“Stressing Out in Law School is a Matter of Choice” By: Lawrence Krieger

You can decide whether to merely survive the experience or thrive by refusing to “compare and despair.”

Lawrence Krieger, The National Law Journal

September 28, 2015

Welcome to law school. You just started, and the legendary stress of law school may well be giving you a lot to worry about already. There’s the work, the competition, the other really smart students, the loans to pay off, the job fears. How do you survive and keep yourself together for the next few years?

If you are among the many who feel this way, I’m here to tell you that whether this anxiety dominates your life or recedes into the background is a matter of your choice. In short, you have a daily decision, beginning now: You can stress and worry about how to survive law school, or you can plan to thrive in law school. There is no predestined “law school stress” experience, despite what you may be constantly hearing. Your classmates are going to have contrasting experiences. What will yours be like?

Twenty-three years of teaching tells me that many of you will have a challenging but generally enjoyable time in law school, while many others will be dominated by angst, pressure and stress during the same years. The simple but usually hidden truths are, first, the quality of your experience will be the result of your beliefs, and, second, with accurate information you can change your beliefs and thus absolutely change your experience. What will yours be like?

I am not suggesting a New Age or wishful-thinking approach but a scientific reality that is borne out by published studies of law students and lawyers in the United States. Let’s take a look at a few of the critical attitudes and beliefs that will provide you either a thriving or surviving experience.

As a foundation, we can agree that law school will be demanding and you will need to work hard. There is a lot to learn, including a relatively new way of using your analytical abilities to “think like a lawyer.” (A quick side note though: the mystique around that style of thinking is often overdone, and you will learn the skill quickly in your regular classes.)

The natural challenges of law school bring up your first key decision point. The “surviving” attitude that is so common is based on what psychologists call extrinsic motivations and values. They include typically competitive things outside yourself, such as income, grades and comparison with other people and a pessimistic expectation.

Survival thinking goes like this: “Oh my God, law school is so hard, everybody is so smart, my profs are so knowledgeable. How will I measure up? My loans will be so much, how can I get those few jobs that will cover my needs?” This attitude will naturally drive you to constant worry, late nights and studying most of the weekend, and pervasive self-doubt about your ability to compete for grades and ultimately get a job.

This approach to law school is common, and it is exhausting, but where is all this stress coming from? It is your belief system, not the work. You have bought into the messages that you have to do better than the other students, have to look smart and in control all the time, won’t get a job if you aren’t in the top of the class — and the result of failure will be a nightmarish life. With this belief system, survival anxiety becomes a nearly constant reality that clouds your enjoyment and undercuts your performance, despite the fact that the schoolwork itself is doable and that learning could be inherently enjoyable.

The “thriving” attitude is quite contrary, and you all will encounter students who naturally adopt it. It focuses more on intrinsic motivations — including self-improvement and growth, and relating to, helping and being in community with others — and optimistic expectations.

It goes like this: “I have been successful in my life so far and am a smart person who gained acceptance to this law school. Whatever the future holds, I will be fine. There is no reason to assume life is turning bad on me. I am here to learn as much as I can that will translate into practicing law later; I will apply myself to learning without paying much attention to my grades and class rank, and will try to find my greatest interests for legal work. I will start early with practical steps to support a job search. There is a lot more to me than my grades, no matter what they are. I can do internships and clinics, volunteer, engage in extracurriculars that play to my personal strengths, network with our alums and other lawyers, and build my resume intelligently for the kind of jobs I most want. Then I’ll get busy early seeking a job, and trust the process to take its course.”

There are some crucial differences for your stress level built into these intrinsic and the extrinsic approaches. It will be difficult in one sense to take the intrinsic and optimistic approach, because you need the resolve to go against the common fears and negative storylines about law school. But it will be much harder on you to take the extrinsic approach because of the inherent differences in the two sets of choices and motivations.

First, the extrinsic, comparative/competitive approach is inherently anxiety-producing. It focuses on zero-sum outcomes so there is a “loser” for every “winner,” and you are always either better or worse off than someone else. It also means you always feel insecure and that you lack control in your life, because these external results depend on what other people do as much or more than on what you do.

Conversely, the intrinsic approach keeps you focused on what you do and what you can do, which generates a sense of control and optimism. After all, we humans universally face uncertainty about next year and even tomorrow.

Start openly accepting that reality now and deal with it constructively by focusing most of your attention on what you can do today to advance intrinsic goals that are in your control (i.e., learning, self-improvement, relating well and helping others). That is your best foundation for law school and for life. As you increasingly focus on building now toward worthy goals, you waste less of your time and emotional resources on worrying about the future.

The research also shows that, with these attitudes, you will actually learn more and test and grade better — a true win-win result from choosing wisely where to put your attention in law school.

NOTE:  Drawn from the booklet “Hidden Sources of Law School Street” available from Lawrence Krieger (lkrieger@law.fsu.edu), professor at Florida State University College of Law.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for these thoughts! I passed this on to my first year students this week, as I can see their stress levels rising as the semester progresses!

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