Coping With Stress In Law School
A verified statistic shows that lawyers suffer from depression at triple the rate of non-lawyers. Recently, research has also proven that the rigors of law school can be harmful to the health of students.
In a recent law review article, entitled “Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die from Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance,” University of Denver law professor Debra Austin explores how legal education impacts the brain. She also provides suggestions for what law schools and students can do to prevent the cognitive damage.
“Law students need not wait for lethargic faculty deliberation of the impact a stressful law school learning environment has on their learning. Their professional identity, along with their capacity to build practice skills and a legal knowledge base, are at risk. Law students, law faculty, and lawyers should be educated about mitigating stress-related damage to the hippocampus, the role of sleep in memory formation, and enhancing cognitive function with exercise and contemplative practices,” Austin argues.
As explained in the article, when law students are routinely subjected to a broad array of stressors in the legal education environment, it diminishes their cognitive capacity, most notably the function of the hippocampus. The consequences include deterioration in memory, concentration, problem solving, math performance and language processing.
For solutions, Austin points to tech companies like Google, which offer wellness programs to employees. “Research shows that perks such as onsite gyms, work/life balance programs, stress management classes, mindfulness training, and nutrition coaching promote cognitive health and produce vibrant workplaces and thriving employees,” she writes. The bottom-line — law students need time to chill out.
While the onus is on law schools to revamp their programs, Austin warns that professors may be perpetuating the problem. “Professors who do not understand the neuroscience of cognitive wellness may unwittingly be causing their own disappointment in student performance by conducting classes under stressful conditions or supporting policies that engender stress-saturated law school cultures,” she writes.
Students can also help themselves by spending their free time more wisely. “Replacing less healthful activities such as cocktail hour, playing video games, or watching television could yield the time law students and lawyers require to optimize cognitive performance,” she notes.
While it may not be time to install a foosball table in the law library, Austin’s research builds a strong case that stress reduction should be another factor that law schools take into account as they look to modernize their programs. It may even result in better lawyers