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: