Overcoming Lawyer Burnout//

Fragility or Courage? The State of Law Students Today

(This piece was originally posted on the Before the Bar Blog in May 2019.)

I had a conversation earlier this month with a former director of a state bar Lawyers Assistance Program. This person shared that during regular meetings with the LAP, administrators at law schools in the state often complained, “Students today are just so fragile.” But when law students break down, ask for help, or demand support and resources, is that fragility? Or is it something else?

Young adults have some of the fastest growing rates of Major Depression. Articles about this increase in mental health diagnoses mention high stress, social media, and isolation. Are increased diagnoses of depression only because we are more depressed than we used to be, or are we also more willing to seek help and get those diagnoses? Sure, law students today may be more depressed due to heavier workloads, unreasonable expectations, and massive student loans. But law school has always been stressful; this explains why some law school administrators consider their students to be “fragile.” I would imagine their thinking is as follows: These students just need to suck it up. Law students have been pulling all-nighters and slogging through tough topics for decades, and they turned out fine. (No, they didn’t, but…)

Law school administrators are not alone in this thinking. In fact, Dan Jones, a past president of the American College Health Association, recently stated, “Millennials don’t feel comfortable struggling. They don’t have the resilience of previous generations.”

Think about that for a second. We “don’t feel comfortable struggling.” Why do you think that might be? Are we just wimps with no backbone who don’t know the value of a hard day’s work? I argue that law students today experience higher levels of despair – and speak up about it – in part because we are painfully aware that law school doesn’t have to be this way. I argue that the problem is not that students are fragile; it is that administrators who think we are fragile resist the change that would decrease our suffering. By claiming that we are fragile, those administrators are contributing to the stigma we are fighting against.

We are not more fragile than you. We are more vocal. We have the courage to be vulnerable. We have the courage to seek help and fight for change. We see the legal profession’s toxic culture of silence and suicide, and we resist. We do not believe that suffering must be inevitable in law school for us to survive the suffering of the legal profession. Evidence suggests otherwise: lawyers who survived law schools of the past are not surviving the legal profession. If everyone in the legal profession is a martyr – killing themselves, sometimes literally, to put their clients first – no one will be left to serve those clients. The status quo is not sustainable. Law students around the country are joining together and discovering that change is possible. Perhaps some law school administrators are projecting their own fragility onto their students, because they know they could be doing more. When law students seek help, make sure that help is available to them. When law students ask for change, work with them to make things better. When law students suffer, look to the apparatus which has brought that despair.

Partnership between law school administration and law students is more than possible; it is necessary. I have partnered with administration at my own law school, the University of California, Irvine School of Law, and I am thrilled by the change I see as a result. I also know that students continue to suffer. Our work is far from over.

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