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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Positive Legal Education: Flourishing Law Students And Thriving Law Schools

Debra S. Austin (Denver), Positive Legal Education: Flourishing Law Students and Thriving Law Schools:

There is a wellbeing crisis in the legal field and legal education may be the catalyst. Law students are the most dissatisfied, demoralized, and depressed of graduate student populations. The Socratic method is infamous for inducing anxiety in law students and law school grades are often determined by a single final exam at the end of a grueling semester. Law students cite competition, grades, and workload as major stressors, and if legal educators ignore their harmful impact, it will likely suppress learning and fuel illness.

Law students start law school with strong mental health and high life satisfaction measures, and within the first year of law school experience a significant increase in anxiety and depression. The impairment in wellbeing continues beyond the first year of law school and into legal practice. A recent study surveyed 12,825 lawyers and discovered that 23% of licensed, employed attorneys identify as problem drinkers, 28% experience depression, and 19% suffer from anxiety. Lawyers rank 4th in suicides among professionals and many recent lawyer suicides are linked to depression. Something bad is happening to law students and the wellbeing crisis bleeds into legal practice.

Lawyers are leaders in business, government, and the legal system, possessing the power to drive social progress, but they are not living up to that responsibility. Law school socializes students to extreme competition and punishing levels of stress which compromise both wellbeing and cognitive capacity. Lawyers shape policy, and when they are educated to believe that competitive enterprises are the most productive, they promote replicating them throughout society. Neuroscience and Positive Psychology research has established that when it comes to solving problems, cooperative endeavors outperform competitive initiatives. The American love affair with competition stifles creativity, hinders innovation, and thwarts social progress. Competition promotes antagonistic behavior, a combative mentality, and the eternal cycle of the never-ending feud, where all energies are spent on the battle with the opposition, and problems are rarely improved or solved. Progress toward a more equitable society will be enhanced when legal education entrepreneurs train lawyer leaders to be divergent thinkers whose focus is on problem-solving.

This article proposes a new field of inquiry called Positive Legal Education that leverages research findings from Positive Psychology, neuroscience, and Positive Education to inspire innovation in legal education and curate a culture of wellbeing in the legal field. Section II of this Article describes the negative impact legal education has on law student wellbeing. Section III explains neuroscience research on habit learning, knowledge acquisition, and the impact of stress on cognition. Section IV details the five Positive Psychology elements required to achieve wellbeing. Section V demonstrates how wellbeing initiatives have improved academic performance and thriving in secondary and college education. Section VI illustrates how law student knowledge-base, legal skill acquisition, and professional identity development can be enhanced with discipline-specific growth mindset and self-efficacy training, and the shift from the grade curve to competency-based grading. Section VII depicts how lawyers can become transformational leaders. Section VIII covers four practices lawyers can undertake to deal with the harmful effects of stress. The article concludes with recommendations for scholars and legal education entrepreneurs who want to transform legal education.

Legal Education, Scholarship | Permalink


This is all stuff and nonsense; the wage premium fellow very clearly stated that mental state in law school is strictly a matter of genetic predisposition to depression or happiness (kinda like Charles Murray's arguments in the Bell Curve: genetics always, environmental factors never because reasons). TaxProf covered it. Never mind that myriad studies have concluded that only about 40% of depression is genetically-linked, and about 50% for happiness. Didn't stop him from typing, and I quote, "[w]e probably should not assume law school affects happiness very much."

As for lawyers becoming "transformative leaders," well, it would help if more than 55% to 60% of law school graduates could become lawyers in the first place, wouldn't it?

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Mar 16, 2017 12:15:27 PM

Linking the post and the comment: maybe it's good that law school is so stressful that 40 to 45% of graduates decide that a stressful job like being a lawyer is not for them and they should get another kind of job.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Mar 17, 2017 7:08:52 AM

I might add that one of the most important things to get across to PhD students in my own field of economics is that if they hate studying economist 100% of the time and hate trying to write a dissertation, they should drop out and do something that will at least pay them well for doing work they dislike.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Mar 17, 2017 7:11:21 AM


The depression rate for working lawyers remains stubbornly around the 40% mark, regardless of the large plurality of law school grads who lose the game of musical chairs.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Mar 17, 2017 9:10:05 AM

Last time I checked "happiness" and clinical depression were two different things.

There are no studies showing that when one identical twin goes to law school and the other doesn't, the one who goes to law school ends up depressed while the other twin has a fine and dandy life.

That "40% genetic" figure taken out of context really doesn't mean anything about law school.

There's a famous story about psychiatrists having higher rates of mental illness than other doctors. Except the psychiatrists in the military, who were specifically assigned to be psychiatrists and didn't get to choose their specialty.

It turns out that people who have mental illness are interested in mental illness and opt into psychiatry if given a choice. It was all selection and had nothing to do with the job of being a psychiatrist.

I wouldn't be surprised if people who are prone to anxiety and other mental problems opt into a profession where their job is either to anticipate everything that might go wrong (and try to contract around it) or to argue with people.

And until someone solves the obvious selection problems, we just won't know.

Posted by: Psychology | Mar 17, 2017 4:13:22 PM

55 pages and nary a mention of the biggest stress- and anxiety-producer: the six-figure mountain of debt that most law students will never be able to pay their way out of.

Posted by: Old Ruster | Mar 17, 2017 5:25:41 PM

Of course there are no studies showing a selection bias or genetic predisposition to depression among law school students, either. Just another bit of *correlation MUST BE causation* expert social science reasoning. As for happiness v. depression, well, "[Dr. Laura] Kubzansky [PhD, MPH, Co-Director of Harvard's Center for Health and Happiness - say, isn't that where the professor we are discussing got his undergrad degree in, er, economics?] concedes that psychological states such as anxiety or depression—or happiness and optimism—are forged by both nature and nurture. “They are 40–50 percent heritable, which means you may be born with the genetic predisposition. But this also suggests there is a lot of room to maneuver.”"

And your uncited example of folk predisposed to depression self-selecting into psychiatry has squat all to do with the other group of folk who apply to law school - not to mention that the law school applicant group has been experiencing rapid change of late as schools desperate to make payroll now accept anyone with a pulse. But since going to law school is an act of free will, saying that people who do voluntarily matriculate are 3x to 5x more predisposed to depression than the general adult population (8% versus 28% to 40%, depending on the study) creates a powerful incentive for 0L's... to remain 0L's. Good job marketing, that.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Mar 18, 2017 10:56:58 PM