Law Student Leaders Call For Improving Mental Health At Law Schools
Law student leaders across the nation are pledging to improve mental health and wellness on their campuses.
The ABA Journal reported last week that 16 student leaders at 13 law schools signed a pledge stating their commitment to addressing and improving mental health on law campuses. The law schools involved include: Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Stanford, Texas, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Columbia, University of Chicago, Northwestern, UC Berkeley and New York University.
“I think that people are beginning to realize that by eating right, getting enough sleep and doing things that make them happy, that will make them do better in school,” Alix Simnock, student president of Duke University School of Law’s Bar Association, tells the ABA Journal. “But when you’re in a place like law school, and you see someone going to the law library for four hours, you ask yourself, ‘Should I be studying more?’ And then you give up going to the gym or having dinner with friends to study more.”
The law school stereotype
In the letter, the student leaders note how popular culture has reinforced negative stereotypes of law school as a “grueling and overwhelming ordeal to adequately prepare students for legal practice.”
The student leaders addressed this stereotype in their statement: “The toll on students’ mental health has become an accepted characteristic of law school life rather than properly recognized as an impediment to our success. Indeed, our laws and judicial decisions display a history of overlooking mental and emotional distress and continue to downplay mental illness as too enigmatic, unimportant or easily faked to have a role in the law.”
The ‘character and fitness’ requirement
David Jaffe is the associate dean of student affairs at American University Washington College of Law. Jaffe tells the ABA Journal that concerns regarding the character and fitness portion of bar admissions can prevent students from discussing mental health issues with law school administrators.
According to the ABA, the Character and Fitness requirement of the bar asks grads two questions:
1. Is there anything in my past (or my present) that might bring my character and fitness into question?
2. If my character is in question, what can I do now to begin to rehabilitate my reputation?
The ABA states that “the top four areas of concern for most bar examiners are existence of a criminal record, untreated mental illness and substance abuse, lack of candor, and financial irresponsibility.”
In regard to mental illness and substance abuse, the ABA highlights that the most common mistake among grads suffering from mental and substance abuse issues is not asking for help.
In 2013, the US Department of Justice said that states “may examine applicants’ prior behavior, but not their mental health status, when determining whether to admit them as practicing lawyers.”
In response, a number of states either changed or eliminated mental health questions on bar admissions’ character and fitness sections. Yet, Jaffe says, not all states have modified and eliminated the questions. Jaffe tells the ABA Journal that he wants to see aggregate data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners on how many bar licenses are delayed yearly due to the character and fitness requirement.
“The students sometimes ask: ‘If I get help, will I need to report that to the bar, and will I be denied admission,’” Jaffe says.
Nick DeFiesta and Alexandria Gilbert are co-presidents of the Stanford Law Association. Both signed the letter pledging to provide better access to care and root out negative stigmas associated with mental health. DeFiesta and Gilbert say having more mental health data could help identify areas that need to be reformed.
“Tracking changes in mental health as students progress through law school, as well as evaluating similar metrics and career satisfaction of law school alumni, would go a long way toward quantifying the problem and help administrators assess where focus is most needed,” the two tell the ABA Journal.
In addition, DeFiesta and Gilbert urge law schools to include mental health, wellness and professional fulfillment as their core institutional values and have student programming that reflects those values.
“It is critical that we talk about these issues openly and honestly,” they tell the ABA Journal. “We can’t just pay lip service to ‘mental health.’ We need to acknowledge the prevalence of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse — and specifically name those things. When first-year law students arrive to campus, they should know that it’s OK to struggle, that resources are available for them, and that they are not alone.”
Clara Chalk is president of the Texas Law Student Bar Association at the University of Texas School of Law. Chalk tells the ABA Journal that self-care is knowing what you want — and that’s different for everyone.
“Sometimes it can be playing with a puppy, or watching a chick flick,” she says. “Sometimes it can mean letting yourself be angry at something, and acknowledging that you don’t want to go into a social situation, you want to stay home. It’s also being more forgiving and honest with yourself.”