“Being Human To My Students And Letting Them Know I Care”

This is a wonderful blog post I found on the Institute for Law Learning and Teaching by Jane Korn, Professor of Law at Gonzaga University School of Law. As a current law student, I think that this practice should be implemented in all law schools for first year law students. I had a professor during 1L who did something similar. He would start the class every week with, “so how is 1L going?” and we could spend 10 minutes discussing general concerns about 1L and papers or exams we had coming up. Not only did it ease some of the anxiety, it also showed that the professor really cared about the students. It was like they were saying, “I’ve been there too and I’m here to support you.” Kudos to Professor Korn for setting aside some time in her class to do this!

“I have taught first year law students for a long time.  Please do not ask how long!  But years ago, I became worried about the mental health and stress levels of my first semester, first year students. I teach a four credit, one semester course in Civil Procedure during the first semester of law school.   On the last day of the week that I teach in Civ Pro, I take a few minutes out of class time and ask my students to tell me how they are doing.

The first time I do this, usually at the end of the first week of law school,  I tell my students that it is my custom, from time to time, to take time out from Civ Pro, and talk about anything they would like (with some limits).  In some years, it takes weeks for them to take me up on this offer.  Other years, they start right in.  They ask questions like the following:

  1. When should I start outlining?
  2. How much time should I spend studying every night?
  3. How important is getting involved in extracurricular activities?
  4. What if I don’t know what kind of law I want to practice?
  5. Do professors care about grammar and organization on a final exam? (I only answer what I expect and do not answer for other faculty)

I think that much of the time, they do not get a chance to ask a law professor these kinds of questions, and can usually only ask upper class students.  While we have faculty advisors, students may or may not feel comfortable asking them questions like the above.  They eventually do (and sometimes quickly) feel comfortable asking me a wide variety of questions.  They sometimes ask personal questions and, within reason, I answer them because it makes them feel more comfortable with me.  Questions on gossipy matters about other faculty are off limits. If for example, they complain about another professor,  I handle this question with a smile and say something like – you should ask that professor about this issue.

I set aside class time for several reasons. First, while I do worry about giving up valuable teaching time, lessening the stress of my students may make them more able to learn.  Second, students often feel like they are the only one with a particular concern during this first semester, and they often do not have the ability to know that others have the same concerns or questions.  In the first year, many of our students are not from this area and are far away from support systems, at least at first until they can make friends at law school.  The ability to know that other students have the same problems they do can lessen the feeling of isolation.  Using class time to answer questions to the entire group may help them with this sense of isolation and being the only one who doesn’t know something.  It also lets them see that their concerns are important and credible.

Every year my teaching evaluations reflect this process positively.  Students feel like I care (which I do).  However, the reason I do it is to increase their comfort during those first few exciting, confusing, and terrifying months of law school.”

 

Best Wellness Practices: Student Edition

Before I started my first year of law school, I was warned countless times about the grueling workload, the lack of sleep, the long days, and the overall toll that school would take on my physical/mental health. I was told that I would be kissing my social life goodbye and I would not be able to keep up with my daily exercise routines. While I definitely agree that 1L was a huge adjustment, I decided to take some simple, yet effective steps to ensure that I did not neglect my well-being and I did just fine! My hope is that other 1L professors reading this can pass some of these ideas along to the new students as suggestions.

  1. I made sure to get enough sleep (usually)
    First, I’ll admit that I didn’t sleep too well the first few weeks, but I think that’s pretty normal. I definitely wasn’t used to the reading and case briefing, so it ate up most of my time in the beginning. But after I started to figure it out a little more, I decided if I’m tired, I won’t be focusing on class and if I’m not focusing on class, my grades will suffer. For most of my semester, I swear I was getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night (disclaimer: midterms and finals weeks don’t necessarily apply here). I realized that there is plenty of time for reading and assignments if you capitalize on breaks in between classes and head to the library immediately after the last class of the day. I was really able to maximize my time this way, which brings me to my next point:
  2. I made myself a morning person
    Let me start off by saying I am not a morning person. That being said, I found that waking up earlier helped me prepare for class. I also found that I was more productive in the mornings. I could usually finish my readings the night before, but I started waking up early to review my cases, which did two things. First, it helped ease the anxiety of the infamous cold calling. Second, I was actually awake by the time I sat down for class (pending I had my coffee at least).
  3. I watched an episode of my favorite show before bed every night
    Every student deserves at least one mindless, non-law school related activity every day! Your brain will appreciate this since it is probably working somewhere around 100 mph every other second of the day! I made it a ritual to watch an episode of my favorite show every night, which happens to only be about 23 minutes long. It helped me wind down and get a few laughs in after a long day.
  4. I took my dog on long walks every day
    Not everyone has a dog, but just going outside in the fresh air and getting some exercise made all the difference. Sometimes, I’d listen to music or podcasts too, giving me yet another brain break!
  5. I utilized the school’s free counseling services and mentorship programs
    I can’t emphasize this one enough. If your school offers either of these services, encourage your students to use it – especially if it’s free! The free counselor provided by the school helped me with 1L anxiety and my mentor has given me invaluable advice.
  6. I kept a planner
    There are a lot of readings and assignments the first year, so this was a simple, inexpensive way to keep up with everything. The workload can seem very overwhelming, but having it all out in front of me helped me plan out my day and decrease the anxiety. I personally like to keep a written notebook, but there are also free apps available for your phone.
  7. *I gave myself off one day a week*
    I think this is arguably the most important thing I did to survive the first year. In recognition of the fact that I am only human, I felt it was important to do something “un-law-related” each week. With the exception of midterms, some big papers, and finals, I always gave myself one day a week to get away from school completely. In the warmer months, I’d often go on hikes or hang out with friends outside of school and in the winter, I’d go snowboarding for a day. Anything to get a full day away!

    In light of the major emphasis on student wellness programs in law schools, I highly encourage professors to remind students that it’s okay to slow down and take a break. Even if students feel as though they don’t have the time to participate in specific wellness programs offered by the school, there are the small things students can do in their own lives to keep happy and healthy – yes, even during 1L!

Examples of How Law Schools are Addressing Law Student Well-Being

In a recent post, we summarized the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s recommendations for law schools. This post follows up to provide examples of what law schools are doing on the subject of student wellness. These efforts are intended to educate students and create good habits that they will take with them into practice.

Gather Well-Being Resources on a Webpage. Gathering a list of programs and resources in one place makes it easy for students to know the opportunities that are available and highlights the school’s commitment to student well-being. William & Mary Law School does a nice job of cataloging their wellness opportunities on this page, which links to another page listing “Wellness Wednesday Events.”

Curriculum. Law schools are increasingly creating classes on wellness-related topics. This blog recently discussed The University of Tennessee College of Law’s class Thriving as a Lawyer (A Scientific Approach).  Many schools have developed courses on the subject of mindfulness. For example, University of Miami School of Law offers a number of classes in its Mindfulness in Law Program, Northwestern Law’s mindfulness offerings include Mindfulness-Based Resilient Lawyering, while UC Davis School of Law offers Mindfulness and Professional Identity: Becoming a Lawyer While Keeping Your Values Intact.  The University of San Francisco School of Law and South Texas College of Law Houston both offer courses in Contemplative Lawyering.

Extra-Curricular. Extra-curricular activities can address multiple aspects of student wellness, from creating a sense of community to addressing physical health. Yoga classes (such as the weekly classes offered at Marquette University Law School) and running clubs (like those at Lewis & Clark Law School and UCLA Law) are popular at law schools. Book clubs (like the one at the Michigan Law which is promoted as a fiction escape from law books) and potluck dinner gatherings (offered for students at Tennessee Law) provide opportunities for students to connect, socialize, and recharge.

Counseling. Many law schools are connected to universities with counseling and related services available to all students; it can be incredibly helpful to make law students aware of those university resources by creating a list on a law school webpage (like the one created by the University of Missouri School of Law).  Some law schools, like American University Washington College of Law, and William & Mary Law School  have counseling and “wellness coaching” services in the law school building to make it easier for students to access.

Creating a Space that Encourages Student Health and Wellness. A number of law schools have given thought to student health and well-being as they have designed or re-designed their space. While not every school can afford a gym, many have made space for standing desks in the library, ping pong tables, and exercise bikes.

Well-Being Committees and Student Organizations.  A number of schools have created well-being committees or student organizations, often at the urging of students. For example, the Washburn Association for Law Student Health states its purpose is to “actively promote the education and awareness regarding health and wellness of the law student body, mentally and physically, while creating a community for students interested in promoting health and wellness in their own lives and in the lives of their peers.”

These examples only scratch the surface of all the things law schools are doing on the topic of well-being. If your law school is doing something that other schools may want to consider, please add it in the comments.

 

Thriving as a Lawyer

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being encourages law schools to develop a “Well-Being Course.” The Task Force explains that such a course can “leverage research findings from positive psychology and neuroscience” and explore the many benefits of enhanced well-being, including improved cognitive performance–in law school and legal practice.

Doug Blaze and Candice Reed developed the well-being course Thriving as a Lawyer (A Scientific Approach) and taught it for the first time in spring 2019. In creating the course, Doug Blaze drew on his 30+ years of law teaching experience (including his work as a clinician and clinic director, a Dean, and now as  Director of Tennessee Law’s Institute for Professional Leadership), while Candace Reed drew on her legal training, her practice experience, and her background in positive psychology (she holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania).

The Thriving syllabus explains why the course is needed and what students should expect to learn:

“[Lawyers’ struggle to achieve happiness] puts us at high risk for burn-out, depression, alcoholism, divorce, and even suicide. Accordingly, this course is designed to introduce law students to the scientific principles of positive psychology, while incorporating ‘hands-on learning’ through empirically validated positive interventions, which require cognitive reasoning and physical effort, encourage habitualizing behavior, involve goal-setting, and allow for self-efficacy or autonomy.”

Students are provided the following list of themes that they will study in the 2-credit course:

  1. Why are many lawyers so unhappy? How does this unhappiness or lack of thriving typically present itself? In other words, what are the symptoms of a lawyer in trouble? What are the signs someone is struggling?
  2. What are the obstacles to thriving in the law? Why is happiness in the law so elusive?
  3. Is it possible for the highest ethical behavior and client service to flourish under these circumstances? If not, should legal institutions (i.e. law schools, bar associations, law firms and corporate legal departments) encourage and promote wellbeing? If so, how?
  4. What roles do personality, emotions and character strengths play in attorney wellbeing (or a lack thereof)? Should lawyers (and their employers) take these personal characteristics into account in making career choices (e.g. type of legal job or employer, practice concentration, etc.)?
  5. What strategies/practices/habits/mindsets support lawyer wellbeing? What should lawyers do if they want to increase their own wellbeing?
  6. How can these issues be articulated in a persuasive manner to leaders of legal institutions and lawyers themselves to promote lasting, positive change?

Reed and Blaze assemble an impressive list of reading assignments for the class, including articles like these:

Thriving students are prompted to complete the VIA survey of Character Strengths, as well as several of the questionnaires (on on topics such  positive and negative affect and grit) at the University of Pennsylvania Authentic Happiness Test Center

Students do a presentation on a book on a well-being related topic. The book list includes a number of titles, including the following: 

  • Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam M. Grant
  • The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life by Tal Ben-Shahar
  • Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey
  • The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation by Jeena Cho
  • Wire Your Brain for Confidence by Louisa Jewell

In its 2019 rollout, one strength of Thriving was its unique format: it was taught over two 3-day weekends. Students were required to do a lot of reading, journaling, questionnaire completion, and other work before these sessions. And during the long weekend classes, students were fully immersed in the course material with their colleagues and their professors. The course received rave reviews and will likely become a regular course offering.

 

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