Understanding Lawyers by Understanding Law StudentsAttorney Mental Health Series: Part 2

Finding Research Participants

In my first post in this series, I described the research I conducted to examine personality characteristics of lawyers. In designing my research, I was confronted by the problem that lawyers are a difficult bunch to assess. Lawyers are busy and, like many types of working professionals, they tend to not be interested in participating in psychological research (in truth, most psychological research is conducted on students at universities). So, the first challenge involved finding research subjects that could provide an adequately representative pool of subjects.

Examining Attorney Personality Characteristics

After weighing alternatives, the decision was made to conduct the examination of attorneys’ personality characteristics at the site of an experience all attorneys share: the legal education. My thought was that all attorneys are distinguishable by virtue of their educational preparation. Perhaps, therefore, it would be possible to learn about attorneys by examining them at various stages of their training, when the initial stages of the socialization processes begin. I decided it would be prudent to look closely at the education process, in an effort to understand attorneys.

Not Enough Research

There is a clear scarcity of published psychological research focusing on law students. Past examinations of law students have been propelled by the goal of learning more about the legal educational process. This study, however, focused its examination on the psychophysiological impact the legal educational system might have on the student and lawyer.

The effectiveness of the legal educational system has been the subject of much debate, particularly in the past 50 years. Historically, a central focus in that debate was the struggle over whether and how that system should be changed. The data my study produced were not intended to add to that debate. Quite to the contrary, this research effort embarked from the presumption that the legal educational system is quite stable. Given the system’s undeniable stability, it seemed reasonable to explore whether there is a service health professionals might perform by infusing the system with resources from which past and present students might benefit. This begged an interesting further question: with what resources might the system be infused, and with what specific remedies in mind? Whereas my study intended to lay the foundation for the development of such resources, the creation of specific remedial programs, tailored to the individual needs of lawyers or law students is left to future research efforts.

Lawyers’ Emotional Well-being and Personalities: Is Law School to Blame?

Law school has long been identified as contributing to the development of anxiety and depression problems among law students. Dr. Andrew Watson, a psychiatrist and faculty member and professor of mine while I attended the University of Michigan Law School, specifically addressed the anxiety and stress reactions which are common among law students. Many individuals lacking advanced psychiatric or psychological training have also expressed concern regarding the impact which law school has on students’ psychological well-being. In fact, for many years legal scholars have speculated as to whether the emotional scarring evidenced by depression or anxiety disorders which many law students experience might have a lasting impact on the students’ personal development. The same concerns could be raised with regard to the high rates of substance abuse among both lawyers and law students.

Law professor Karl Klare asserted that the psychological scarring that occurs in law school is intentional. Klare asserts that this treatment of lawyers-in-training has as its acknowledged goal the transformation of the law student into someone more capable of behaving in certain ways which the student would likely have adjudged to be unacceptable prior to such training. Student writers have observed these behaviors in their fellow students and have been particularly critical in their documentation of them.

What are the behaviors law students are purportedly socialized to exhibit? If such behaviors exist, might it be accurate to suggest that they have functional roots within the legal educational environment? These questions call for a brief description of the prevailing model of legal education law schools in the United States have embraced for over 100 years.

The Case Study Method

Law schools adhere to the Case Study Method, introduced by Christopher Columbus Langdell while he served as Dean of the Harvard Law School in the late nineteenth century. The Case Study Method grew out of Langdell’s belief that the most effective way to learn about and understand the myriad nuances that have gradually come to define the fundamental legal doctrines is to study the actual court decisions (i.e., “cases”) that embody those nuances.

Through Langdell’s efforts, the Socratic Method became the preferred mode of teaching the Case Study Method in the late nineteenth century. Initially, the implementation of the Socratic Method was justified on the grounds that dialogue between the student and the professor was essential. It was argued that this dialogue is an especially vital element in a style of teaching that called upon the student to play an active role in order to elicit the relevant legal principles embedded in cases studied. The belief was that learning would be enhanced if the student were expected to assume these responsibilities in acquiring a legal education.

The Autocratic, Invasive, Hostile and Terrifying Classroom

Despite this well-intentioned inception, the Socratic Method came to be the greatest common source of criticism of legal education in the United States. Many commentators allege that the method has been altered by law professors in fundamental ways. Usually, this method involves the student being called upon to answer questions, without prior notice. The student is asked to respond to a series of questions which the professor poses regarding the particular court decision being studied. Whereas this might seem to describe a typical, if not placid, learning environment, the law school classroom is often described quite differently. Indeed, the Socratic classroom has been described as autocratic, invasive, hostile and terrifying. In establishing the parameters of the classroom discussion, law professors have been perceived by students as unprincipled, condescending and mean-spirited. Confirming this perception, one professor lamented that legal education is ritualistic, requiring that the student be subjected to “initiation rites of public humiliation, sarcasm, and ridicule.”

Reactions to Classroom Experiences

Law students’ reactions to their classroom experiences have been documented, as well. Watson described the process by which law student fears become generalized anxiety, often worsening to a state of panic, which can result in “almost total incapacitation”. Such “fight or flight” reactions have been likened to those reactions employed in circumstances in which an individual is confronted with aggression and hostility. One source of the aggression is perceived to be the professor. As one student described the situation: “students see professors as people who want to hurt them; professors actions often do hurt them, deeply.” One first-year law student’s vivid accounting of the experience, excerpted by Pipkin, captures the tone and nature of the consternation and disappointment which many writers have documented in law students:

“In my two and a half months here I have felt myself deteriorate mentally, emotionally and spiritually. My high level of self-confidence and self-pride that I carried with me is gone. For the first time in any academic or intellectual phase of my life I feel completely inadequate and find myself losing sleep. I am unable to communicate with former friends of mine from college who are not in law school. Law school has made me a miserable person and the worst thing about it is that I can sense it happening. I had quite a creative talent when I came here. I feel I have lost it. I had quite a flair with the subject matter of my undergraduate major. I find it inapplicable now. Is it necessary that I am doing this to myself? How much longer will I last? Does anybody in this school care?”

The Competitive Classroom

In documenting law student reactions to their classroom experiences, it is important to include those reactions in describing the prevailing dynamic of the classroom. Law students are inordinately competitive. “The prevalence of peer group enmity, friction, hostility, distaste, contempt, and the lack of group cohesiveness and morale” play a significant role in coloring the student’s experience. “A very great deal of social interaction goes on among students in class.” Students have been described as crueler than the teachers, howling with glee “when one of their number is dismembered.” It is common for law students to call each others’ arguments idiotic and heap ridicule on each other,” often with “acerbic sarcasm.” Kennedy asserts that the professor provokes and revels in these student behaviors, overtly encouraging students to join in treating the questioned student contemptuously.

Law students’ behavior has, in fact, been the focus of a fair amount of attention. Klare asserted that law students become individuals whom they, absent the law school experience, would not otherwise have become. This assertion has particular relevance to the present research effort. While Klare and others have suspected such a transformation occurs, few studies have attempted to explore this using validated psychological measures. Furthermore, the long and short-term health effects associated with psychological changes which a law student might experience have also not been studied extensively. One of the few studies to examine both psychological and physiological changes which temporally coincide with matriculation in a law school was conducted by Mclntosh, Reifman, Keywell, and Ellsworth (1994). Unlike similar research efforts involving law student stress, these researchers obtained measures of law students prior to their matriculation, rather than simply measuring them after they had completed some of their schooling.

One reason Klare’s suspicion arouses interest in the legal educational community involves the irony that the same personality traits which this educational system has been designed to instill (i.e., distrust, reverence of hierarchy, manipulative behaviors) form the basis of the public’s distrust and rejection of attorneys’ behavior. Despite attorneys’ efforts to improve public confidence and respect, much of the public which they serve views attorneys with disdain. This disdain has prompted legal scholars to attempt to determine its origins. In addition to analyses directed at the profession, there have been efforts to examine the wisdom of educational reforms. Evidence of this is also found in the existence of the legal educational reform movement, begun in the 1970’s, which was aimed at engendering ÒhumanismÓ in legal education. The movement was primarily concerned with improving upon the pedagogical effectiveness of the present model of legal education, with much emphasis placed on the allegedly unfortunate impact which that model has had on lawyer-client relations. The present system, it was argued, is creating attorneys who are not able to adequately represent their clients’ interests.

A Foundation to Explore the Validity of Past Assumptions

Calls for reform typically make several assumptions. In seeking to convince of the justification of reforms of the legal educational system and of the profession, there is an assumption, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, that attorneys possess values and behaviors that differ from those of “the rest of us”. Second, there is the assumption that when undergraduates matriculate in their first year of law school they do not yet possess the distinctive beliefs and behaviors which are associated with lawyers. Finally, and most alarming of all, is the assumption that the experience of graduating from a law school is somehow causally related to the exhibition of these behaviors and the retention of certain beliefs. By studying the differences in anger, depression, and anxiety in law students at various levels of law study, the present research effort intends to collect data which explores the extent to which the legal educational process affects law students. In examining such effects, this research effort hopes to provide a foundation upon which an exploration into the validity underlying the above assumptions might be undertaken.

The relative scarcity of psychological research addressing the nature and quality of legal education in this country is surprising. For decades, if not longer, there have been calls to revisit the decision to choose the Case Study Method with the attendant Socratic Method of teaching it. Indeed, from the professorial ranks, the student ranks, and the professional ranks, there is doubt and/or consternation expressed continually regarding the modus operandi which has prevailed in the majority of law schools. A sampling of statements which exemplify some of the more commonly expressed concerns includes: “With respect to legal education, it is common to suppose that the role of the student is subordinate, that students feel powerless, inadequate and exploited in the classroom”; “Fear, intimidation, and psychological manipulation of a law student’s sense of self is an integral part of the first year of legal education. For the many highly-motivated first year students, this can lead to a near constant state of anxiety”; “…a lot of these types of experiences. such as being squashed in class.. tend to cause a mood of withdrawal…’”; “Most law students go for months or years without hearing a single word of encouragement or praise from a professor. Most law students are desperate for praise and feedback”; “The law school curriculum disenfranchises students intellectually and disables and incapacitates them professionally”.

In the next posts, I will describe the nature of the study I conducted to try to assess certain personality characteristics of law students. The purpose of the study will be described. In the process of addressing the prupose, I will carefully describe the nature of various forms of anxiety, anger, and depression. These discussions will be followed by a discussion of the findings and of the implications of the findings.

Additional References and Resources