Law School Survival Series: Mental Health

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Lawyers have a bad rap for being callous drunks, greedy cokeheads, and ambulance-chasing creeps, and look that's not entirely unfounded. Some of these people are straight up criminals who are bad at their jobs (lookin at you, Manafort). Turns out, though, that a lot of this behavior can be traced back to the mess that is law school, the high stress of practicing law, and the proclivity for perfectionists with already-clinical anxiety levels to choose the legal profession. Luckily, there's a growing movement of lawyers and law schools that are at least attempting to take on the difficult conversations around mental health in a profession that is notoriously hard-headed and slow to change. This info is not meant to scare you away from law school. Knowing all this will help you prepare for the storm of very unexpected emotions headed your way. Here are some helpful tools to have in your mental health kit from day one.

1. Know Thyself

Law school is going to probably be the most mentally challenging time of your life. You won't have enough time, you won't have enough sleep, and you *certainly* won't have enough vegetables. Any cracks in the foundations of your relationships, with yourself, your friends, and your SOs, will turn into canyons that may or may not lead to complete collapse. Some of this can't be avoided and it might be that certain relationships needed to go anyway, but you're stuck with yourself, so figuring out a way to strengthen your relationship with yourself is the best way to ensure that you don't completely lose it before 1L is even over.

For me, this involved hella therapy. I'm talking years. But maybe you have a solid handle on yourself and your insecurities already. You feel capable of a full range of human emotions, your relationships are healthy, balanced, and not overly codependent. You know what you like and you're not afraid to ask for what you want. Congrats! You are somehow a well-adjusted millennial, I'm not sure how you got here but I'm happy you came. For you, I would suggest identifying the people and activities that make you feel most grounded, that remind you of who you are. Write that on a list and keep it with you for when you are feeling your lowest and you've forgotten what your life was or who you were before law school.

For the rest of you, hello, mental health is a spectrum and we're all here for the ride. Get a therapist before you go to law school. Read some self-help books. They make some specifically for law students because we're such a mess, but I personally prefer Brene Brown for all of my self-help needs. She is a genius, a goddess among mortals, she will teach you to be vulnerable and open-hearted and true to yourself. You're gonna want to be the best version of yourself when you start because it's all downhill from here (kidding, mostly). Identify your hobbies, the things that get your mind off everything, that help you get a flow going, that make you feel most alive. Do those a lot. Make it a habit that will be harder to break when school starts. For me, my favorite outlet is singing sad pop covers to myself with my guitar. Maybe for you it's super long runs or dumb doodles or lifting really heavy weights or cooking elaborate meals. Do it for you and no one else. Return to those habits when the going gets tough in school.

2. Get a Therapist

I sincerely cannot stress enough the importance of getting a therapist lined up before or during your first semester of law school. My law school's health services had a referral service. I just had to schedule an appointment with them and they gave me a list of mental health specialists that could work for me. Psychology Today, despite looking like the Reader's Digest that's been on your grandmother's toilet for two decades, is shockingly helpful for finding and learning background information on therapists. I hit the jackpot with the first therapist I saw and she singlehandedly turned me into a better person than I was before I met her. Usually you won't get that lucky and you might need to see a few therapists before you find *the one.* Keep looking, I promise you it's worth it.

Something happens when you're so stressed that you're torn down to your barest, survival self. Things come bubbling up to the surface that you thought you'd dealt with years ago. I felt like 6-12 months of hard work in therapy prior to law school came fully undone within the first semester. I thought I'd backtracked. Turns out I just had to relearn some hard lessons and unlearn some coping behavior that was no longer serving me. I am undoubtedly a better person for it. Without the help of a professional I could have become bitter, closed off, afraid of this stressed-out, angry side of me instead of willing to work with and through her. I feel like a much stronger version of myself. I know I can handle anything. I would not feel this way without the help of a therapist during my first year of law school. Get a therapist. Get a therapist. Get a therapist.

The rule against perpetuities will be there after your broccoli cooks, I promise.

3. Eat Vegetables, Get Exercise

Yeah, basic health stuff, but you gotta actually do it. You can get through on caffeine and alcohol, probably, but you'll be so burnt out you'll forget why you did this to begin with. Health problems that were dormant or non-existent before law school could come raging to the surface. Your eyesight could get worse. You might need a root canal. Stomach ulcers. Latent auto-immune disorders. These are real life examples. You need to take care of yourself. When you're too busy to function and you have no idea how to wrap your head around the Erie Doctrine and also feed yourself at the same time you need to set that civ pro book aside and you need to walk to the grocery store (or order Instacart, a literal lifesaver for me on multiple occasions) and just cook up a bunch of vegetables and some kind of protein and get it down your gullet before marching forward. The rule against perpetuities will be there after your broccoli cooks, I promise.

Joyously, that back-breaking tuition you're paying probably includes a campus gym. Go to there. Run for 20 minutes and call it a day. Go for a long, head-clearing walk. Move your damn bod. It puts everything into perspective and, if you're like me, you can ride those endorphins for a couple days before needing to go back. Make it a habit. Make it a habit before you even start law school, if you can. On your list of priorities it should come third after (1) sleep; and (2) food. Which reminds me

4. Sleep

I'm not kidding you need to sleep or you will lose it. That's straight up science I'm not making this up. Plan for sleep. Make time for sleep. Do not study instead of sleep it won't work. No one will be impressed with how little sleep you're getting. It is not a testament to your dedication that you only get 4 hours a night. It will wear you down and degrade your performance. The world does not need more sleep-deprived lawyers. Break the cycle. 8 hours or bust.

No one will be impressed with how little sleep you're getting.

5. Find Your People

I have yet to find a person who is in or has gone to law school who loved everyone in their classes. I think that might be patently impossible. Most law students are stubborn and weird. You gotta find the people who are stubbornly weird the way you are and you gotta leave the rest to do their own thing. Don't burn bridges, frankly that will just lead to more stress and mental health issues. Be at peace with the ones you don't see eye-to-eye with, hold desperately onto the ones who make your heart soar. Don't let them go. Form study groups with them. Sit next to them in classes. Drink with them. Cry with them. Whine about finals with them. You need them. Don't isolate. The beauty and the curse of law school is that you are stuck with this little group of weirdos through thick and thin and you gotta use that commiseration to your advantage. Don't let the social aspect of law school bog you down. It probably will. Most law schools give you lockers and you don't know anyone and you feel dumb constantly, so it's like some perverse high school experiment on adults. It's gonna be weird. Embrace it, run headfirst into it, find your people.

It's your life, don't forget to live it.

6. Get a Life

This piece of advice is more aspirational than anything and I certainly have yet to achieve it while in law school, but try to have at least a semblance of a life outside of school. A life that isn't just hobbies you do by yourself but that involves people who are not in The Law, who have full lives and can bring you into them and remind you of the big beautiful world beyond law school. Lead tours at a museum. Join an intramural sports team. Go watch your friends play music. Volunteer for a couple hours a week. Be a part-time dog walker. Idk, it's your life, don't forget to live it.

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