Law Schools Navigate Mental Health Challenges

Law schools are finding ways to promote better working practices in a profession under the spotlight for its long hours culture and burnout risks, despite ever higher pay

Lawyers working at the world’s top law firms last year reported rising rates of stress due to soaring workloads associated with a boom in dealmaking that coincided with pandemic induced-anxiety and isolation.

Lawyers at elite firms have long traded-off evenings, weekends and sleep for eye-popping salaries. But the numbers quitting increased by nearly 50 percent year-over-year in 2021, according to Leopard Solutions. This has raised questions not just over the relentless pace of activity inside the best law firms, but whether the training grounds for their rising star employees can do anything to respond.

And law schools believe they have a role to play in staving off the exits, and also the pressures of studying a rigorous academic curriculum alongside extracurricular activities, social bonding and networking and recruitment events.

Some of the top law schools are doing more to support the mental health and wellbeing of students entering a profession that is increasingly coming under the spotlight for its long hours culture and burnout risks, despite ever higher pay for lawyers at the top firms.

“For law schools, it is important to raise awareness in firms and companies about the importance of having balanced and happy people who will be better professionals and more productive than stressed professionals,” says Eugenia Navarro, professor at Esade Law School in Barcelona, Spain. “We have noticed a profound change in the sector: we see that there is a greater concern, a greater sensitivity and a better preparation to deal with or prevent these cases.”

What LL.M. students need to know about mental health

Part of the role for law schools is making LL.M. students aware of the psychological risks of heavy workloads and long hours. “What cannot be the case is that students do not know the reality of what awaits them,” says Navarro. Another important part is making students aware of the opportunities outside of the elite law firms, with their heavy emphasis on billable hours.

“LL.M. students can access a richer legal ecosystem; they can be corporate lawyers, but also entrepreneurs or work in a startup,” he says. “We insist that being a partner in a Big Law firm is not the only way to succeed professionally, and there are many paths that lead to success through professional and personal balance.”

Navarro says law schools can also help LL.M. students to generate productivity and efficiency gains with tools such as project management, as well as personal growth. Esade offers highly trained mentors who follow the LL.M. students and accompany them closely as these working professionals re-enter the labor market.

“Our goal is that LL.M. students build healthy habits while in law school,” says Sarah Stanley, director of student life at Georgetown Law in Washington, D.C. “We want to equip our students with time management, communication, and leadership skills that they will need later in the profession, while also educating the whole person, understanding that practicing law means practicing self-care.”

Georgetown Law encourages LL.M. students to find and cultivate healthy ways that they can manage stress, methods they can then take with them back into the profession. “We talk openly about well-being challenges that law students and lawyers face — in part to destigmatize,” says Stanley.

“We begin this discussion as early as incoming student orientation and consistently emphasize that taking care of oneself is crucial to success in law school and beyond,” she adds. “We’ve seen great progress on this in law schools all over the country, but continuing to destigmatize getting help when necessary and providing plenty of resources in order to help students in a variety of ways is ongoing.”

Emerging mental health challenges for lawyers and LL.M. students

The pandemic has brought the mental health issue into sharper focus, and not just for graduating lawyers but students themselves, who face numerous academic pressures. “COVID-19 has certainly been a challenge for all of us, including our students,” says Stanley. “We are acutely aware of the impact that these past years of remote learning and in many cases isolation has taken on law students.”

Georgetown Law has done its best to provide more opportunities to connect with students and with alumni and practitioners over Zoom. It has also created new outdoor gathering spaces to allow students to meet safely. “If anything, COVID has only strengthened our commitment to supporting our students’ mental health and wellbeing, whatever may come down the pike either individually or collectively,” Stanley says.

The school encourages use of the Sport and Fitness Center, which often becomes a hub of student activity on campus, and is in the midst of revitalizing its “Lawyers in Balance program”, which promotes mindfulness practices on campus. Georgetown also has its Counseling and Psychiatric Service on the law campus, which offers individual counseling and support groups, and HoyaWell, a telehealth platform, for those who may be looking for a more structured approach to their mental health or well-being.

“We see student well-being and self-care as a key professional skill,” says Stanley.

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