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The Power of Kindness and Appreciation

Lessons from One Law School’s Experience Building a Gratitude Wall

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If there is one thing all law schools strive to do it is to teach their students to “think like lawyers.”  To that end, first-year law students undergo rigorous instruction in issue spotting whereby they are taught to continuously scan the horizon for risks, anticipating all conceivable threats with an eye toward safeguarding their clients’ interests.  They are also trained to be critical, scrutinizing their opponents’ arguments for any weakness or inconsistency.  While it is surely good preparation for law practice, this incessant focus on the negative can easily turn inward, tainting the way students view themselves and the world around them and hindering their happiness and overall well-being.

Fortunately, however, research indicates that law students can offset the negative thinking patterns fostered in law school by adopting practices that help them redirect their attention to the positive things in their lives.  With this in mind, and cognizant of the myriad benefits of gratitude, this year Fordham Law School celebrated “Gratitude Week” in the days leading up to Thanksgiving break.  A “Wall of Thanks” was stationed in the lobby outside the school’s largest lecture halls, and all members of the law school community were invited to post notes reflecting what they were grateful for each day.

The results can only be described as heartwarming – and not just because of the endless supply of cider and donuts served “wall-side” throughout the week.  Within minutes, what began as a barren white board was populated with notes voicing thanks for everything from “comfy sweaters” and “New York City bagels” to “my Fordham family” and “the opportunity to pursue a legal education.”  And while there was certainly a sizable set of notes commemorating the culmination of the 1L long memo assignment, it was another category of post that commandeered the largest swath of wall space:  Overwhelmingly, students responded to the prompt “Today I’m grateful for … “ by naming individuals within the Fordham Law community who they were thankful to have in their lives. 

In an industry notorious for cutthroat competition, this rainbow sea of names served as a powerful signifier of Fordham Law’s commitment to community and a reminder that, at the end of the day, it is our relationships and support systems – not the many external markers of achievement extolled in law school and the legal profession – that form the basis for enduring happiness.  As one second-year law student reflected:

Yes – law school can be really hard and competitive.  Especially at this point in the semester.  But I am grateful for the little moments that spark joy – friends who share their sandwiches when you’ve forgotten lunch; coffee dates; encouraging text messages; and lots of hugs.  Those small interactions where people acknowledge that they see you and you are loved make all the difference. 

So to all the law students out there:  As you approach the final exam period – typically regarded as the most challenging, as well as the most isolating, time of year – be sure to practice not only your issue spotting but also kindness and compassion, and to give thanks for those who have shown the same to you.  Research shows this will make you happier and healthier – and you may even find your name up on a gratitude wall!  

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