Falling Leaves and Rising Stress Levels?

Posted on Categories Legal Education, Public

The leaves are changing, the nights are cool, and there’s a nip in the air in the early mornings.  That means it’s October, which means for most law students that school has been in session for nearly two months (for most students).  It’s around this time that the 1Ls perhaps notice an increase in workload.  Now there’s not just reading and briefing for class – which may be clipping along more quickly now – but probably assignments due in their writing classes.  All along, in the background, 1Ls are hearing people talk about “getting those outlines started.”  Second years have hustled through the on-campus interview process, which seems more selective than ever, and some are working their way through call-backs.  Others are frustrated that they aren’t getting any call-backs.  And likely most 3Ls are themselves working on getting jobs, knowing with that as each day passes, they are one step closer to graduation and one step closer to having to pay back those loans.

Perhaps here is where the stress starts to kick in.

Not all stress is bad; stress often gives us the kick in the pants we need to get things done, and we can return to “normal.” But for law students, the stress can seem to be ongoing, weighing them down for weeks or maybe months.  Is there any way for law students to avoid this stress?

Yes and no.  While law students, like anyone else, cannot avoid stress altogether, they can learn to avoid letting it become the focus of their lives.

There are several sources of stress in law school, some of which are obvious and unavoidable – like a heavy workload and high debt – but others, says Professor Lawrence S. Krieger in his booklet Hidden Sources of Law School Stress:  Avoiding the Mistakes that Create Unhappy and Unprofessional Lawyers, “are so deeply embedded in the typical law school culture that you aren’t likely to be aware of them.”

Professor Krieger lists seven law school stressors:

Law school’s heavy workload.  This is an obvious and unavoidable stressor.  Legal education demands a lot of from students, but students need to make sure they keep their priorities straight.    Rest, eating well, and social time with family and friends need to be near the top of the list.  No matter how much you have to read or brief or write, if you’re tired and fueled only by caffeine or junk food, you’re not going to get it all done, or at least not done well.

False values.  As I’ve said before, the culture of law school sometimes has the tendency to set a student’s priorities, even if that’s not what the student really wanted when she decided to go to law school.  A student who came to law school to serve others in a public interest capacity suddenly decides to work in private practice at the area’s biggest law firm.  Is her choice really her own? Professor Krieger elaborates on false values by pointing out the most common fallacy among law students:  “[T]hat the road to happiness runs through the top of the class.”  That is, those who end up at the top of their class end up on law review, get their pick of plum private practice jobs at large law firms, draw six figure salaries immediately out of law school. But does this mean they are happier?

Undeniably, it is true that the better one’s grades, the more options that student has; however, those options may not automatically equal happiness and success for those students.

Professor Krieger points out that nearly two decades of research has shown that chasing after extrinsic results and rewards (high salaries, affluence, fame, and power) often leads to an unfulfilling life.

On the other hand, chasing and meeting intrinsic goals (achieving personal growth, helping others or having satisfying personal relationships) tends to make people happier.

To combat this stressor, Professor Krieger recommends shifting goals and focus.  If you decide that your goals are simply to do your best and to better your community in some small way, these are goals that are within your control and that you’re likely to achieve.

In contrast, if you need to be at the top of the class, out-perform other very intelligent students, get a certain job, etc., you will be stressed because these outwardly-focused goals are not readily within your personal control.  Such outcomes are unpredictable, and will depend on what other people do and think as least as much as on your own actions.

Remember, too, that what you do with your life is your decision.  Try to separate out  what you believe your family or friends expect of you from what you expect of you.

“Thinking Like a Lawyer.”  If there’s one thing we all agree that law school teaches students, it’s to “think like a lawyer.”  What that actually means, though, may surprise you.  The process of learning to “think like a lawyer” often means students come unmoored from their long-held values.  They may find that “It depends” is the best and truest answer they can give, whereas before law school they would have answered unequivocally, “That is not acceptable.”  “Thinking like a lawyer” is very definitely a professional skill, but it need not become a personal skill.  For more on “thinking like a lawyer,” and ways to minimize this stressor, see here.

Fear of Failure (and the Illusion of Control).  No one likes to fail, least of all students who have for at least sixteen years experienced nothing but the highest level of success in school.  Students closer to graduation may think less of failing in law school and more of failing in practice.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone.  The best we can do is to learn from those mistakes.  As quoted on a sign in a colleague’s office:  “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”

Related to failing is the illusion of control.  Most of us think we can control more than we really can (and thus avoid “bad” outcomes).  What we must learn, however, is that we cannot control what other students do; we cannot control the law; we cannot control the facts as they come to us; and we cannot control what the other parties do.  We will be less stressed if we realize sooner rather than later that our ability to control the outcome is limited.

Partying and other Distractions.  Everyone needs to unwind.  However, Professor Krieger cautions against “leav[ing] your common sense behind.”  Excessive drinking, partying, video gaming, overeating, overspending, or oversleeping (to name a few) will only add to your stress, not relieve it.  As Professor Krieger notes, such behaviors often mask other more significant concerns (like depression or, perhaps, alcoholism).  If you are using your “need to unwind from law school” as the justification for any of these behaviors, you may want to seek professional help.

Law School Debt. This is the other obvious and unavoidable stressor, but as Professor Krieger emphasizes, “be clear that debt should not drive your career choice.”  Take out only as much money as you will need to pay for school and avoid using borrowed money to pay for extravagances.  When you do have to pay back your debt, you may be able to use a graduated repayment plan, where your initial payments are lower, increasing over time.  Or you may qualify for a loan repayment assistance program, offered by many schools whose graduates go into public service jobs.  For an example, see here.

Lying.  Professor Krieger’s last stressor may be somewhat surprising.  Unfortunately, the sad truth is that there are lawyers who do lie. (How do you think all those lawyer jokes got started?)  Maybe they (or you) call it “shading” or “stretching” the facts of your billable time or of your case or even of your life, there’s a point where you know it’s neither.  As a former student of mine said, she needs to pass “The Mom Test.”  That is, she decided that she had to be able to ‘fess up to her mother anything she’s done at work.

Professor Krieger notes that lying will literally make you sick, both physically and emotionally, and can be a cause of significant stress.  Maybe “The Mom Test” works for you; maybe it doesn’t.  But find something that does work so you can avoid this stressor.

I would add one more stressor to this list:  Finding a Job.  This is probably the third obvious and, these days, unavoidable stressor.  Since 2008, particularly, it has become more and more difficult for even the highest ranking students to find a job.  I cannot promise you that upon graduation you will find the legal job of your dreams.  But you will find a job.  Very few people ever land in “the” job right off the bat anyway, so work hard and do your best at whatever it is you must do and plan how to get where you want to go.

I cannot say that as a law student I was immune from stress or even from depression.  At one point or another, I felt the weight of most of the stressors I list above, sometimes several of them simultaneously.  Even as a law professor, some of these same stressors re-emerge.  Simply being aware of them goes a long way in avoiding – or minimizing – them.  Sometimes I remember the simple saying:  This, too, shall pass.  And, eventually, it does.

For more on being a “healthy, happy lawyer,” see Judge Patrick J. Schlitz’s article.     

Cross posted at Ms. JD.

3 thoughts on “Falling Leaves and Rising Stress Levels?”

  1. Thank you for your timely post, Lisa. Stress is insidious, and it is that time of year. Being mindful of stress levels, causes, and remedies is surely useful for all of us. I want to make a suggestion, too. I am completely sincere, so I hope that the suggestion doesn’t sound silly or contrived. Enjoy this time. Even in the midst of all this stress, you are surrounded by classmates who are smart, funny, interesting, compassionate, and engaged in the world. Study together. Challenge each other. Support one another. Laugh about professors together. No matter how much you have to do, let yourself enjoy your life right now. The weather is amazing. Wisconsin sports teams are keeping us entertained. The fall colors are breathtaking. And you have a lot to do. Not ‘but you have a lot to do.’ Be well.

  2. Thank you, Professor Mazzie. This post is much needed. Balancing all of the activities related to school and the job search is difficult, but your words are reassuring.

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