Menstrual Products and the Bar: Advocacy Seeks to Create Equal Bar Exam Testing Conditions for Menstruators

By: Elizabeth B. Cooper, Fordham Law School; Margaret E. Johnson, U. Baltimore Law (visiting at American); and Marcy L. Karin, UDC David A. Clarke School of Law

We can all recall the stress, fear, and worry that accompany taking the bar exam.  About half of us also were anxious we would have to manage our period in the middle of this awful two-to-three-day ordeal.  Bar examiners across the country have made this prospect far more daunting than it needs to be by not treating menstruation as the natural biological process that it is.

Without proof of any test-taker having ever cheated using a tampon or pad, some states have chosen to stigmatize and potentially penalize people who have their periods with draconian policies prohibiting bar examinees from bringing their own menstrual products with them.  Other states have failed to adopt or communicate clear policies on the subject, increasing test-takers’ anxiety: one should not have to waste time researching the Bar Examiners’ hard-to-find policies  or calling their offices for answers—which may, or may not, yield consistent information. 

The harm here is four-fold: 1. It is wrong to make test-taking conditions more challenging for people based on the fact they menstruate; 2. It is wrong to limit test-takers to random products selected by Bar Examiners that could put test-takers’ health and menstruation management at risk; 3. It is wrong to exclude text-takers from any menstrual products simply because they do not use the women’s restroom; and 4. It is wrong to convey the harmful message that all people who menstruate are untrustworthy and do not belong in the legal profession. 

Some states, including Texas and Pennsylvania, prohibited exam-takers from bringing in their own menstrual products, offering to provide a limited and unpredictable set of products in the women’s bathroom.  (After much advocacy, Texas changed its rule for the September exam, though it is unclear if this is a permanent change.)  This does not solve the problems these states created in the first place by banning test-takers from bringing in their own products.  People who menstruate need their own products because menstrual products are not “one size fits all”: menstruaters require different sizes and levels of absorbency in their products to best fit their body and menstrual flow.  

Use of the wrong size product can lead to everything from pain and discomfort to toxic shock syndrome (if too large) and time-consuming, uncomfortable, and disruptive leaks (if too small). Further, some individuals require hypoallergenic products to protect against allergic reactions.  If not provided, applicants may experience vaginal itching or other problems caused by using allergen-containing tampons or pads inside or adjacent to their bodies.  All of these consequences are awful enough on their own; here, they create an unconscionable risk of derailing exam performance.

In addition, by limiting test-takers from bringing in their own products and then providing products only in the women’s restrooms, Bar Examiners relegate transgender men and nonbinary persons who may menstruate, and who may use the men’s restrooms or all-gender restrooms, to having no access to menstrual products during the bar exam.

Other states allow test-takers to bring their own products, but require them to be packaged in a clear plastic bag—with some states mandating that the product be unwrapped.  This last requirement makes no sense: the wrapper both keeps the product hygienic before being inserted into or placed adjacent to one’s body and provides an efficient way to safely dispose of used products, reducing janitorial staff’s exposure to bodily fluids.  Further, removing the wrapping exposes the adhesive on the bottom of some pads, rendering them practically useless when the menstruator tries to unstick them from the clear plastic bag.

As much as we want to destigmatize menstruation and eradicate the embarrassment and taboo of being seen with a tampon or pad, it remains an invasion of privacy to require test-takers to carry their products in a clear plastic bag, revealing to a proctor (and possibly a classmates, colleagues, or future opposing counsel) that one has or expects to get their period during the exam.  (One North Carolina bar exam test-taker reported that a proctor asked her if she “really needed those” while inspecting her plastic bag of menstrual products.)  Finally, this intrusion is even more painful for, and potentially outs, transgender men and non-binary law graduates who may not be public about their biological sex.  It may even set them up for bigoted harassment—during the biggest exam of their lives.

Other states allow test-takers to bring their own products and do not require them to be carried in a clear bag—but, they must check them with a proctor or retrieve them outside the exam room before heading to the restroom.  This “solution” means that a menstruating person with will have to take vital time away from the exam (or a break between sections of the exam) to obtain their menstrual products before using the restroom.  This “time tax” is as unacceptable as the other approaches described above.

At least some states treat people who menstruate without such bizarre suspicion, allowing them to bring in and keep their own products with them during the exam, and use them as needed during the test—without having to ask a stranger for their own personal possessions.  To date, there have been no known accusations of test-takers trying to do the impossible: write helpful information on a pad or tampon to give them an edge on the exam or smuggle in written answers inside the product’s wrapping.

The lack of uniformity of equity-based rules permitting access to one’s own menstrual products is unacceptable and must be changed. Thankfully, in the age of social media, law graduates have taken the lead on this advocacy, sharing the hurdles they are facing on social media and asking state Bar Examiners to eliminate these outrageous rules, largely under the #bloodybarpocalypse hashtag. 

Once we saw their posts, the three of us, working with fantastic former clinic students of Fordham and UDC, began advocating that all state Bar Examiners adopt better menstrual products policies.  We drafted a letter to the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE)—co-signed by over 2800 law professors, law students, law school graduates, and lawyers in under 24 hours.  We also sent letters to Bar Examiners in each state that administered an in-person July bar exam and did not have a clear, acceptable policy in place.  All of these efforts led to some quick changes. 

The NCBE contacted state Bar Examiners and informed them that menstrual products were not included in the NCBE’s “prohibited paper” category and that test-takers should be able to bring in their own products.  The press started asking questions of the state Bar Examiners.  And state Bar Examiners began changing or clarifying their policies, with some confirming to examinees that they could bring personal menstrual products to the exam.  For instance, West Virginia Bar Examiners insisted that they permitted products in the exam room, even though their website said differently. Texas state Bar Examiners changed their policy from not permitting products to permitting them at its September exam.  (The state has issued contradictory statements, however, about whether this change is permanent.)

This positive change is not, however, uniform: even those states that have adopted equitable policies must be monitored to ensure they are adopting best practices.  In our efforts to get accurate and honest information from state Bar Examiners across the country, it has been deeply disconcerting to learn how many jurisdictions are silent on whether examinees may bring in their own menstrual products; have informal policies that contradict written statements about what items are allowed in the exam (e.g., not listing menstrual products in the list of items test-takers can bring in, but informally allowing them); or have stubbornly held onto their recalcitrant policies.  

Equally unacceptable, many Bar Examiners will not share the documentation that they say embodies their policies (e.g., generic letters to test-takers informing them what they can and cannot bring into the exam; postings on their web sites behind a security wall).  Without this proof, there is no accountability and the true practices of these states remain unknown.   

As we reach out to jurisdictions administering in-person exams in the coming months, our demands are clear: Bar Examiners must issue explicit policies permitting examinees to bring their own menstrual products in to bar exams, in an opaque container or on their person, and to publish these policies on their websites.  Other bar-related policies that can have disproportionate effects also must be changed.  For instance, examinees needing to pump their breastmilk must be given ready accommodations and bathroom access must not be limited as it affects both pumpers and menstruators.

To learn more about all of the advocacy efforts in this area, check out Menstrual Equity and the Bar Exam: Round Up of Op-Eds and Other Media Coverage on the Feminist Law Professors blog and follow the hashtag #MPandTheBar.  If you want to get involved in this work, let us know. And no doubt other activists working on the pumping and bathroom access issues would welcome assistance too. There is, unfortunately, plenty of work to be done.

Rise in Wellness Blog Q&A: Part 2

Q: Introduce yourself! What’s your name/class year/any extracurriculars/area of interest/etc.?
A: Olivia Cox, 2021, Executive Editor of Albany Government Law Review, Vol. 14; cello teacher/teaching artist for Empire State Youth Orchestra’s CHIME program.

Q: Can you give us some background on what the Wellness Initiative is and how it got started?
A: In 2018, the Wellness Initiative was establish to raise awareness of issues related to health and wellness, provide resources for members of the law school community who are dealing with issues related to mental health and wellness and provide educational programming related to mental, physical, social, financial and academic health and wellness within the law school community. The Colby Fellowship was created to allow students the opportunity to participate in various wellness based activities, provide resources to students, and to help bring greater awareness to the importance of a holistic, balanced lifestyle. The Colby Fellowship is named in honor of our generous donor, Trustee Andrea Colby ’80.

Q: Why did you choose to get involved in the Wellness Initiative and become a Colby Fellow?
A: Wellness/Mental Health has always been very important to me. I have always believed that all my accomplishments are for naught if I don’t have my health. This sentiment seems to be lost in the law school environment due to its competitive nature. I hope our events and Blog remind students of the importance of mental health and wellness, especially during law school.

Q: What has the Wellness Initiative done this year at Albany Law School?
A: This year, unfortunately, was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that has not stopped us from soldiering on with our wellness programming. We have held several yoga/meditation classes, hosted speakers, including Brian Cuban, and various relaxing activities during finals.

Q: What is the Wellness Blog? What kinds of topics have you written about and what do you plan to write in the future?
A: The Wellness Blog is Albany Law’s central hub for wellness tips, resources, updates, upcoming events and more. We’ve posted a Q&A with a yoga teacher, volunteer opportunities, and about various events we have hosted. However, the Blog is getting a lot more traffic since the onset of COVID-19. We have been compiling and posting all sorts of resources, in addition to posts from guest writers about how best to work/learn from home.

Q: What’s your ultimate goal for the Wellness Blog?
A: I hope that students will enjoy reading the Blog as much as I have enjoyed writing the Blog. I hope it becomes “one of those things” that students check often, like Canvas or TWEN.

Q: Who can post to the Wellness Blog?
A: Anyone! Currently, it is primarily Carly and I creating content for the Blog. However, we welcome contributions from anyone and everyone. Professors, students, and faculty alike are all welcome to post on the Blog. Just send us your article/post and we will post it!

Q: Do you have any advice for other schools that might want to start a Wellness Initiative?
A: “If we build it, they will come.” It sounds cliché but it’s the truth. At first you may not have many participants, but over time more students will become interested. Mental health and wellness are often put on the back burner during law school, but that is when it is the most important.

Rise in Wellness Blog Q&A: Part 1

Albany Law School established a Wellness Initiative, which is currently run by Carly Dziekan ’20, Olivia Cox ’21, and Rosemary Queenan, Associate Dean for Student Affairs. As part of the initiative, the team created the “Rise in Wellness Blog” – a blog devoted to health and wellness. Every week, the blog posts resources, wellness tips, updates, and upcoming events. I “virtually” interviewed Carly and Olivia to find out how the Wellness Initiative and Rise in Wellness Blog got started (“Part 1” will cover Carly’s interview and “Part 2” will cover Olivia’s interview).


Q:
Introduce yourself! What’s your name/class year/any extracurriculars/area of interest/etc.?
A: My name is Carly Dziekan and I am a 3L at Albany Law School and one of the Colby Fellows for the Wellness Initiative. I am also the Editor-in-Chief of the Albany Law Journal of Science and Technology. In my free time, I enjoy running, biking, and recently started kickboxing! Especially in light of this pandemic, it is even more important to take care of yourself physically and mentally as best as we can.

Q: Can you give us some background on what the Wellness Initiative is and how it got started?
A: The Wellness Initiative started in 2018 by a recent graduate who saw a need for an administrative initiative devoted to law student mental health, wellness, and overall wellbeing. The administration and the students then took on the ownership together and it has been growing ever since! This initiative is still very new, so we are open to any and all suggestions!

Q: Why did you choose to get involved in the Wellness Initiative and become a Colby Fellow?
A: Law school is a challenging time in so many ways, and it challenged me in ways I never expected. I am very lucky to have an incredible support system and to have already had coping mechanisms and wellness habits grounded in me before law school. Even so, I still struggled. I was excited to become involved in the wellness initiative to help other students who may not have had the experiences I have had, and to show them that help is out there is they need it and we are here for them.

Q: What has the Wellness Initiative done this year at Albany Law School?
A: This year, we have had monthly yoga class on campus (and now via Zoom), a Mental Health Week in honor of World Mental Health day, an impactful keynote speech by Brian Cuban, programming for 1L students discussing the stress of finals, and other educational and recreational wellness centered events.

Q: What is the Wellness Blog? What kinds of topics have you written about and what do you plan to write in the future?
A: The Wellness Blog really turned into a way to update students with COVID-19 resources. Now more than ever, wellness and mental health in law students is a huge issue. (Rest of the answer morphed into the question below)

Q: What’s your ultimate goal for the Wellness Blog?
A: The idea of the blog started when I got a flat tire and didn’t know where to get it fixed as I am not originally from the Albany area. It got me thinking: how many people are having this problem? I wanted to create a central location where students could get information on various resources in Albany, from gyms, to restaurants, to car mechanics, to mental health resources. Another goal is to also highlight all of the work we are doing on campus related to wellness as well as what other schools and organizations are doing.

Q: Who can post to the Wellness Blog?
A: The Colby Fellows run the blog, but anyone can contribute! Send Olivia or I an email and we would love to have others write a piece.

Q: Do you have any advice for other schools that might want to start a Wellness Initiative?
A: Don’t get discouraged. This work is so important and necessary but it takes some time to gain traction. Sometimes, even if an event isn’t well attended or no one “responds” to your post, trust me, people read it or heard about it and it impacted someone. Which is what really matters. Now that the initiative has been around for a bit, more students are aware of the work we are doing and much of it has been de-stigmatized.

Adapting to the New Normal: Tips for Socialization While Social Distancing in Law Schools

I don’t think any of us realized that the day before spring break would be the last day we would be able to walk the halls of Albany Law for a while – I know I didn’t. In fact, I couldn’t have been more excited to escape that building in anticipation of vacation. But now, I miss waving to friends, catching up between classes, and the feeling of being in the Rochester Moot Courtroom. No one expected to have to transition the entire law school online to keep loved ones safe from COVID-19.

What we need now in this time of crisis is leadership and yes, even law student leaders can play a part. In light of the current situation, student leaders at Albany Law School put on their creative thinking hats to try to maintain a sense of community by offering “virtual events” and a list of online resources. Having a sense of community brings us together and keeps us feeling connected when we can’t physically be with one another. It keeps our relationships developing and our heads kept high. Most importantly, it provides a space for support, which is something we desperately need right now.

I thought of the idea for “Pet Happy Hour” when I was experiencing my first “Zoom” class. It was just a “test” class, so there was no substantive material being discussed. Then, several students “brought” their pets to class. Everyone in the class immediately started to smile – like instant therapy! I thought about how special our pets are and how animals can help us destress. Then I thought it would be fun to host a virtual event where students could show off their pets and wind down from the week with one another (and grab a drink). Since the inception of this idea, my student group has teamed up with two others to promote this therapeutic space to the rest of the student body. I’m excited to admire everyone’s pets and of course, show off my own!

Here are a list of the events/resources, which you could potentially recommend for your school:

  1. “Pet Happy Hour” – Several student groups teamed up to host a virtual pet happy hour on Zoom, where participants are being asked to bring their pet (or come admire other pets), grab a drink, and hang out.
  2. “Virtual Murder Mystery Night” – A student group will be hosting a virtual murder mystery game night. Participants are asked to sign up beforehand on a public google spreadsheet to ensure they receive character information before the game. (Note: there is a small cost associated with purchasing the game packet. ~$2 a person).
  3. “Virtual Meditation” – One of Albany Law’s very own professors leads a meditation session on Zoom every Friday at 12PM.
  4. “Virtual Exercise” – The Wellness Initiative at Albany Law is hosting a virtual yoga session and HIIT class for students on Zoom.
  5. “Rise in Wellness Blog”The Wellness Initiative at Albany Law has a blog with many resources listed including resources specific to COVID-19. A post by our Director of Communications and Marketing provided 5 excellent pieces of advice for working from home. Here they are quickly summed up:
    1. “Create a routine”
    1. “Keep a dedicated working space, if possible”
    1. “Make ground rules”
    1. “Take advantage of technology”
    1. “Stay positive”

It’s certainly a stressful time, but I think it helps to know that none of us are alone – we’re all in this together. Just because we are social distancing, doesn’t mean we can’t still stay connected. I urge other law schools to use some of the resources I’ve provided or find other creative ways to keep that connection with students. If your school has some other ideas, I would love to hear them in the comments!

“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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