TaxProf Blog

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Key To Law Student Well-Being? We Have To Love Our Law Students

David B. Jaffe (American), The Key to Law Student Well-Being? We Have to Love Our Law Students:

Anyone paying attention has moved well beyond guesswork regarding the health of our law students. A recent survey focusing on law student well-being reflects, inter alia, that students are drinking excessively, are taking drugs not prescribed to them, and are expressing high rates of depression and/or anxiety. Another landmark study refutes earlier notions that these issues befall attorneys as they age, suggesting instead that younger attorneys are suffering in greater numbers, which in turn reflects a closer proximity to a lawyer’s time in law school and underscores the importance of addressing these issues at an earlier time. Law school deans of students report increasing meetings and counseling of students (a good sign), which may reflect a coming of age of students who were diagnosed with a mental health issue or substance use disorder, as well as a greater self-awareness and desire for self-care than previously witnessed. However, these students are not seeking professional help for their issues in the numbers that would be anticipated. Unfortunately, after acknowledging that something more should be done to help these students, those who are able to make a difference often return to their own tasks and responsibilities, assuming someone else will address the myriad problems.

This article is an effort to close the gap in the care provided to law students. A National Task Force, convened to focus on well-being in the legal profession, developed a series of recommendations for critical stakeholders. Underscoring the recommendations, the Report is a “call to action” at a critical juncture for those in the legal profession. This article focuses on the greater attention needed in law schools, offering concrete suggestions to take each of us beyond merely agreeing that more needs to be done to making a commitment to action. The article is thus divided into sections in an effort to address the many stakeholders who can play a role in taking better care of our students.

After counseling thousands of law students, many of whom came forward only when in crisis and thus with reduced opportunities to help at the law school’s disposal, I suggest that the time for strengthened approaches is upon us. Together we can make a significant difference in the lives of our law students; we have to start by loving them.

The Dean’s role is critical to the success of almost every suggestion provided here. The Dean must establish the policy if it does not exist, or modify the policy if it is not addressing the needs of the school. Perhaps above all, however, the Dean must decide if well-being is to be among the mandates of governance. The Dean is the face of the law school and as such should be modeling what well-being looks like at the institution. The traditional prongs for assessment of law faculty — teaching, scholarship, and service — do not cater to the substantial needs raised in this article, perhaps because the needs are less traditional, and perhaps because they are less quantifiable. Whether choosing to expand on “service” to include regular non-classroom dedication to one’s students, or to expand the prongs in a similar vein, the Dean is charged with making this work.

Start with an assessment. This article is a template from which to consider where a law school’s contributions fall short and how one might change them. It also offers a  to be used by the dean of students or designated official as a presentation to the faculty. When running through the presentation, pause to poll the faculty on what they believe is already implemented at the school; it may be surprising to learn what the faculty does and does not know about what the law school is (and is not) providing. This can be an instructive moment to discuss the importance of these issues and the support needed for effective implementation.

The Dean also should lead by example, such as by attending mindfulness sessions or other wellness programming when available. If teaching, the Dean should be sure to communicate in his or her own way the importance of the human element and of the well-being of the students, and find every opportunity — through internal meetings and with alumni — to support the efforts and extol the virtues of those who are taking the necessary steps in this area. Expressions of well-being and related actions are still considered to be “soft” in some circles, but those circles are reducing in size every day. Of significance to law schools, students are arriving with greater general selfawareness inclusive of diagnosed or recognizable issues; as a result, they in turn expect more of us each year. Deans should ensure that they are not falling behind in seeing to the needs of caring for their students. ...

Most faculty members are passionate about their teaching or their scholarship, and often both. This passion is only heightened when students engage and challenge them in the classroom and during their office hours. But not all students are immediately up to this level of engagement, for a number of reasons. Some are struggling with the issues being discussed in this article. Others are adjusting to being the first in their family to have reached this level of education, to accommodations for learning or physical disabilities, or to seeing grades they have never before received. Still other students are challenged by having an introverted personality at a time when the opposite is being sought,16 and/or simply by the new pace, language, and environment. These students often feel isolated and have an even harder time managing the personal issues they may have. Simultaneously, many faculty members are not trained in the art of engaging students beyond the Socratic method, bringing the imposition of personal conversations for both parties more sharply into focus.

Faculty members can change these dynamics to improve the student experience. They might start small but powerfully by engaging students in the classroom on a personal level on a regular basis. Faculty can consider inviting students at the start of the semester to share anything they would like the faculty member to know. Doing so opens the “door of humanity” right from the outset and lets students know faculty members care. Periodically throughout the semester, professors might spend a few minutes at the start or end of a class asking how students are; they may learn of a major assignment students are facing of which their other professors were unaware, or even of some issue among students that is causing levels of distress or disconnect. Engaging students at this (or any) time shows a professor’s human side, which students will appreciate, and which may not come through as readily when a class appears focused solely on traditional case analysis. Faculty should be cognizant of and acknowledge competing demands on the students during peak times, such as for their 1L writing assignments, moot court competitions, etc. Faculty members can let students know that some stress is normal and even okay, since it can spur an individual to action versus inaction. A faculty member who is willing to take this to a second level might set aside two minutes at the start of each class for meditation or some simple breathing exercises; faculty members who do this will be amazed at how much more attentive their students will be and at how much renewed energy students will have to engage with the faculty member. All told, faculty who let their students know that they care about them will, in turn, earn enhanced respect from students. At a time when faculty members lament their classrooms being occupied by students seemingly more interested in A’s or their phones and social media, the opportunity to find ways to engage students is a win-win. ...

Admissions ...
Orientation ...
Attendance ...
Peers ...
Counseling ...
Alcohol ...
Alumni ...

A Final Word
The foregoing is not intended as an a la carte menu of options. A law school dedicated to its students will make an effort on all fronts. The ABA may wish to consider adding to its accreditation standards a proper assessment of the well-being resources provided and actions taken by every law school rather than waiting for voluntary implementation. Other stakeholders such as boards of bar examiners should continue to review and revise their character and fitness questionnaires to avoid the chilling effect that invasive questions around mental health and substance use have on students seeking help while in law school. Together, greater expressions of love to our students and attention to their wellness and mental health can only result in these individuals experiencing more healthy and productive lives in law school and in the profession.

I am fairly certain that no student has accused his or her law school of caring too much. Perhaps it is time we changed that. ...

(Hat Tip: ABA Journal.)

Legal Education | Permalink


Obligatory reminder that the million dollar fellow thinks all law school depression & happiness a mere consequence of genetic predisposition and therefore law schools shouldn't do anything.

"But an increasing number of psychological studies suggest that happiness causes success (here and here). Happiness often precedes and predicts success, and happiness appears to be strongly influenced by genetic factors.... This does not mean that people who are unhappy are to blame for their unhappiness, any more than people who are born with disabilities are to blame for being deaf or blind.
But it does raise serious questions about whether studies of law graduates’ levels of happiness are measuring causation or selection. We would not assume that differences between the height of law graduates and the rest of the population were caused by law school attendance, and we probably should not assume that law school affects happiness very much either."

Note: virtually every study by people with actual training in this field* has found that genetic predisposition is only about 40% of the puzzle. This includes Laura Kubzansky, PhD, MPH, and the codirector of Harvard's Center for Health and Happiness, Harvard being the institution where Mr. Million went to undergrad and law school: "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.”"

So if we take into account that both entering law students and the general population have a roughly 8% depression rate and accept the mainstream conclusion that depression is only 40% inheritable / genetic among all adults, that means that about 3.2% of these groups have the genetic predisposition. But by the third year of law school, depression rises to 40%, and Mike wants us to believe that every one of those cases is because genetics (because it could never be about the law school environment, of course!). 40 is 1,150% greater than 3.2, so in effect we are being asked to believe, on the basis of ipse dixit, that the 35k to 40k law school matriculants each year are 1,150% more likely to have a genetic predisposition to depression than the general public. Seems plausible!

*I know, I know, law professors are smarterer than all sorts of real doctors and scientists and PhDs and stuff, forgive me for ever believing otherwise.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Feb 21, 2018 1:18:01 PM