Lasting Problems with Law School Culture
We as law students have recently entered into a lifelong journey in the legal profession. The journey began in our respective undergraduate programs where we considered our next path in life. With this, we did our very best to get high grades and studied tirelessly for the LSAT. We sat down for hours on end staring at a blank screen, thinking about how 1800 characters could portray who we are as individuals to strangers reading our application. We then waited in anticipation for months to see if any school was willing to accept us into their professional program – and here we are at Windsor Law. Speaking from personal experience, I had no idea what I signed up for when I accepted my offer at Windsor Law.
The purpose of this paper is to provide insight into issues surrounding mental health in law schools and in the legal profession. Throughout this paper, I will demonstrate that anxiety and depression begin in law school and it permeates into the legal profession once law students become lawyers. This can have a detrimental effect on the health of law students, and consequently, lawyers in the profession. Lawyers are perceived as superior workers incapable of failure, and those who deviate from that perfect picture are scrutinized for their perfection. Such skewed expectations regarding ‘the perfect lawyer’ grow their roots in law school and infiltrate the legal profession. The mental health concerns surrounding law students and lawyers will be discussed throughout this paper.
First, I will begin by discussing the mental health crisis that begins in Canadian law schools, including specific reasons why anxiety and depression originate in law school. Second, I will reflect on my personal experiences as I began law school and some of my experiences in law school that illuminate my own mental health problems. In doing so, I will also provide reasons for my concern that anxiety and depression do not end upon graduation – rather, it is the opposite. Next, I will discuss the current climate that legal professionals face in the wake of this mental health crisis. Case studies of lawyers throughout Canada will be provided to demonstrate how to challenge anxiety and depression in the legal profession. Finally, I will conclude by offering some possible solutions that are intended to address the mental health crisis in the legal profession. These solutions tackle issues both in law schools and in the profession as well. If we begin to tackle this issue surrounding mental health both in law school and the profession, we will be better equipped to achieve justice.
The Current Crisis of Mental Health in Law Schools
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, “one in five people in Canada experiences a mental health problem or illness.” The question then arises, are law students and lawyers more likely to be affected by mental health issues? The Law Society of Upper Canada in 2017 concluded that yes, “legal professionals may be at an even higher risk than the general population of experiencing career and life challenges and struggles with mental illness and addictions.” For law students, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) reported that “up to 40% of law students may have significant levels of depressive symptoms.” The CBA also reported that lawyers deal with depression at rates four times higher in comparison to the general population. So, what is it about being a law student or lawyer that makes them particularly vulnerable?
This intense shift away from positive motivation and goal-directed learning is particularly concerning. A single year of law school has been shown to result “in a shift in students from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation, a result contrary to the usual tendency of people to shift towards intrinsic values if any shift occurs.”
Susan Davidoff, an expert on the personality of lawyers, “synthesized the research into the following list of predominant attributes – competitiveness, need for achievement, materialism, aggression, dominance, low interest in emotions, and a thinking decision-making style”. In the same study, Daicoff identified characteristics of law students as “dominant, competitive, leadership-oriented, socially confident, extraverted, aggressive, achievement-oriented, masculine, materially motivated, logical analytical and conforming to rules”. High levels of mental distress begin in law school, and studies have shown that symptoms appear as early as two months into the study and remain well into practice.
Further data reveals additional changes that are quite troubling. In a study completed by Lawrence Krieger and Kennon Sheldon at Florida State University College of Law, the sample of law students had a shift “from strong mental health and life satisfaction measurements during initial orientation to distinctly elevated distress and depression... later in the first year and into the second year.” Research on lawyers is equally as startling. In a 1990 study by Johns Hopkins, lawyers ranked highest in major depressive disorder among 104 occupational groups. One might argue that future lawyers arrive at law school with predispositions to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, but the research demonstrates otherwise.
Lawyers begin their careers as young budding law students who enter their perspective law schools during orientation. These students come in optimistic about what is to come in the hopes of doing their best academically and making a difference in the world professionally. These same law students arrived with essentially normal psychological markers but shifted quickly to major psychological distress in the first year. However, something suddenly changes. Law students realize that this institution is built upon competition where students vie for grades higher than their classmates so they can get the greatest, highest paying jobs relative to their peers.
The theme is consistent. This theme dominates the minds of law students from the moment of their arrival. You must work hard and get the highest grades against your competition, feel good about yourself, get a suitable job, and be successful. As these goals grow larger, students become tired and anxiety replaces enthusiasm and internal satisfaction. Law students are set up for these problems to persist by an overwhelming emphasis on differentiation, self-worth, and competitive outcomes. This outcome is threatening to the mental well-being of students and subsequently, lawyers as well.
How it Affected Me – A Tale of a Young Budding Law Student
I personally felt the effects of the negative feelings that can overcome you during your law school career and potentially beyond. I initially came into law school with the mentality of “whatever happens happens, so long as you do your best”, but unfortunately that mentality did not stay with me long. I fell victim to the competitive nature that law school holds. Many people had warned about it, but I had no idea what sort of effect it would have on me until I experienced it for myself.
When the dust had settled after the first year, grades came out. I refreshed my computer for hours on end until all my grades were staring me in the face. I was happy – actually, I was ecstatic. When all was said and done, I felt a rush of relief that I had done well, and it was an exhilarating feeling. I felt this instant performance-based boost and felt like these grades were a testament to how hard I worked. I had been very hard on myself in the first year, as many of us were, but I gained this new-found confidence and feelings of security solely based on the grades I had earned. Suddenly, I felt like I was part of an elite group of students on campus. It was almost as if I felt invincible – so invincible that I narrowly set my mind to getting that illustrious job on Bay Street. These grades had value and the next natural step was to reproduce this victory and the addicting sense of relief that came along with it.
As I began the process during the OCI recruit, I felt excited and had high hopes. Everything seemed to be going perfectly. I met with partners, associates, heads of recruitment, and articling students – many of whom seemed as excited to meet me as I them. However, this was all a game that I would soon lose. My top choice called me at 5:03 pm on Call Day. The Head of Recruitment had called me to tell me what I thought was the good news – but I was wrong. She had called me to tell me I was first on the waiting list, and she would call back as soon as another student rejected their offer. She called again at 5:07 pm and I remember feeling a smile on my face when I saw the Caller ID. “I’m so sorry, but all of the students have accepted their offers. I wish there was more we could do, but we wish you the best of luck.”
I was crushed. I felt like an absolute failure – all my hard work and all the time spent doing applications, networking with lawyers, and putting my heart and soul into this recruit amounted to nothing. When I failed, the negativity was overwhelming. I lost the enthusiasm and the spark I initially felt after finishing the first year. Those feelings of satisfaction and confidence were gone. My mental health was not prepared for the aftermath of this experience. My health felt secondary to these feelings of depression, and it affected me in a way I was not equipped to handle. I didn’t talk to friends or family for days at a time, I barely slept or ate, and all I could do was sit and wonder what I did wrong.
Maybe I was aiming too high, perhaps I’m just not cut out for Bay Street like I thought I was.
Thankfully, I have amazing friends and family who would not give up on me, even though I had given up on myself. They forced me to keep trying and while I was hesitant at first, I did my best to find some confidence and try again. I am so glad that I did because I have since found myself a job. A job that I am proud to have accomplished, and one where I truly feel like I belong – Bay Street or not. But I worry that future failures are inescapable. We as humans are not perfect, and we all make mistakes. What happens if I don’t get asked back as an associate? How will I react when I lose my first case? These are some of the numerous questions I ask myself. I worry not only for myself but also for my colleagues in the profession. (MORE)
How This Issue Continues in the Legal Profession
Jerome Doraisamy, the author of The Wellness Doctrines, argues that law students and lawyers have common identifiable personality traits – (1) pessimism; (2) perfectionism; and (3) competitiveness. Each will be considered in turn. First, pessimism is defined as a tendency to interpret the causes of negative events in stable, global and internal ways”. This is in contrast to optimism, which views setbacks as temporary in nature and this distinction connects pessimism to unhappiness. Unlike other areas of study and professions, law uniquely rewards pessimism. Studies have demonstrated that students with a pessimistic or midrange explanatory style significantly outperform their optimistic peers. Law students are trained to look for flaws in arguments, but when that pessimistic view spills into the personal realm, problems can arise.
The pessimism that might be adaptive in the profession can also be a major risk factor for depression and anxiety in a lawyer’s personal life. Secondly, the thinking of a lawyer can also exacerbate mental health issues. Lawyers tend to rely on strong cognitive skills to solve problems, but when tendencies towards self-criticism, pessimism, and perfection worsen during mental illness, lawyers cannot “think” their way out. For illnesses such as anxiety and depression, the problem is that this way of thinking is evident – it becomes a never-ending trap. The very personality traits and characteristics that make lawyers good at their job are also what make them susceptible to certain mental illnesses, reluctant to seek help, and resistant to treatment. The environment that law school creates provides a breeding ground for this problem to persist in the profession.
Law school culture effectively teaches students to set aside their personal lives to the detriment of their health. This unhealthy approach prepares students for the legal profession, where colleagues compete with one another for status, recognition, and money at the expense of their personal life. Assuming that the success of students is largely defined by external rewards such as grades, external recognition, and money or opposition, these competitive goals, values, and motives will promote tension and insecurity, while minimizing satisfaction and wellbeing in the lives of both law students and lawyers. Anxiety or depression is likely to manifest in the individual because, regardless of one’s level of success, one will no longer experience internal satisfaction.
This loss of value is a serious concern and a likely source of continued loss of well-being that marks the beginning of a destructive approach shared by many lawyers. This indicates that when students graduate and enter the profession, they are significantly different people from those who arrived to begin law school. These new lawyers are more depressed, less service-oriented, and more inclined towards undesirable, superficial goals and values. Law schools breed a culture of competition and conformity. Culture in this sense is perceived as peer pressure, dominant rituals, and unspoken habits that construct and defined the behaviors and beliefs of members of the legal community. Because this culture operates at multiple levels, it creates a powerful mindset that lays the groundwork for mental anguish for a majority of students. This reinforcement of external success that ranks students against one another discourages students to develop internal measures of accomplishment.
(MORE) – you need a clean transition from this culture into the profession
The Current Climate of Mental Health Issues in the Legal Profession
Simply put, lawyers are not immune to anxiety and depression. Contrary to popular opinion, top grades and the highest salaries emphasized in law school culture do not improve the likelihood of a happy and satisfying life. In fact, it may be the exact opposite. Sociologists Ronit Dinovitzer and Jonathan Koltai found that lawyers experience a higher risk of mental illness and addiction. More specifically, private sector lawyers in big firms experience significantly more depression than those in the public sector and are lower on the income scale. Stress, burnout, and anxiety are reported as the most prevalent amongst lawyers. Mental health issues such as depression, substance abuse, and anxiety that overwhelm big-firm lawyers with the highest salaries can be attributed to the number of hours worked.
The high number of hours per week leads to a work-life imbalance that is vital for quality of life. However, these grueling hours in “big law” are often celebrated by these firms as it can be attributed to dedication to their craft. Simply put, the more a lawyer works and the more they get paid, the worse off they become mentally. This immense pressure to meet obscene billable hours is what forces lawyers to work excruciatingly long, high-stress days. As a result, lawyers may sometimes feel like they are failing in every aspect of their life – as a lawyer, as a parent, and as a friend. Dinovitzer calls this “role conflict”, where lawyers feel as though they are neglecting their personal lives for their work and neglecting their work for their personal lives.
Lawyers going through emotional distress are not likely to ask for help. The stigma against mental illness is vast in society generally, and the stigma is increased in the legal profession. Lawyers fear that their own mental health issues might demonstrate that they are inferior to their colleagues and as a result, keep their issues hidden. People living with mental health problems have reported that the experience of stigma alone can have more devastating impacts than the illness itself. Law students are trained to be thinkers, rather than feelers, which disallows them to cope well with emotional problems. The profession demands that lawyers are perfect and this professional pressure toward perfection can be personally debilitating.
Case Studies – How These Lawyers Overcame Their Demons
In the paragraphs that follow, I will provide concrete examples of legal professionals who discovered they had anxiety and depression. In doing so, I will highlight their areas of concern and how they overcame the initial stigmatization of mental health issues in the profession. I will also outline how they have tackled their anxiety and depression head-on and have shared their experiences within the legal community.
Michelle Hollins is the former president of the Canadian Bar Association and was recently appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta in 2016. When her twin daughters moved out of the house for college, Hollins began to experience symptoms of depression. At first, she was able to mask her symptoms and pretend that she was okay at work, but it got to a point where her depression would cripple her from completing her work. When she was unable to function to her full potential, friends of Hollins intervened and convinced her to get professional help. Hollins said that her previous work at the Canadian Bar Association brought her closer to many legal professionals dealing with addiction and other mental health issues that kept them from being good lawyers and happy humans. Although this is an invisible illness to many, Hollins has ensured that the legal profession continues to hear her story and despite her trepidations, she has had no repercussions for publicly sharing her experiences.
Derek LaCroix is a veteran criminal defense lawyer who understands the importance of getting help, both for his own mental health and for the success of his clients. Decades ago, LaCroix had terrible anxiety and became addicted to alcohol. Like many other lawyers, he couldn’t understand as a high achiever, why he couldn’t solve this problem himself. It took a drunken brawl to get him on the road to recovery. Although he initially went back to lawyering and excelled, he decided to use his personal experiences to give back and help lawyers in similar situations. LaCroix currently serves as the first and only executive director of BC’s Lawyer Assistance Program. With his expanded sense of self, LaCroix gives back to those in need, who in turn, support others in times of distress.
Orlando Da Silva is the former president of the Ontario Bar Association and a current Bencher candidate. During several career milestones, Da Silva recounts major episodes of depression. He never told his classmates nor did he tell his colleagues during articling at a prestigious law firm. In 2008, Da Silva attempted suicide with a bottle of sleeping pills. Even as he recovered in the hospital, he grew weary that the stigma of mental illness would destroy the career he worked so hard for. When Da Silva became bar association president in 2004, he focused his efforts on mental health as a priority, where he shared his story and provided resources to remove the stigma surrounding the issue. Orlando is now a champion for lawyers who face mental health issues and exposes the reality that no one is alone in facing mental health challenges in this demanding career.
Overall, the above three professionals provide hope to others that we are not alone in experiencing anxiety and depression in our careers. All of these individuals who have shared their stories are currently thriving in their respective roles in the legal community, despite their negative experiences. Lawyers who have experienced and recovered from mental health issues are in the best position to provide deeper understanding and support to those who may be struggling.
Taking the First Steps – A Solution
This problematic culture that begins in law schools is quite static, non-adaptive, and resistant to change, even in the face of strong pressure from positive mental health proponents. Law schools are often tethered to their traditions and because of this, they are less likely to welcome any sort of transformation. I worry that those who seek change in law schools underestimate the power of this culture of competition and conformity.
In Ontario, the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program (OLAP) works individually with approximately 1,200 people. Mental health issues – depression, anxiety, and extreme debilitating stress – account for 42 percent of the cases according to its 2010 report.
I understand that it is difficult to change the very system that has created this issue. Law schools and the legal profession are explicitly competitive in their nature. In fact, it is what makes us successful students in law school and passionate advocates for our clients.
While it is an ambitious goal, I am cognizant of the fact that the mental health crisis cannot be revamped overnight. Perhaps mitigating the effects might be beneficial in the interim. (last paragraph)