Law Students and Stress

Lara Dresser (2005) Promoting Psychological Health in Law Students, Legal Reference Services Quarterly, 24:1-2, 41-72, DOI: 10.1300/J113v24n01_02

Since I am currently working on an article that discusses law school culture, albeit one that focuses on acculturation issues faced by foreign law students, I thought this would be as good an article as any to start this project with.

This article discusses several aspects of U.S. legal education that lead to depression among law students. Why should the legal academy care about this? According to the author, because “there is strong evidence that depression affects the ability to learn and retain information,” and because “studies have shown that law students are abnormally susceptible to a variety of … psychological problems,” it is incumbent on legal educators to examine the role that the law school environment plays in creating this phenomenon.

The author lists the usual law student stress-inducers: the Socratic Method, the voluminous reading, the lack of ongoing feedback, competition, class rankings, admission methods, debt load, and job market worries. Helpfully, she doesn’t stop with naming the causes of stress. Due to that stress, she argues, law students have a tendency to “worry more than work, which interferes with the ability to receive information and store that information in working memory.”

No wonder I always had so much trouble remembering all those hearsay exceptions!

She also attributes to the law school experience the phenomenon, especially in women, of changing from a “care-oriented” moral reasoning framework (characterized by interdependence, responsiveness to needs, and maintaining relationship) to a framework that is more “rights-oriented,” which focuses more on justice, equality, rationality, and hierarchy. I am not sure if this is true in my own case: I personally tend to be much more care-oriented; however, perhaps it is also meaningful in this context that I became a law librarian rather than a practicing attorney.

In the end, the author proposes some remedies that can be undertaken by law school faculty and administrators, among them creating student mentoring relationships, changing the exam format to include both essay and objective questions, and adapting teaching methods to accommodate various learning styles. In principle I don’t disagree with any of these proposed solutions to this problem, although I wonder if there is room in legal pedagogy for an extensive commitment to these ideas. That said, I am definitely mindful of learning styles when I do individual research consults with students. This is likely an area that I will want explore further so that I can incorporate it better in my own practice.

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