Our Students are Stressed; Exercise Compassion

At the best of times, the life of a law student is stressful. Law students, like lawyers, are over-represented in reported statistics of depression and anxiety. Because law schools know the pressure their students are under, it has become common practice to provide stress-reducing interventions – mindfulness training and yoga classes come to mind.

This November, the political climate and an enduring pandemic will add to the high baseline of anxiety and depression that law students experience.

The 2020 election, at the very least, will feel like the most consequential election our students have experienced. Students will, of course, be aware of the political discord that is dividing our country. The discord may also be dividing their friendships and families. For young people finding their way in life, this is unsettling.

Law students may engage in behaviors that give them a sense of control over the election outcome. This is a good thing and should be encouraged. They can vote (assuming they are not casualties of some vote suppression strategies), support the candidate of their choice, or work at the polls. But even doing these basic things, the outcome of the election is likely to feel uncertain, uncontrollable and yet highly significant for students’ future. The combination of these factors is recipe for stress.

Compounding the electoral stress is the global pandemic. The coronavirus has disrupted students’ education, turned the typical law school experience on its head, and ripped away the one thing we all need when feeling anxious and depressed – a social network we can talk to, gain support from, and re-center our perspective of the future. And remember those mindfulness and yoga classes designed to help students’ well-being? Without being on campus or in the classroom, those have been relegated to afterthoughts for law school.

These are the reasons why now more than ever we need to exercise compassion. Compassion is more than empathy, an ability to take the perspective of others, to understand what law students are feeling. That’s a start. But compassion is when our feelings motive us to help alleviate at least some of their suffering.

Here are four things I’ve identified that I can do to support my students. Please feel free to share your own ideas by commenting on this post.

  • Laughter: Organize a lighthearted online pop quiz with your students. Inject humor into some of the material they should review. Avoid political humor, of course. Don’t worry if you’re not a trained comedian. Laughing at yourself for creating such bad jokes is also stress reducing.  As you can probably guess, there are many online resources to consult for anything from the best legal puns to the worst dad jokes.
  • Exercise: The thing we least want to do is often what we should do. As the weather turns colder – at least in my State – exercise becomes less appealing. But the science has become undeniable – exercise reduces stress. Assign a podcast and encourage your students to listen to it while exercising. Have students share their methods for working exercise into their day. Some of my students shared their plans to “commute” to class everyday – walking from and to their apartments before and after class.
  • Support the Right to Vote: If you haven’t already, give your students the Day off on Nov. 3rd, with no make-up class required.
  • Support each other: When we are kind, generous, and supportive of our friends and colleagues, we can make a difference in their well-being. I usually have my clinical students review their peers at the end of the semester. Each student provides me with their feedback for each of their peers. They must answer two questions. First, what do you admire most about Student A. Second, what is one thing Student A could do to improve. Each year I give this assignment, I’m amazed by how thoughtful my students are. And after I compile the feedback and communicate it to my students in an end of semester meeting, my students seem overwhelmed by the admiration and positive feelings their peers have for them. Of course, if you are teaching a larger class where students don’t get to know each other well, you could be the one to deliver a positive message about something you admire about them.   

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.

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.

 

Today’s Law Student Wellness Programs

There was a time in the not-so-distance past when wellness programs in U.S. law schools primarily focused on preventing substance abuse and suicide. This programming often involved a presentation from the state’s Lawyer Assistance Program. The speaker warned about depression, substance abuse, and suicide for members of the legal profession and the availability of help. While this was important programming, it was depressing and not inspiring for most of our students.

Today, law schools, law students, and lawyers take a broader view of attorney wellness and well-being. We now recognize that students and lawyers benefit from education and opportunities to develop into happy, thriving lawyers. Law school wellness education today is not just about prevention of negative outcomes. It centers around the proactive steps law students and lawyers can take to improve every dimension of their lives.

The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL) formed the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being to address attorney and law student wellness. In its report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (“Task Force Report”), the Task Force explains that there are six different aspects of lawyer well-being:

  • Social. Attorneys should work to develop “a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support network while also contributing to our groups and communities.”
  • Occupational. The Task Force Report references the need to cultivate personal satisfaction and growth in our work. It also notes the importance of financial stability.
  • Physical. In the area of physical health, the Task Force recommends “regular physical activity, proper diet and nutrition, sufficient sleep, and recovery; minimizing the use of addictive substances. Seeking help for physical health when needed.”
  • Emotional. The Task Force Report encourages lawyers to seek support from professionals when they are struggling emotionally. It also emphasizes the importance of “developing the ability to identify and manage our own emotions to support mental health, achieve goals, and inform decision-making.”
  • Intellectual. An attorney focused on the intellectual dimension of wellness engages in “continuous learning and the pursuit of creative or intellectually challenging activities that foster ongoing development.”
  • Spiritual. The Task Force Report explains that the goal in this area is “developing a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in all aspects of life.”

The Task Force makes a number of specific recommendations for law schools. The suggestions include the following:

  • Create Best Practices for Detecting and Assisting Students Experiencing Psychological Distress.
  • Assess Law School Practices and Offer Faculty Education on Promoting Well-Being in the Classroom.
  • Empower Students to Help Fellow Students in Need.
  • Include Well-Being Topics in Courses on Professional Responsibility.
  • Commit Resources for Onsite Professional Counselors.
  • Facilitate a Confidential Recovery Network.
  • Provide Education Opportunities on Well-Being Related Topics.
  • Discourage Alcohol-Centered Social Events.
  • Conduct Anonymous Surveys Relating to Student Well-Being.

In subsequent posts, this blog will consider some examples of the wellness programs, classes, and initiatives that law schools have instituted to address these issues and other areas of need.

 

%d bloggers like this: