Above The Law recently published a fairly disheartening article analyzing a Yale survey about depression and poor mental health in law school. I first read it shortly after attending a lecture in which the speaker told us that February 1 of a student’s first year is, statistically, the most depressing day in law school. With that backdrop in mind, I, as a first year student in the midst of the (objectively) unhappiest period of law school, have some thoughts on the article.
I wish I could tell you I’m surprised by the findings discussed at Above the Law. But I’m not. Law students, especially at top schools, are accustomed to success. Students at Columbia, for example, graduated with a 3.7 median GPA and a median LSAT score in the 99th percentile. Because Columbia professors grade us on a curve, the vast majority of students were probably not completely satisfied with their first semester grades. When you add a competitive environment, financial concerns, and uncertainty about finding a job to a suboptimal academic performance, you get a perfect recipe for the poor mental health that the article describes, especially when it comes to ambitious, type-A individuals.
I expect that these problems are even more severe at lower ranked schools. Although law school rankings are almost universally criticized, employers take them seriously. As a result, the lower the rank of the school, the smaller a student’s statistical likelihood of getting a job becomes. Students, on average, graduate with a staggering debt load (over one hundred thousand dollars). Thus, failure to get a job can saddle a student with a lifetime of debt. Because finding a job is largely dependent on first year grades, the resulting pressure on a first year student is tremendous, and it almost inevitably takes some sort of toll.
I consider myself lucky to attend a school with a track record of extremely high employment statistics and to have found a group of supportive friends. I also am fortunate to have mentors that are familiar with the law school process and who can help me when I’m feeling down. I deal with stress by turning to my friends, family, and mentors, and by making sure that I maintain my perspective and do things I enjoy; I think this is generally the way that my classmates handle times of trouble, as well. I would encourage anyone attending law school, or considering attending law school, to make sure that they build a strong support system, both within school and outside of academics. If you try to go it alone, I think the road ahead of you will become even more challenging. As I wrote about a couple months ago, I am much less unhappy than I expected to be at law school. But this is still the single most challenging time in my life from both an academic and personal perspective.
Although I have not felt the need to avail myself of Columbia’s resources for dealing with depression or anxiety, I’ve heard positive reports about the available services. Students can make counseling appointments to discuss any problems they are facing, attend lectures on positive ways to deal with stress, and engage in a variety of nonacademic pastimes to escape the rigors of academia. The Student Services counselors make themselves extremely available to us, and I would feel comfortable reaching out to any of them. If you’re concerned about potentially negative ramifications for your mental health, I would suggest looking into the services offered by law schools before making a final decision.
To close, I’m sure you’ve heard the idiom, “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” Law school is the frying pan, and, once out, students often find themselves in the fire of an incredibly demanding corporate legal job. The Yale findings paint a bleak picture for a students’ mental well-being in law school, and the myriad studies pointing to the unhappiness of lawyers over the course of their careers makes that picture even bleaker for students moving forward in their career. I can’t speak to the stresses that accompany a career in law, but I can say, with confidence, that there are ways to handle stress and unhappiness in law school, and I feel that developing ways of positively dealing with these kinds of problems is of paramount importance to anyone considering a career in law.