Millicent is a third-year corporate law associate at a major law firm and loves her job. She sometimes works 10-hour days when closing a big business transaction, but those days are balanced by days off or shorter workdays. While she checks her email and works a few hours over the weekend, she always takes time to recharge herself and spend time with friends. She meditates or does other mindfulness practices regularly, especially during busy times, even if that’s a few minutes of breathing awareness or taking a short walk in nature.
During an extended time of remote working because of a lengthy COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, her firm instituted a practice of automatic “away from office” messages on emails between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. after partners noticed increased email activity throughout the night. The partner Millicent works most closely with is a valued mentor. He regularly checks in on her workload and makes it possible for Millicent to have harmony between work and her personal life — a culture fostered through the example of all the partners. She doesn’t know if she wants to practice corporate law forever, but she enjoys the sense of meaning she feels about her work.
Does this sound like a fairy tale? An imaginary law firm where the work culture and values actively support the well-being of lawyers and staff? Admittedly, Millicent’s firm does not describe the typical law firm today, which is marked by greatly compromising the wellness of legal professionals, especially associates in their first decade of practice. Change, though, is possible. I believe the road forward requires culture shifts in two areas — law schools and legal work environments.
Part A: Shifting the Culture in Law Schools
Let’s begin with law schools. The humanizing legal education movement, among others, has called for substantive changes in legal education for over a decade and is credited with improving the learning environments in many law schools. Those changes include a demonstrated respect for students, a focus on collaborative learning, increased assessments and feedback, attention to self-directed learning, diverse teaching methodologies, and more. The American Bar Association has also been a leading force in addressing the wellness crisis in legal education and among legal professionals. And yet, more is needed. Law students enter law school with a psychological profile like that of the general public — fewer than 10% enter law school experiencing depression. After three years of law school, up to 40% of students experience depression.
Given that most law students begin law school as reasonably happy and well-adjusted people, one must ask what it is about law school that contributes to such a pronounced decline in student wellness. The answer to that question is complex because many of the very factors that make good lawyers also contribute to their mental health challenges. These factors are compounded by sources of anxiety that disproportionately affect students who identify with groups that have experienced marginalization and feel threatened and vulnerable in American society.
Culture shifts can be painful. Even when stakeholders clearly recognize the need for change, actual change, if undertaken at all, can take time. But the legal profession can no longer afford the status quo or gradual, incremental reforms. The cost is too great. Law students report experiencing stress at significantly higher levels than medical and graduate students and, tragically, 21% of law students reported serious thoughts of suicide. I am not suggesting that schools compromise academic standards or lose focus of their mission to graduate well-equipped students. What I am suggesting is a culture shift from one that erodes student wellness to one that supports it. Within the law school environment, I believe that change in the areas below can be decisive in improving the well-being of current law students and future legal professionals. Such changes would serve to better prepare students to manage the stresses inherent in law practice by building their self-awareness, empathy, and resilience.
Thinking Like a Lawyer
During my year between college and law school, I interned on Capitol Hill and some of the people I worked with had law degrees. When they discussed the merits of certain legislation or developed strategy, I noticed how the legally trained aides framed their positions and crafted arguments. I was already leaning toward law school and being around these legally trained minds convinced me. I wanted to learn to think like a lawyer. I literally said those words.
When I arrived at law school, I experienced culture shock. I felt as though I had been dropped into a foreign land. I had to learn a new way of reading, deciphering, and analyzing information. I experienced a completely different classroom interaction with my professors and classmates than what I had experienced in college. I learned how to dissect fact patterns, build an argument, and adopted a new method of speaking. I learned to think like a lawyer.
Those critical thinking and analyzing skills are crucial to good lawyering. What we now know, however, is that a singular focus on those skills comes at a high cost. The maxim, “think like a lawyer,” comes from the legal profession’s approach to problem solving by spotting issues, looking for defects in arguments, focusing on flaws and potential problems, and viewing possibilities with skepticism. Those skills are essential when protecting a client’s interests in a transaction, keeping an innocent person out of jail, or ensuring compliance with tax regulations. However, a focus on those skills at the expense of a holistic approach to professional identity formation often leads students to place a premium on rules, consistency, and logic, and diminishes their interpersonal and empathy skills. In fact, students have reported that law school’s intellectual emphasis led them to suppress their feelings and to care less about others.
The same characteristics that are often identified with good lawyering may also predispose that person to depression. Superior problem-solving skills lead to high success rates, but also to perfectionism. A constant focus on problems and what can go wrong is necessary in legal analysis, but also leads to lower resiliency. While these traits may result in high levels of achievement, they also highly correspond to burnout and depression. For far too many law students and lawyers, the end result has been alcohol and substance use, suicide, or suicidal ideations. While this problem has been acknowledged over the years, significant change has not occurred in the law school culture, particularly for first-generation students, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, students living with disabilities, and non-traditional students.
The solution does not require abandoning the traditional approach of teaching law students to think logically and analytically. Rather, law schools must integrate concepts of empathy, compassion, interpersonal connections, and constructive introspection along with issue spotting and analytical reasoning. Thinking like a lawyer can be both a professional strength and a positive wellness strategy.
Broadening the Concept of Professional Identity Formation
The medical profession has long realized that medical students begin their professional identity formation while still in medical school. Law schools have increasingly come to that same conclusion and, thanks to an emerging professional identity formation (PIF) movement, PIF courses and programs are growing in law schools. This evolution is urgently needed so that students perceive their burgeoning legal identity beyond their role as stakeholders in the legal system. While professional distinction, commitment to clients, and fidelity to the law are appropriately part of a lawyer’s professional identity, self-awareness, empathy, self-care, and cross-cultural consciousness should receive equal emphasis in a holistic approach to professional identity formation.
Moreover, the standard by which PIF is measured is problematic. As in the rest of American society, the dominant group is the norm in legal education and, therefore, serves as the standard by which PIF is defined. Such a narrow and non-inclusive standard discounts people of color and other groups that have been marginalized. As has been aptly observed, such alienation impacts the system as a whole. 
Wide-reaching shifts must occur in law school curricula and culture to create a multidimensional foundation from which to teach professional identity formation. Such a foundation requires fostering practices such as curiosity, mindfulness, and constructive reflection and must embrace non-dominant identities so that all students see themselves as a valued part of the profession.
Addressing Impostor Syndrome and Stereotype ThreatImpostor syndrome and stereotype threat are two phenomena that can drive the stress and anxiety commonly seen in law students. While distinct concepts, both impostor syndrome and stereotype threat underscore the anxiety that some groups who have been marginalized experience. Whether they feel as though they do not belong (i.e., impostor syndrome) or that they must prove they belong (i.e., stereotype threat), some groups are hyper-aware of how they are othered, and this awareness influences how they navigate spaces. Instead of feeling free to express themselves fully, they may mask, camouflage, or alter themselves to be accepted by the majoritarian group. Individuals who identify with two or more marginalized groups may experience multi-layered identity-based oppression.
Studies show that impostor syndrome impedes professional identity formation, and that the intensity of impostor feelings tend to increase during career transitions. I see that phenomenon in my externship and clinical law students as they transition from the classroom into field placements and clinical law practice. They demonstrate significant levels of insecurity and impostorism as they assume the role of representing actual clients, even when their performance demonstrates high levels of proficiency.
Students more easily overcome impostor syndrome when they receive direct personal support from professors, mentors, or others in the institution. Such support can be achieved by providing upper-level mentors to aid beginning students in gaining a sense of belonging, improving cultural consciousness among faculty and students to boost feelings of safety and belonging, and fostering a sense of community on campus.
Academic institutions have substantial control over the prevalence of stereotype threat, as students’ experience of it is often in response to their immediate environment. Studies reveal that directly acknowledging the existence of stereotype threat can help neutralize it. It also can be reduced or dissolved when faculty and administrators provide feedback to students in a way that celebrates their struggles as a sign of emotional strength rather than intellectual weakness. Reframing messaging around the bar exam would also mitigate stereotype threat. For example, academic support programs can clearly communicate to students that the bar exam is a test of preparation rather than a test of intelligence. Other interventions include providing students with positive images of people with whom they identify (including a diverse faculty), exposure to positive role models, opportunities for conscious reflection, and mindfulness practices. Instituting these practices in law schools will foster a more supportive environment for all students.
Addressing Burnout and Trauma
Students must proactively take steps themselves to understand and prevent burnout. They will, invariably, find themselves in situations where their external environment does not prioritize their well-being and they will need self-care skills to thrive in a dysfunctional setting. But law schools also must take responsibility for preventing burnout. One of the most important responses to burnout is to simply acknowledge its existence and the vulnerability of students who may be experiencing those conditions. Law students enter an extremely competitive and adversarial environment where they receive daily messages that only the strongest survive. That message needs to change. What students need is resilience. When students develop resilience, they have learned skills that allow them to work through and recover from emotional and situational difficulties.
Law schools can help students develop resilience in several ways:
Providing these types of support requires a commitment from law schools. Schools can either provide training for faculty and administrators interested in providing direct wellness support to students or schools can hire coaches who are trained to support students, faculty, and staff in their wellness. When students receive direct attention to their well-being in law school, they learn to thrive as students and then as young lawyers because they have developed the skills to manage the stresses inherent in law school and practice.
Another predictor of burnout is Race-Based Traumatic Stress (RBTS or racial trauma). RBTS is a mental and emotional injury experienced by Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color. While studies do not yet exist on how RBTS impacts law students in particular, we know that non-majority law students experience racism and that racism itself is traumatic. Particularly relevant to current events in the United States, increased racism and trauma occurs during national challenges and times of tragedy. Middle Eastern Americans, including law students, experienced increased discrimination following September 11, 2001. Asian Americans, including law students, have been blamed for the existence of COVID-19 in the U.S. African Americans, including law students, experience trauma as the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others underscore the systemic racism that places all people of color under threat. Belonging to multiple marginalized groups compounds the impact of racism and may increase experiences of racial trauma.
Given the ongoing racial hostility encountered by students of color at predominantly white law schools, racial trauma must be addressed when considering the wellness needs of students. When students of color engage in protests and other activities to fight racial injustice, those additional stresses may result in less emotional bandwidth to perform academically. Studies on adult learners have found that such trauma may negatively affect student learning.
As with burnout, simply acknowledging the reality of racial trauma and how it can affect students can be a first step to mitigating such trauma. Law schools can also provide allyship training to address the trauma of “otherism” in law school. Creating supportive communities and spaces for students to share their stories and feel validated can go a long way to counteracting the devaluation that discrimination brings. Justice itself, finally, is the ultimate salve for racial trauma. Law schools should be advocates for racial justice, both internally and externally, and thereby affirm the value of each and every student.
Part B: Shifting the Culture in Law Firms and Other Legal Work Environments
While the law school experience has been shown to erode student wellness for many, this negative trend continues across the first decade of their work as legal professionals. Legal work environments further contribute to the problem by often being places that actively promote stress and anxiety and de-emphasize wellness. Given that dynamic, it may not be surprising that lawyers in the first decade of practice experience mental health challenges and substance use disorders at rates substantially higher than the general population.
Legal work is stressful. I spent my first six years after law school practicing in firms — first in a very large firm and then in a smaller firm. I learned skills at both firms that I continue to develop today, I enjoyed many aspects of my work, and I made connections with people who continue to inspire me. Despite those benefits, law firms typically curate unhealthy environments for their lawyers, and especially their young associates. Driven by the pressure-filled billable hours requirements and the partnership track, many associates feel a lack of control over their workloads and by extension, their lives. Even before the pandemic, associates felt the need to be always available. That could mean checking and responding to work emails seven days a week at all hours of the day and night, including while on vacation. Or showing up at the office on weekends, even if the work could be done at home.
Lawyer satisfaction surveys before the pandemic showed that 74% of lawyers felt the legal profession had a negative effect on their mental health. The primary reasons given were the inability to disconnect, billable hours pressures, and lack of sleep. Since the pandemic, a 2021 Bloomberg survey of attorney workload and hours found that half of the respondents reported a decline in well-being in the first quarter of 2021, with lower short-term job satisfaction and increased burnout rates. Those who reported declining well-being identified heavier workloads, an inability to disconnect from work, and increased health issues such as disrupted sleep and anxiety, as contributing factors. Many young attorneys also reported feeling isolated during the pandemic and unable to advance their careers through typical networking channels. Less-experienced lawyers lack the support structures that many established lawyers have, making them more susceptible to mental health challenges and substance use.
The Challenge Extends to In-House Counsel and Public Interest
This dysfunctional culture is not limited to law firms. In-house counsel and public interest lawyers also experience stress from work culture. In-house lawyers in their first decade of practice work hours similar to law firm lawyers and experience burnout at about the same rate. The pandemic has worsened the situation for them as well. A recent poll revealed an increase in work hours for in-house counsel, with 74% of in-house lawyers reporting moderate to high levels of burnout primarily as a result of blurred boundaries between work and personal life.
While not held to a billable-hours requirement, some public interest lawyers face unique stressors of their own. They regularly encounter clients from underserved communities who experience a wide range of poverty conditions. Typically, by the time a person seeks assistance from legal aid or is on the caseload of a prosecutor or public defender, they are experiencing a very stressful, and often traumatic life event. Almost daily, public interest lawyers are immersed in stories and pictures of violence, heartache, and trauma. As they manage large caseloads of these emotionally charged events, lawyers can experience secondary trauma, which may lead to diminished pleasure and interest in activities, irritability, difficulty sleeping, impaired concentration, depression, significantly higher levels of PTSD, and burnout.
The COVID-19 Factor and Impact on Women Lawyers
For decades, most lawyers accepted the longstanding culture of legal practice that often included near-constant availability, heavy caseloads, workplace inequality, and the undervaluing of associate work. The pandemic has upended that generally unchallenged acceptance. While lawyers may not account for large numbers in the so-called “Great Resignation,” many younger associates are shifting employment in numbers larger than usual. Despite the “enormous” bonuses firms are paying to retain associates, lawyers are moving from one firm to another and between in-house and law firms, leading a recruiter to quip that it is more like a “Great Reshuffling” of lawyers. One segment of lawyers, however, are seriously contemplating leaving the legal profession altogether — women.
Stress and burnout account for “crisis-level numbers” of women lawyers considering leaving the legal profession. Recent reports reveal that 25% of women lawyers surveyed reported high levels of work-family conflict and fewer opportunities for advancement as sources of mental health distress and burnout. Women also found themselves disproportionately in the role of primary caregiver for children and other family members during the pandemic. These factors put women among the top of employees likely to quit their jobs in the near future. Other reasons that lead women to consider leaving the legal profession include not feeling valued by their employer and not experiencing a sense of meaning and belonging at work, especially among non-white employees.
The Lonely Lawyer – The Quiet Wellness Threat
Even lawyers who do not report mental health challenges still report feeling a “profound ambivalence” about their work. It is no surprise, then, that of all professional occupations, the practice of law rates as the loneliest type of work. Factors that may explain the rating of lawyer loneliness relate back to some of the traits that developed in law school. That is, that law students and lawyers are trained to rely more on their thinking skills than their feeling skills. Psychologists say that thinking without a healthy balance of feeling may lead to chronic loneliness.
Another characteristic is that lawyers often work in isolation, even when they are on a team. Especially for new lawyers, that may be a result of low collaboration opportunities in law school. Law students generally have the opportunity to participate on a team through moot court, student affinity groups, or law journal. Too few students, however, have a chance to experience true collaboration in law school, where people combine their knowledge, efforts, and perspectives to achieve a common goal. In other words, they think together. Without a culture of collaboration, lawyers may not feel connected to the larger system, and that can lead to more withdrawal.
The inability to set healthy boundaries is another trait that can lead to feelings of loneliness. Blurred boundaries often lead to feeling overwhelmed, but instead of speaking up young lawyers may put their heads down and power through, which leads to isolation and makes boundary setting even harder.
Finally, another common trait of many lawyers (and law students) may lead to loneliness — that of perfectionism. As a recovering perfectionist, I think that perfectionism sometimes is unduly criticized. There are advantages to perfectionism, such as having the self-motivation and drive to get things done. But then, there are the costs of perfectionism, such as the constant self-evaluation, the “never good enough” mentality, and the self-imposed, unrealistically high expectations. For young lawyers, the stakes feel very high as they compete with other associates for retention, advancement, and bonuses.
Meaning as an Antidote to Loneliness
Meaning. Humans have an innate connection to meaning. In fact, our connection to meaning is so strong that a sense of meaning can cure loneliness. Meaning is a subjective concept that is significantly determined by the social, societal, and cultural frameworks we have acquired. For some people, the meaning attached to their work comes from how much money they make, for others meaning comes from their status, and still others find meaning in the purpose, or calling, of their work. Regardless of our meaning framework, every person wants to feel a sense of meaning attached to their work.
Meaning counters loneliness and isolation because meaning, at its essence, is connection. We find meaning by connecting to a broader, highly valued purpose. We find meaning in daily work rituals, such as chatting in the hallways or having lunch together. We also find meaning in security. At work, security means a place where you feel welcome, valued, and, hopefully, where the working conditions align with your needs. In the midst of lockdowns, homeschooling, and Zoom fatigue, many lawyers have awakened to the absence of meaning in their careers. Fueled by burnout and a lack of control over their work conditions, some lawyers are choosing to take a step back or change careers. Even those who are choosing to stay in the legal profession are striving for more meaning and are being more insistent about what they want in their career.
Wellness Solutions in the WorkplaceMany legal employers have already made a greater commitment to the mental health and overall well-being of their employees, particularly as a result of the pandemic. There are further steps that legal workplaces can take.
The Power of Modeling
From the moment new lawyers walk in the door, they consciously and subconsciously absorb how senior attorneys and partners conduct themselves, how they treat their colleagues, how they reflect the culture of the workplace, and how they respond to their own stresses. What less-experienced attorneys absorb may be illuminating and inspiring, but for some it may be toxic.Boundary setting may be one of the most important traits to model right now. Creating boundaries in a legal work environment depends largely on the people who control the culture of the workplace. Now that remote working means that offices are situated just steps away from personal space, it is even more important to establish clear lines for associates and staff. If partners and attorney supervisors send emails late into the night, associates will feel compelled to watch for those emails and respond. If senior lawyers signal the expectation that associates work every weekend, associates will feel compelled to do so. If supervisors treat vacations as remote work locations, associates will do likewise, if they feel free to take vacations at all. Given that role modeling has a significant effect on how junior employees develop professionally, senior attorneys and partners have an opportunity to promote wellness by modeling it themselves.
Specific Workplace Wellness Strategies
Here are concrete steps legal employers can take to make it possible for lawyers to experience both greater wellness and meaning at work.Step 1: Check in and ask your legal team:
a. Do they feel their work is acknowledged, respected, and rewarded?
b. Do they feel a sense of connection with their colleagues?
c. Do they have a sense of appropriate autonomy over their work?
d. Do they feel the ability to take sufficient breaks and vacations where they can completely disconnect from the office?
e. Do they feel that their work experience brings meaning to their lives?
Step 2: Provide free access to mental health resources and wellness coaching.
Step 3: Have partners model boundary setting by taking vacations and regulating email usage during off hours.
Step 4: Express gratitude by acknowledging associates’ work.
Step 5: Create a system to monitor and manage associate workload.
Step 6: Include questions about wellness and self-care in performance reviews.
Not all law students and lawyers will experience mental health challenges or drink too much. Many will find happiness and fulfillment in their legal careers. Some will easily integrate their work and professional lives in ways that allow them to prioritize self-care. That should be acknowledged. But that’s not the whole picture. For too many law students and lawyers, the study and practice of law comes at the expense of their own well-being. That must change. Law schools, legal employers, and the legal profession generally all will benefit from a wholehearted and long-term commitment to law student and lawyer wellness. The greatest benefit, however, is that by creating conditions that make it possible for law students and lawyers to experience wellness and meaning at school and work, individual lives are improved, and possibly saved.
There is a growing groundswell around the legal academy and across professional circles calling for changes in the way we shape new lawyers and then support them through their opening decade of practice. We have the tools — what we now need is the will to use them to make needed changes.
Janet Thompson Jackson is a law professor, a leader in law student and lawyer wellness, a certified wellness coach and yoga instructor, a nonprofit consultant, and an inclusion & belonging collaborator. Her driving philosophy is that preparing students to be successful in the legal profession means helping them to manage the stresses inherent in law school and practice. Her innovative program, Well-Law, equips students, lawyers, and legal professionals with wellness education and techniques to manage their daily stress, improve performance, and boost long-term wellness.
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Janet Thompson Jackson, "Wellness and Law: Reforming Legal Education to Support Student Wellness," 65 Howard L.J. 1 (2021) citing Rhonda V. Magee, Legal Education and the Formation of Professional Identity: A Critical Spirituo-Humanistic – “Humanity Consciousness” - Perspective, 31 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 467, 469 (2007) at note 94.
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