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Boston Bar Journal

Well-Being Series: Law Student Mental Health: An Open Dialogue

February 09, 2023
| Winter 2023 Vol. 67 #1

By Raashi Sharma

Content warning: The following article discusses topics including eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide. If you or your loved ones need support, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Line toll-free at 1-800-273-8255.

“Remember to prioritize self-care.”

This is the usual phrase that appears when the topic of mental health arises in law school. Although it is a helpful reminder during a busy week, it is often the last thing students think about when managing competing deadlines, including multiple reading assignments, part-time jobs, pending job interviews, journal responsibilities, and family duties. The reality is that the day-to-day experience for many law students takes a heavy psychological toll. For 1Ls, the first few weeks of classes highlight the competitive environment of law school and instill a sense of academic insecurity. For 2Ls, there is an overwhelming urge to undertake numerous extracurricular opportunities in an effort to stand out. For 3Ls, there is significant pressure to pass the bar exam on the first attempt and to secure a postgraduate position, all while anxiously watching others share their personal successes on LinkedIn.

While these experiences may be universal to the law school experience, research shows that students’ mental health has reached historic lows. According to a 2021 survey, 68.7% of law students reported needing help with emotional or mental health problems over the past year, with women being significantly more likely to seek and receive help. This figure reveals a 26.7% increase from the last survey conducted in 2014. In comparing the two studies, researchers also found that respondents reported increased levels of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. These numbers are similarly reflected in surveys from practicing lawyers. According to the American Addiction Centers, over 45% of attorneys experience depression during their career, with nearly 12% experiencing suicidal ideation.

While one could easily blame the challenges and isolation imposed by COVID lockdowns and transitioning to remote learning and living over the last several years, other barriers to law student well-being include the inaccessibility of mental health resources and professionals, absence of mentorship and support during law school, and the perception that one’s challenges are exclusive to their own experience. This is where law schools play a special role.

Law schools have the privilege of introducing and integrating students into the legal field. For many historically underrepresented and first-generation students, law school may be their first exposure to the legal profession. Moreover, law schools are in a unique position to proactively address and aid students’ mental health concerns before they evolve into more dangerous territory.

Recognizing the importance of mental health implications within the law school curriculum, the American Bar Association recently passed Standard 303, which requires law schools to provide substantial opportunities to students for the development of professional identity and well-being to qualify for law school certification.  Heeding the call, Suffolk University Law School Professors Shalini George and Lisle Baker developed a course specifically for 1L students, entitled “Preparing for Professional Success.” The course, which spans the 1L academic year and uses Professor George’s book,  The Law Student’s Guide to Doing Well and Being Well,  as the foundation of the syllabus, encourages the use of mindfulness and stress-management techniques in coping with the legal profession’s high-pressure environment. The course prioritizes the importance of discussing these topics and integrating reflection of one’s own experiences to foster a sense of validation and remind students that they are not alone – their peers are sharing similar difficulties. These classroom conversations encourage students to interact, support one another, and share practical coping skills that they have found successful.

The decision to “discuss the quiet part out loud” has proven successful outside of the law school environment. On platforms such as TikTok and LinkedIn, lawyers have begun addressing mental health concerns by means of cheeky humor and viral trends. By tackling subjects that students may not feel comfortable discussing with their professors, potential employers, or practicing lawyers, social media provides a forum to unpack the toll of such experiences and to build an empathetic community of legal professionals. Popular topics include the overcompetitive culture of law school, imposter syndrome, the pressure to pursue a career in BigLaw, underrepresentation of minorities in the field, and the overwhelming anxiety that students feel from their academic environment.

Julian Sarafian is a content creator who has become a prominent figure in the legal community after sharing his own mental health challenges in a blog on LinkedIn. He begins his post by listing the credentials on his resume – including a White House internship, Harvard Law degree, and postgraduate position at a prestigious firm but then details the physical and psychological symptoms that he experienced during that same period. He admits that despite appearing successful “on paper,” behind closed doors he was struggling to maintain his baseline health and experiencing suicidal ideation. After seeking professional help and prioritizing his mental health, Sarafian ultimately chose to leave his firm position and became a mental health advocate for law students while also starting his own law firm, For Creators, By Creators. Sarafian regularly posts resources to current law students and encourages those with shared experiences to seek support from the legal and psychological communities.

Sarafian’s story has resonated with law students across the country and contributed to the greater push for transparency in the field. Current and prospective students often comment on videos, asking for specific advice on stress management, exam strategies, and navigating the job market. This is indicative that students are open and receptive to advice but may not be receiving the practical support they need within the law school environment.

Increased visibility for these topics on social media is helpful, but law schools remain in the best position to address and navigate these issues within the classroom. Professor George’s class, along with a handful of classes at other law schools, are a step in the right direction. To achieve a noticeable impact, however, such courses would likely require widespread adoption across law school curriculum and need to be mandatory for students.

Moreover, as law schools move to implement mental health resources, it is important that administrators bear in mind the long-term goal of such action: instilling healthier coping mechanisms for law students at the beginning of their career. Ultimately, students will graduate into a variety of legal environments – some of which may not have the resources in place to champion efforts such as mental health advocacy. If law schools prioritize educating students on the role of well-being and leveraging such skills in the workplace, students will be better positioned for healthier professional development and career sustainability.

Raashi Sharma is a second-year student at Suffolk University Law School and has a strong interest in intellectual property law and white-collar crime. She serves as the Vice President of the Sports and Entertainment Law Association and the Secretary of the Middle Eastern and South Asian Law Student Association.