08/28/2014 02:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Law School Quadruples the Chances of Depression for Tens of Thousands: Some Changes That Might Help

In the next few weeks, tens of thousands of the most promising young Americans will do something that will make them more than four times more likely to become depressed. They'll start law school.

Some Problems With Law School

Although law students enter school with fairly normal rates of depression (about 8-9 percent), upon matriculation, the rate of depression more than quadruples (to about 40 percent), according to the Dave Nee Foundation, which works to end the stigma of depression among lawyers. This striking change can't be blamed solely on the rigors of a professional education. Whereas 96 percent of law students experience extreme stress, only 70 percent of medical students and 43 percent of graduate students are extremely stressed. The mental distress does not end upon graduation. Throughout their careers, lawyers experience significantly elevated levels of depression, anxiety and suicide.

2014-08-26-small_5914092322.jpg My own mood began to sink a few weeks into law school, sitting in a contracts lecture and praying that the professor would not call on me. The Socratic method -- in which professors ask public, and often embarrassing, questions -- never made me pay attention. In fact, I rarely knew what the lectures were about; I was too busy hoping not to be called on or being grateful that someone else was suffering the questions. The irony of all that miserable cold-calling was that it didn't even matter much. Ninety percent (or more) of most law school grades depend on a single exam. It was that fact -- that a single exam could determine the entire grade -- that really made me, and other students, feel panicky. There would be no recovering from a bad day, no second chance.

In my more rational moments, I used to remind myself that I was more than my grades, that I could get a perfectly fine job whether or not I aced my exams. But no amount of positive self-talk can overcome a system that puts so much emphasis on grades. Every law student learns, within a few days of beginning school, that good grades lead to membership on law review, to a prestigious clerkship, and to interviews at highly regarded law firms. Those first year grades make, or break, an entire career (or so it seems).

If that weren't enough to cause stress, and it is, consider the mandatory grade curve, a fact of life at most law schools. The curve requires a professor to hand out a limited number of As, Bs, etc. That, of course, means that only a few people can achieve the high grades that seem to be the golden keys to a successful legal career. It's impossible for everyone to do well.

The interplay between law school and well-being is complex, but research suggests that this all-consuming focus on grades, combined with the Socratic method, is a major reason that law school takes such a toll on its students. The zero sum nature of the curve discourages collaboration at best and fosters deceit at worst. (Law students really do hide books from one another.) Law students can become distrustful and isolated; they can lose their non-law student friends because they study all the time. This lack of human connection is an important source of mental distress. Research confirms that the intense focus on grades, and other external factors, shifts students' motivation from the internal sources that promote happiness (purpose, autonomy, connectedness) to external factors that detract from well-being.

Redefining Thinking Like a Lawyer

Instead of glorifying good grades and prestigious jobs, law schools can do more to help students cultivate internal motivators like purpose and autonomy. Schools might adopt teaching methods that don't involve embarrassing students. Classes could emphasize achieving results for clients, such as in clinical settings, over grades. Professors and schools could publicize that there is almost no correlation between good grades and long-term well-being, as one recent study of over 6,000 lawyers found. Perhaps that would take some of the pressure off. Changes like these might begin to shift the culture of the legal profession, away from external validation and toward internal motivators that lead to happiness.

The mental distress of law students does not afflict just law students and their families; it affects our whole society. Lawyers often are the nation's political and social leaders. Our president and over half of our senators are lawyers. Ten percent of the CEOs of the Fortune 50 companies are attorneys. But when becoming a lawyer creates so much mental distress and, in the most tragic cases, suicide, we are all robbed of significant talent and ideas.

It's time to redefine what it means to "think like a lawyer." It doesn't need to mean that success is defeating colleagues in a zero sum game. It can also mean collaboration and creation. It doesn't need to mean dispassionate analysis at all times. It can also mean listening, caring, and connecting with clients and colleagues. "Thinking like a lawyer" can mean carving out time to care for oneself. None of these changes need diminish a lawyer's skill. Many law schools now have programs to support student well-being, and I hope that those programs flourish and expand to more schools. In the meantime, we would all do well to help our law student friends keep thinking like humans, even as they learn to think like lawyers.


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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.