), https://www.princeton.edu/~slaughtr/Commentary/On%20Thinking%20Like%20a%20Lawyer.pdf.


The opinion here is the author’s own and does not reflect the position of the New York State Department of Health.

This piece was a part of the 2016 orientation issue. To read more, click here.

Deborah Beth Medows is a Senior Attorney in the Division of Legal Affairs at the New York State Department of Health. She can be reached at dbmedows@gmail.com.

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