The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress
Law school is a highly demanding experience; that is no surprise. But the toll that law school can exact on your well-being and life satisfaction is a surprise — it is often much more severe than you expect. My purpose is to prepare you to avoid this negative impact on your life. I will discuss the few stresses that are unavoidable and, more importantly, I will point out and explain the more serious, hidden sources of law school stress. These stressors are so deeply embedded in the typical law school culture that you aren’t likely to be aware of them — even when they are causing you and your classmates unnecessary pressure and anxiety. I then suggest specific actions to prevent each stressor from undermining your experience of law school and your career.
Healthy and Unhealthy Stress
The originator of the term, Dr. Hans Selye, defined stress as the physiological response to any demand on us. We obviously don’t need to be concerned about most stress, since life places constant demands on us and we usually remain healthy and happy. Normal stressors are not damaging because we respond to them with limited amounts of our energy and emotional reserves, and then readily recover through our normal rest, relaxation, and other routines. More challenging stressors present more intense or more sustained demands on our physical or emotional reserves. We feel tired or strained and we experience a greater need for rest or emotional relief. The most threatening stressors overtax our systems acutely, persistently, or both, and thereby deplete our personal reserves. They cause fatigue, depression, and, ultimately, burnout and functional breakdown.
Depression and other symptoms of excessive stress are all too common among law students and lawyers, so attention is necessary to maintain your health and enjoyment of life. The purpose of this booklet is prevention. The key is to learn to recognize the most significant, potentially harmful demands, eliminate any that you can, and moderate your response to those that are unavoidable. The next section will help you accomplish these goals. It identifies and discusses the stressors most common to the law school experience. Two of them are largely unavoidable — heavy work load and high debt load — but you will learn how to moderate the stress that they create. Beyond that, you will see that many other stresses in law school are more intense than work load or debt load, and they all involve either bad information or skewed priorities. You will therefore learn how to eliminate or greatly reduce the most taxing stresses by addressing the attitudes and false information that fuel them. Let’s take a look . . . .
Law School Stressors
A. Is Heavy Workload the Problem ?
This is a realistic stressor, especially for first year students. Law school is likely to live up to its reputation for a steady diet of challenging assignments. However, all of us have engaged in hard work before, and usually with positive rather than negative results. Strong, focused effort usually produces positive feelings like satisfaction, achievement, and self worth, while normal rest neutralizes the fatigue we might feel after hard work.
So why does the workload in law school produce so much stress? . . . .