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What can law students and graduates do to preserve their mental health?

James Davis

Careers Commentator

Aspiring lawyers are no strangers to stress. They face academic stress in the sense their coursework requires extensive research, and professional stress in that peers are competing for the same opportunities. A 2019 survey from the Junior Lawyers Division of The Law Society UK found 93% of their 1800 student, trainee and young professional respondents were stressed, a quarter of those severely so. About half even experienced mental health issues, with a separate study from the US Department of Labor finding roughly 40% of law students had depression. One UK student in an interview with The Guardian confessed their lecturer compared law school to The Hunger Games, a dystopian science fiction series about young adults hunting each other to survive. 

Fortunately, modern lawyers no longer augment their arguments with salvaged firearms. But the comparison is understandable. Australian universities graduate roughly 15,000 new lawyers each year, with only roughly 66,000 total lawyers employed in the country at any given time. Law firms are free to select only the most impressive CVs, forcing most graduates to find employment elsewhere. 

Those that make it often fall into yet another mental health trap, namely the ‘overwork culture’ of top firms. Some Australian graduates in late 2018 apparently slept in their offices at some firms, while other firms were warned by state government bodies for encouraging dangerous health practices. These are issues that persist today.

It’s a lot to handle, but not impossible. Both students and fresh graduates have access to several methods for coping with the stress, maintaining a healthy work-life balance and coming out stronger in spite of the competition. 

What can I do about it as a law student?

Start by limiting social media use. Former American President Theodore Roosevelt once said ‘comparison is the thief of joy’, which is especially true for law students. It doesn’t help to be bombarded with images of peers at various clerkships, competitions or other opportunities on a daily basis. A nice trick is to use Messenger or Whatsapp instead of Facebook. Both are owned by Facebook, but at least you’re not exposed to Jenny’s European exchange trip album. 

Instagram is somewhat harder to moderate, so if you can’t stop using it altogether for any reason it may be worth downloading a productivity app (like Forest) to help limit your usage. 

Next, do whatever it takes to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep habits you build at uni will carry into professional life. If you see it as a nicety and not a necessity you’ve got a high chance of gaining or exacerbating mental health issues.
A practical way to build toward better sleep is deliberately overestimating time commitments. We’re all victim to a psychological concept known as the ‘planning fallacy’, a persistent belief in tasks being shorter than they actually are. So if you think readings will take 10 hours this week, estimate 12. Habitually doing this will mean time commitments you underestimate eat into a buffer (two hours in this case) before they eat into your sleep. This isn’t a perfect method; some weeks you literally just won’t have enough hours in a day. But it’s reliable outside dire circumstances.

The unfortunate truth about being a time-poor law student is the necessity of extracurricular activities. This isn’t to say these can’t be fun or engaging; they’re simply difficult to juggle among other commitments - yet are still worth keeping up. Whether you’re a soccer fanatic, debating champion or musician, your extracurricular activities will show prospective employers who you are. It also tells them you have killer time management. Above all they’re a chance to unwind doing something enjoyable. This is one of the most important methods in your arsenal to avoid or lessen mental health issues and de-stress while also building career prospects.

Finally: be proactive in reaching out for help when needed, whether it’s to friends, family, tutors or lecturers. The latter two will not go out of their way to help unless you ask. Even if you have the gravitas of Atticus Finch and emotional restraint of Marcus Aurelius, it won’t make you any less human. We all need connections, so don’t wait until you’re a mess before reaching out. 

What can I do about it as a law graduate?

What does a high-strung law firm and poorly funded public high school have in common? Drugs. A 2016 study found that one in five Australian lawyers reported a self-described ‘problematic’ abuse of drugs at some point in their career, with roughly 75% reporting their drug abuse began after starting law school.

If you need sleep after 20 hours of straight work, let your employer know; just don’t touch illicit substances for ‘assistance’. If they imply negative consequences for going home, it’s probably not a good long term workplace anyway.
If you’re coping with mental health issues (or any health issues for that matter), it’s better to see a professional rather than a ‘street pharmacist’. Even prescribed medications can be addictive and are a common cause of addiction among practising lawyers. So even in a situation where it’s necessary, always consult with a professional regarding safe dosages. 

In your limited time off it also pays to get into activities that are completely different from what you do day-to-day. So for instance, you may be an avid reader, but as a lawyer, you’re also reading for your job, albeit (hopefully) very different subject matter. This isn’t a call to swear off recreational reading! But if you’ve only got two hours on a Sunday to do something refreshing, instead choose to play a sport, go for a run, play a musical instrument or any number of other activities that don’t involve any of the capacities you use at work. Some lawyers make a habit of exercising over lunch. It’s entirely up to you, provided you make time for these activities in some way.

Finally, just be transparent if you’re having difficulties. It’s not weak to confess you’re having a hard time and would like advice with your workload, even as a junior lawyer. Everyone knows it’s tough. Firms have come a long way in the past 50 years in terms of empathy, even in places where junior lawyers are sleeping in the office. You’re not going to be shunned for asking for help. In fact, a good employer ought to recognise when a junior lawyer has self-identified a concern and wants to improve. That’s not a weakness; that’s just smart.
Remember: you’re not alone in this. All your peers are juggling the same difficulties too. There are always people you can talk with when you feel like you’re drowning. 

Final thoughts

The journey to becoming a lawyer will be tough, even if you use every technique mentioned here. It’ll take a healthy combination of passion, resilience and balanced life choices. But if you’re truly determined to take this path, more power to you - just remember to pace yourself. No career is worth permanent mental health issues. Recognise when you’re stressed, reach out to your support network and don’t feel ashamed about seeking help. Do that, and it’s hard to go wrong.