Law schools should take on students' mental health and substance use from day one
The legal profession has a drinking problem. Whether we like to admit it or not, students are often socialized into a drinking culture in law school, if not before. From where I sit as a law school dean, law students and members of the legal profession continue to struggle with mental health issues for which substance use can be a contributing factor.
As students begin to think about life after law school, many may find themselves wanting to confront previously hidden issues and challenges. At the same time, a number of these students might fear getting help, owing to stigma among their peers and within the profession, bar disclosures and potential hiring issues. Often, by the time they have overcome these concerns to get to me for assistance and resources, the situation has affected their grades and their personal life—and potentially their career aspirations.
Working with Bridgewater State University’s David Nee Foundation and the University of St. Thomas School of Law, I copiloted a national survey in 2021 on law student well-being involving 39 law schools and more than 5,400 respondents, which found that 44% of law students drank enough to get drunk in the prior 30 days, and 18% had been diagnosed with depression since starting law school.
Once hired, however, the problem does not go away. A 2016 study of the legal profession, funded in part by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, revealed that 20.6% of licensed attorneys showed signs of problematic drinking, compared with 11.8% of the general workforce; that 28% reported experiencing “mild or higher levels of depression”; and that almost 50% reported having concerns about depression during their career. And a study released this year by one of that study’s authors found that both mental health issues and substance use were linked to thoughts of suicide.
All told, we have to do better. Counselors working with law students will share that while the rigors intrinsic in law school (a demanding workload, a desire for top grades, growing debt, etc.) may serve as accelerants, it is the deep-seated issues coming to the surface that cause the greatest level of anxiety, depression and drinking.
For lawyers, the billable hour, the constant demand on one’s time, the Friday-afternoon emails and Saturday work calls all exacerbate the issues lawyers have carried with them since before law school. From day one of law school until retirement as a senior partner, each individual should have access to the help they need.
At law schools, we need administrators, aided by on-site counselors, to provide ongoing support and well-being programming to underscore that it is OK to not be OK. The messaging starts at orientation and continues with commonplace walk-by tabling with giveaways and wellness resources. It continues with faculty who acknowledge stress points in the semester, perhaps folding in regular breathing exercises, and who also inform a relevant official when a student is missing class. If resources permit, consider compelling each entering student to meet with a counselor—not for a session, but to understand what getting help will feel like—while in turn reducing the stigma in doing so. We must remind our students constantly that seeking help is a sign of strength that will not be held against them in school, when applying for admission to the bar or when applying for employment.
And we need to stay current. Schools should maintain metrics of how many students are attending which events and adjust accordingly. (Is the time of day wrong? Is it an event better served on Zoom? Will the availability of food enhance turnout?) Schools should distribute a survey at least biennially to reconfirm that what was working is still of interest to the student population (and adjust if it is not). Also, if budget is a challenge, consider reaching out to law firms that may have an interest in sponsoring events related to well-being. And students should also work from the bottom up, sharing with their administrators what is needed and advocating for change when needs are not being met.
We recently hosted a cocktail event here at American University Washington College of Law. Six teams of faculty provided recipes and produced drinks, with a twist: We served drinks only using spirit-free ingredients. Students were invited to enjoy and judge each drink (without fear of inebriation!) along with a celebrity judge from a downtown nonalcoholic bar. More than 275 students attended. With a pianist and uplighting, the atmosphere was lively, if not cocktail bar-like.
Programming cannot be held as a one-time, “look-what-we-did” effort: Much like breaking a bad habit, well-being is developed and supported when programming is repeated, so that students get into a regular, positive routine. Law school deans can lead by example when they speak to these issues during faculty meetings and can support administration-led efforts. They can further the agenda by directly hosting one or more wellness events. (A yoga session hosted by our dean was sitting-room only.)
In the world beyond law school, we need more high-profile figures—like U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, who publicly admitted himself to a hospital for depression—to be out about their personal challenges so that the associated stigma is overcome, and more individuals are comfortable seeking assistance.
We need law firms to move beyond window-dressing statements that they care about well-being and match their words with action: Bring in a consultant like Patrick Krill (who co-authored the above studies) to assess and implement needs at your firm, or resilience and burnout expert Paula Davis, whose article “Stress, Loneliness, & Overcommitment Predict Lawyer Suicide Risk” offers concrete ideas for healthier workloads and ensuring a sense of belonging in the work environment.
Managing partners who care about the well-being of their colleagues have to lead by example. That means, inter alia, being both proactive in understanding what your firm needs and physically present for the ensuing wellness events and programs. Survey your employees about their well-being needs, and actively and regularly commit to their concerns. Later, talk about it publicly (bragging is OK here) so your fellow law firms follow your lead.
So yes, host a mocktail event. Talk about drinking, stress and wellness. You won’t just improve your campus culture, you’ll be setting your students up for lifelong success.
David Jaffe is dean of students at the American University Washington College of Law. Jaffe works on his mental health every day, including being present with his daughters whenever he can.
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