Who are Law Students?Attorney Mental Health Series: Part 3

In the last blog post, I described the debilitating discomfort law students sometimes confront and the interpersonal unpleasantness to which some law students are routinely exposed. Similar criticisms are common among members of the various state Bar Associations, with discussions of reforms in legal education often citing improved service provision as one expected benefit. While criticisms of lawyers and legal education have spawned improved law school courses in professional ethics, this reform has not altered the lawyer’s professional identity. It is this professional identity, this set of behaviors and beliefs, which was most relevant to my research effort. My study examined the possibility that there might exist a lawyer persona, perhaps developed during law school, that is associated with various physical and mental health risks. If these health risks do exist, how may they be reduced within the existing educational and professional legal systems?

Assessing Physical and Mental Health State of Law Students

With my study, I attempted to begin to answer these questions by assessing characteristics of individuals who choose to pursue a career in law. Anger, anxiety, depression, anger control and somatic (physical, related to the body) complaints were measured before and during law school in order to determine whether those who aspire to become attorneys are distinguishable from individuals who do not. The same comparison was drawn between prelaw students and those who have already begun law school.

Measuring Anger, Anxiety and Depression

The psychological literature available reflects a scarcity of serious studies that focus on the developmental changes in anger which are observable in law students. Previous research has noted raised levels of depression and anxiety in law students. By measuring these constructs in law students at several stages in the legal educational process, my study sought to uncover typical developmental trends in the exhibition of such traits. These trends were hypothesized to reveal the effects which law school exposure has on law students and to ultimately reveal the stability of the measurements obtained for this particular population. Finally, the data measured each subject’s “state” levels of these same constructs, at various levels of exposure to law schooling.

Few could deny the emotional toll which adheres to the process of earning a legal education. In fact, studies have confirmed many law students’ suspicions that law school is more stressful than other types of graduate programs. Despite these findings of raised levels of stress in law students, little mention has been made of the possibility that long-term health effects might be causally linked to the stress people who may be labeled “law types” experience. One explanation might be that the headaches and other treatable symptoms linked to anger are not considered serious or permanent and therefore do not arouse concern in students, attorneys, or those who care about them. On the other hand, perhaps chronic illnesses are presumed to be linked to the schooling and professional activities, but are considered unavoidable consequences of those activities, for certain individuals. Whatever the explanation, attention to such matters has usually been brief, and has often been overtly dismissive.

Attorney Work Behavior’s Impact on Mental Health

The psychological literature is also relatively silent with regard to the specific work behaviors of attorneys and the impact which these might have on their mental health. I have hypothesized that measures of anger in law students will reveal characteristics that distinguish this subject population from the general population. To express the significance of such findings, I will detail the present state of knowledge regarding the health risks associated with various forms of anger, anxiety and depression.