Storm Cloud Law Students, Psychological Distress in Law Students, Part II

A Word Cloud reveals the stress and anxiety of 1Ls.

A Word Cloud reveals the stress and anxiety of 1Ls.

This is Part II of an exploration of psychological distress in law students. Part I explored empirical research showing the extent to which law students suffer from psychological dysfunction such as anxiety and depression. This part highlights a couple of non-scientific indicators of the problem.

Mid-semester, I asked a class of first-year Torts students to list their three top emotions about law school.  Then I dumped all their answers into a Word Cloud program, which depicts entries by size according to how often the words are repeated. The results, as you can see from the picture, are not a pretty sight.

I also asked them to play Ernest Hemingway. You may have heard the legend that Hemingway once made a bet that he could write a complete story in six-words, and proceeded to write on a napkin, “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” I assigned, as some other professors have done, my 1Ls to write a six-word story about law school. The majority of their stories reflected stress and anxiety. Here are some samples:

• I came. I studied. I suffered.

• Orientation. Confusion. Overwhelmed. Anxious. Exhausted. Graduation.

• Accepted application. Law school. Emotional wreck.

• Started school. Constant briefing. Now crying.

• Socrates meets Bentham under Sisyphus’ boulder.

If you’re a law student who is struggling, seek help. Talk to your professors about it. Visit the university counseling center. Do not accept depression or severe anxiety as normal consequences of law school. There is no shame in suffering these conditions. I was a wreck during my first year. You can read about it in my 1L story for the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review: Neurotic, Paranoid Wimps—Nothing Has Changed.

I talk to my students about these issues and each time I do, at least a couple of students contact me afterwards to say thanks and share their own experiences.  In many cases, they take me up on my advice to seek help at the counseling center. When they do, invariably, they report back that they are doing much better.

On the Sunny Side.  If you’re considering law school, do not let these posts scare you away. Law school isn’t all gloom and doom. The research just makes it look that way. No one has ever studied the positive aspects of law school, of which there are many. Here’s a happy statistic the might surprise you in light of what you’ve read in these posts: 83 percent of the 33,000 students who responded to the 2011 Law School Survey of Student Engagement reported that they found their law school experience to be either good or excellent.

Sure, law school is a challenge, but it’s supposed to be. It obviously is doable though, or we wouldn’t have 1.1 million lawyers in America. I love this comment from a student in response to a question asking whether her first year was better or worse than expected:

I love law school. I love the material, the professors, my classmates, and especially those few close friends I’ve connected with and grown close to. Law school is definitely more challenging in so many ways than I ever could have anticipated, but that’s what makes it great. If it was easy, I can say in all honesty that I would be disappointed. It’s supposed to be hard because it means something. The challenges are what help us grow and learn and open our minds and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hang in there!  First-semester exams will be over before you know it.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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