Legal Writing Matters: Coping with Law School Stress

Joan Rocklin is a legal writing professor at the University of Oregon.  She is a co-author of two text books, A Lawyer Writes and An Advocate Persuades, and she is the 2015 recipient of the Orlando J. Hollis Teaching Award.

If you are a law student and you feel stressed, you are not alone.

More than twenty years ago, I was a 1L. By the end of my first semester I found myself having difficulty sleeping and difficulty eating. Sometimes, for good measure, I threw in a round of tears. I had slid into a depression, but having never before suffered from depression, I didn’t realize it.

Although many students will graduate from law school without any ill effects on their mental health, many of us will suffer from the stress of law school. So that you are better prepared for the effect of law school on your mental health than I was, I am sharing with you what I wish I had known then.

You’re not alone. Although law students begin their legal education with normal mental health, by the end of their first semester, 27% of students report symptoms of depression. By the end of their second semester, that number rises to 34%. And by the end of their third year, 40% of law students will report symptoms of depression. In the rest of the population, only 3 to 9% of people report symptoms of depression.

The causes. Stress can accumulate in a person’s body and, over time, morph into depression or anxiety. Some of the stresses of law school are well known: high workloads, “cold calling,” high-stakes final exams, no feedback about how you are doing, and a high debt-load all inject stress into the law student’s blood stream.

Law school also has a way of stripping from us large chunks of who we are. We believe that “I am only as good as my grade and class rank” or “I must be at the top of my class to be successful.” Whether we are compassionate, funny, creative, diligent, loyal, or caring seems to become irrelevant. Instead, we learn that all that matters is our ability to “think like a lawyer.” In law school, we can lose whole swathes of ourselves, and that can be devastating.

As a result, you may notice that you don’t feel like your usual self, but it might not be obvious what the problem is. So, first, you need to recognize the symptoms that signal you are struggling with depression or anxiety.

The symptoms. Although each person is different, you might experience one or more of the symptoms1:

      • Diminished interest or pleasure in most activities.

      • Significant weight loss or weight gain; loss of appetite.

      • Agitation or difficulty sleeping.

      • Fatigue or wanting to sleep all the time.

      • Feeling sad persistently; crying.

      • Persistent feelings of worthlessness or guilt.

      • Diminished ability to think or focus; indecisiveness.

      • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

At bottom, be alert for unusual changes in your disposition.

Making changes. If you notice any of these symptoms—or better yet, before you notice these symptoms—you can take steps to protect yourself from law school stress.

First, you should know this: Those things that we focus on in law school—grades, class rank, whether we made law review, whether we are being interviewed for high paying jobs—have little to no correlation with whether you will be happy. A study of 6,200 lawyers proves it.2 In fact, that study found that the group of lawyers with the lowest grades in law school and the lowest income—public service lawyers—tended to be happier than those in the most prestigious positions and with the highest grades and incomes.

In other words, focus on learning the skills and finding a job that will be meaningful and satisfying to you. Low grades? Don’t let that stop you. Over more than a decade, I have watched law students progress through school. Half of them were in the bottom half of their class. Those students got externships. They got summer jobs. Then they graduated and became successful, happy lawyers. Through academic, extra-curricular, and professional experiences, they developed skills and made connections that helped them find jobs that were right for them.

At bottom, focus on what’s meaningful or satisfying to you.

As you’re figuring out the life that will work best for you, remember this: Successful lawyers rely on many strengths that go beyond “thinking like a lawyer.” Look, for example, at this list of the skills lawyers need 3 or this list4. Lawyers need people skills, communication skills, project-management skills, resilience, and integrity. If you haven’t done so already, take your own strengths inventory. You can find one here.5 Another study6 shows that if you use your strengths on a regular basis, you are more likely to be happy in law school. So, don’t let law school tell you that only one kind of skill matters. It’s not true. Remind yourself of the many skills you have, and use them on a regular basis.

Exercise regularly. It relieves stress.7

Finally, if you think you might be suffering from depression or anxiety, consider calling your school’s health center. Often, it provides free mental health services. If your school does not offer mental health services, consider calling your state bar. Many state bars offer lawyers mental health services, and those services are usually also available to law students.

Law school is not easy, but you can forge a path that’s right for you. Follow that path.