Consistent Stress—Unpredictable Consequences

Over coffee, books opened and stacked in front of me, I sit chatting with two of my classmates. While we had all arrived to Eckstein an hour before class to discuss an assignment, we quickly concurred that we just needed a break and instead used the hour to unwind and share how our days had been.

Within that conversation, it became clear that not only were we stressed, but we had become stressed about our level of stress. Our sources of stress varied from our school work, extra-curricular activities, families, relationships, over-scheduled calendars, health, futures, jobs, as well as finances. In each realm, we were all trying to do our best to keep all the balls up in the air–not just off the ground, but high in the sky.

Blogging about stress, even as it relates to law school, is not breaking news. But in the midst of exam preparations, I am stopping to ask myself, “Why are we not as dedicated to our well-being as we are to being law students?”

Instead of framing our success and status by our identity as law students and lawyers, worried about grades, extra-curricular activities, victories and billing hours, we should seek to balance this one dimension of our lives with all the other elements that we push to the back burner. Building a balanced life requires making a conscientious choices, and the consequence of not doing so can be self-defeating and counterproductive.

In speaking with fellow students, I have found empathy for this stressful state and also healthy mechanisms for coping. Isabelle Faust, a part-time 1L in her second year of the program, noted that when she is stressed, she feels twitchy, anxious and as though she cannot control anything because it is all moving too fast. These are only some manifestations of stress. Other indicators include: insomnia, lack of concentration, irritability, over-consumption, ulcers, and high blood pressure, among other unpleasantness.

Trace Hummel, a 2L, noted, “I would not say there are any big barriers to reducing stress, but if there are, they are internal. I have been raised to perform at the highest level I can, and add pressure upon myself to do well. . . .Our egos can be the biggest roadblock we as individuals have and sometimes we have to let go of them to help ourselves out.”

Hummel also noted that stress can be a good motivator, but that it has to be focused by our vision of who we want to be. One suggestion he encourages is talking to others about our stress as a mechanism for cooping. This certainly can provide some relief, as I experienced with my two classmates. I will note here that the MU Counseling Center, which serves law students as well as undergraduates, is an excellent resource for discussing your stress as well as considering solutions.

Finally, like me, Gabriella Binion finds balancing her second year of law school with a job stressful at times, but she identified means to reducing her stress. She stated, “In terms of work, I try not to be afraid to ask for time off to focus on school – especially around finals time. I also try to take time for myself each week in order to better manage my stress.”

For Faust, managing stress means running and spending time with friends outside of school. Hummel makes sure that he does something unrelated to school before he goes to bed, like watching 30 minutes of TV, to take his mind off things.

These are all good short-term solutions to stress, however, one must consider the long-term solutions as well. We, as law students, tend to just to accept that the field we have selected is supposed to be this way and respond by holding ourselves to unattainable expectations. But what we do not consider is the toll this stress takes on us and how it becomes a learned pattern of behavior that follows us after graduation when we go to work.

I am writing today to not only raise awareness about the harmful and long-term impact stress can have and to advocate for striking a balance, but also to hold myself accountable to this pledge and challenge you to join me.

It may be a small change you make at first, such as I will no longer drink energy drinks or I will drink only one cup of coffee a day. Slowly these modified behaviors can evolve into bigger changes, like finding time to use the gym (it is right there on the fourth floor–clearly a resource that was deemed valuable by those who designed our school), saying no to yet another resume-building activity, or leaving the office on-time. Once this is our learned pattern, we can move towards a more balanced life with a little less stress and become healthier as well as more completely present in our multi-faceted lives.

If you agree that you need to reduce your stress and can commit to making one change, please comment on this blog post, and if you are willing, share your stress-reduction goal. Together, we can, and should, support each other towards personal wellness, balance, and healthy habits now and in the future.

Taking my own advice in this call to action, I sign-off as the student blogger for March, knocking one responsibility off my to-do list and already moving in the right direction.

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Unpredictable March Madness and the Law

This past weekend sixty-four teams played a total of fifty-two basketball games. Games are broadcast over four different television networks, and tens of millions of eyes remain glued to T.V. sets across the country — soaking up each buzzer-beating shot and Cinderella story. Just as unpredictable as the outcome of each tournament game is the result of a case pending against the NCAA, the entity that profits enormously from the nation’s fixation with March Madness.

O’Bannon v. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), an antitrust class-action lawsuit, seeks to require the NCAA, and other enterprises who benefit from college-athletes’ images and popularity, to pay the players. This potential change in rules could shift these basketball and football stars from amateur to professional athletes. This change would significantly alter the landscape of collegiate sports.

Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball star, along with other former college athletes, filed suit in July 2009. The original defendants included the NCAA, the Collegiate Licensing Company, and Electronic Arts (best known for EA Sports). The latter two settled for $40 million. Last August, federal judge Claudia Wilken ruled in favor of the players, holding that not paying athletes for the commercial use of their likeness and image was a violation of antitrust laws. The NCAA’s appeal is being heard this month by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

This is a divisive issue that has passionate proponents on both sides. There are people in favor of paying college athletes and many that are opposed. In either case, one thing is certain: this March, there is much more than tournament brackets on the line.

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Pi and the Law: What Is Constant and What Is Not

pi_day_pieTomorrow is Pi Day. In fact, it is the ultimate Pi Day given that Saturday’s date is 3.14.15. Enjoy a delicious piece of apple pie at 9:26.53 and you’ve taken the festivities about as far as you can hope to. Mathematicians, on the other hand, have carried this irrational national number out to over a trillion decimal places and determined that pi is a transcendental number (it cannot be expressed by any finite series or arithmetical or algebraic operation). Conceptually, pi symbolizes the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is constant, and perhaps that is what we should celebrate most.

There are few things in today’s world that are constant. One could argue that things today change at greater speed than ever before in history. Invention drives change–whether it is a new technology, process, or connection. In particular, scientific discoveries advance change, yet these discoveries rely on unwavering empirical laws and principles.

We, as lawyers, do not have the luxury of such a solid foundation. That is, our field depends on laws that are always changing—if not in form, then in interpretation. We must be nimble, able to change our theory as facts of the case are revealed, as new laws are passed, as politics and technology change, as the jury is selected, or as the judiciary announces a decision. There is no mathematical equation that provides a determinative estimation despite all the rules, codes and regulations that we study. And the closest thing to a constant that we have is the Constitution, which we all know has been interpreted differently over time.

This variability may provide the flexibility society needs to evolve while maintaining order. However, for some individuals, this lack of predictability can make life chaotic and tumultuous.

For example, consider immigration law. This field continues to evolve and change rapidly with new political leaders and bickering legislatures. While the law is trying to adapt to the changing landscape of the United States, individuals’ lives, plans, and goals linger.

Through my experiences with the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic and my work as a study abroad coordinator in the Office of International Education, I have seen this phenomenon first hand. For instance, I work with students who want to study abroad as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. While the law currently provides a process to gain permission to leave and re-enter the country, they are not guaranteed the right to re-enter even having obtained permission. Further, with upcoming elections looming, it is uncertain if DACA will remain an option for students. Needless to say, under such a cloud of uncertainty, their ability to focus on their academic pursuits, including studying abroad, becomes seriously compromised.

Uncertainty can also arise from how the law is applied by judges. Take for example asylum cases. Despite having a very narrow and defined standard, judges apply it very differently when granting or not granting this status. During a talk by Dr. Noelle Brigden last fall, this chart was shown. I was shocked by the disparity in case decisions. Some judges seldom granted asylum, yet others almost always granted this status. How can that be justified by law? I find it troubling that a person’s fate may rest not on the merits and needs of immigrating to the U.S. but rather on who is sitting on the bench.

As a law student, I continue to better grasp how the law and its practice equate to consistent justice. As the government becomes increasingly polarized, technology advances, the economy fluctuates, and the law morphs, today I take solace in celebrating pi, Archimedes’ irrational constant, with a piece of my favorite, homemade, and very transcendental, chocolate pie. Bon appetit!

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