I. The Importance of Taking Care of You
It’s always important to take care of yourself, no matter what school or profession you are in. However, the sad fact is that law school and the legal profession have incredibly high rates of depression and anxiety, as well as high rates of substance use disorders.1 In addition, law students experience depression and anxiety at a higher rate than students in other graduate programs.2 I don’t say that to scare you, and I hope it’s not overly doom and gloom. I say that to make you aware of why it is so very important that you take care of your mental and physical health, including utilizing available resources, while in law school and in practice.
If you are wondering about the benefits of taking care of yourself beyond just feeling better, the fact is, it will make you a better student. Your ability to study, process, and retain information can be greatly impacted by your mental health.
For example, high levels of anxiety actually hinder your ability to retain information, which is the exact opposite of what you want. There are plenty of scholarly articles that link anxiety and memory loss. Moreover, depression can cause you to lose focus and motivation, which is obviously going to hinder your ability to study. Anxiety and stress, both common in law school, impact your nervous system, which in turn, impacts cognitive processing.3 Normal anxiety can actually help with memory, as can any strong emotion.4 However, that has its limit. According to Myra Fernandes, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo and co-author of a study5 on anxiety, “To some degree, there is an optimal level of anxiety that is going to benefit your memory, but we know from other research that high levels of anxiety can cause people to reach a tipping point, which impacts their memories and performance.”6
This means that now is the time to develop good habits in terms of self-care that you can use throughout law school as well as your career. Some good habits might include building in time for exercise and getting outside (even if it’s just a walk around the block), taking short breaks from apps or social media, routine check-ins with those in your support circles, prioritizing sleep, and so forth. Way easier said than done, but there are lots of resources online about how to do this, including some specifically for law students.7
On a very simple note, take time when you need it, mentally or physically. It’s very tempting during law school to push through illness. I am urging you not to. If you are sick, take the time you need to heal. Talk to your dean of students about absences and making up missed assignments. There are multiple reasons for this. First and foremost, you won’t perform your best if you are sick. That may seem obvious, but so many students try to push through colds, the flu, etc. In addition, taking one to two days off to fully rest and heal might mean you are more productive in the long run! If you continue to push through at less than 100% for too long, your health will only get worse and you may be less productive overall, need more time to recover, or worse, end up in the hospital. This applies to both physical and mental health. Being proactive is a bit easier, sometimes, when it comes to physical health; you can stay in bed if you have the flu, drink lots of fluids, get some extra rest if you have a cold, and so forth. But do not forget that the same applies to your mental health. Be proactive and take measures to ensure your mental health: seek out a therapist if that works for you, find coping techniques for anxiety, and make sure you have a good support system.
Here is an example. I started getting migraines my very first semester of law school, which was a super fun time for that to happen. I still get them over 15 years later. It took a long time for me to learn that when I feel one coming on, I need to step away from the screen, lay down, and wait it out. It was only when it was pointed out to me that I needed to practice what I preach that I started really taking my own advice. A couple of years ago, I met with a student who had struggled their first semester and had not received great grades. It turns out, they had been struggling with migraines and getting the right medications. They were also trying to push through and work through migraines. I advised the student to fully let themselves heal when a migraine episode came on. Sure enough, the next day I found myself staring at the screen for 45 minutes, trying to make sense of the words as I tried to work through a migraine. My Dean of Students, who also suffers from migraines, noticed and made me go home with a stern lecture about practicing what I tell my students. I assume this was life’s way of hammering that point home. And I’ll be honest, it’s not fair to my students when I work through my migraines, nor was it fair to my clients. I’m not at my best, and my students deserve me at my best.
In this chapter, you will find advice on how to handle the mental health challenges that come with law school.
II. Life and School Balance
The first part of taking care of yourself is having a life and school balance. Yes, I realize what law school expects of you, so this sometimes feels unrealistic. But I urge you to find a way to maintain that balance. Keep doing what makes you happy, to a certain extent.
For example, prior to starting law school, I was a dancer. It was a large part of my identity, and it took up a considerable amount of time. Dance has also been consistently my favorite thing to do since about age three. However, my thought was, “Well, I’m in a serious professional school now, no time for dance!” And while it was true that I had to cut back a bit—there was no way I had time to be in the studio for hours a day the way I had been before law school—I didn’t have to completely remove that part of my life. I did, and I regret it. I’ve since come to recognize that dancing is a large part of what makes me who I am, and it’s a large contribution to maintaining my physical and mental health. So you can cut back on things, but don’t lose them completely. The legal profession needs you to still be you. I talk to students all the time that have love of dance, theater, a musical instrument, running, basketball, knitting, painting—you name it! Keep doing those things that make you happy.
Similarly, everyone hears horror stories about law school taking up 100% of your time, to the extent that you should tell your friends and family that you’ll see them in three to four years. While I certainly don’t think you have time to socialize seven nights a week, I urge you to maintain your relationships. You need a support system while in law school, and hopefully part of that support system will be your classmates, but it’s incredibly helpful to have those non-legal types in your corner too. It’s also important to set boundaries with family and friends. Yes, socializing is important, but it’s also important to communicate to family and friends when you will be unavailable and ask them to respect that.
Keep your traditions, as well. If going to religious services, Sunday dinner with family, or date night with a partner are things that are important to you, keep doing those things. I moved across the country for law school, which meant that I was in a strange city with no friends or family. I’m happy to report that my classmates became a great support system, but you also better believe I called my grandmother every week, sometimes more. I absolutely needed to do that on a regular basis.
Finally, sometimes you just need time for you. You can absolutely take time for yourself to relax and decompress. That is going to take different forms for different people, but don’t feel guilty about the time you’re not being productive. You ARE being productive, just in a different way. Think of time for yourself as a way to recharge your batteries. You can’t get your work done if you are running on empty!
III. Peer Groups and Support
A great source of mental well-being is finding a peer group and using them for support. Family and friends that you had prior to law school can be a great resource here. If you are first gen, family members might not really get what you are going through when it comes to law school, but that’s okay. Sometimes it’s nice to have people outside of the law school sphere that you can lean on a little.
However, it’s incredibly helpful to have a support system on campus at your law school. Hopefully, this can be a group of students you meet during orientation! During the previous chapter, I talked about student groups, specifically, affinity or professional groups. Fellow members can be a great source of peer support and usually understand exactly what it is you are going through. You might also have different groups that fill different needs: a study group, a group of friends that are not law students, and an affinity group that you find comfort in.
IV. Imposter Phenomenon
“I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now,’” the novelist Maya Angelou once said. “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”8 She said this despite the fact that she had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and had won five Grammys for her spoken recordings, plus other awards! Not to mention, Ms. Angelou is widely regarded as an amazing writer and icon.
Imposter phenomenon, previously called imposter syndrome, was initially identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”9 This phenomenon involves a fear of rejection and failure, coupled with perfectionism, and “[T]hese thought patterns create a perfect storm of insecurity, anxiety, and stress.”10 It also creates a fear in an individual that they do not belong and others who do belong will soon discover they are a fraud.11
This feeling is common for so many starting law school, but it’s especially common in first-generation students. It’s also become a larger problem because of social media. You may have heard that social media has us comparing our behind-the-scenes to highlight reels. For example, I tend to post on social media when I’m proud of something or happy. I don’t post on social media when I’m sobbing in a pint of ice cream and feeling like an absolute failure. This is an important distinction to remember! Don’t compare your insides, which only you know, to the outsides of others. When we do this, we judge ourselves as lacking. While this isn’t academic in nature, I have a friend, a mom, who always laughs at the “happy family” photos posted on social media. She says she’d love to see all the failed attempts when the kids are fighting, or have a runny nose, or are making odd faces. The point is, we see that one “perfect” photo of the family smiling happily together in a field, or wherever, but you have no idea how long it took to get that photo or how many “bad” photos are out there. Moreover, people who suffer from imposter phenomenon attribute their success to luck, perfect timing, or other external factors, instead of their own abilities, work, or intelligence.12
Imposter phenomenon can also be made worse by the cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, which means those that you see as incredibly confident may be confident because they don’t realize how much they don’t know. In psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect is “a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general.”13 Essentially, those TRULY unprepared or incompetent rarely worry about being unprepared because they don’t have the means to realize just how unprepared they are. This means that if you feel like you are an imposter, and worry about it, it’s likely that you are not, in fact, an imposter. I’d like to stress that this does NOT mean that if you are confident in a certain area you are not competent, or that the confidence is false. It simply means that when you learn more about an area, particularly in the law and in law school, it is perfectly normal to feel less confident about your knowledge. This is why experts tend to say things like “it depends.” But if you are confident in something, keep building on that confidence. Also, keep in mind that people around you might sound or look confident, but you don’t know what’s going on in their head, so they might not be as confident as you think they are. All of this is to say that if you were admitted to law school, you are capable and you belong. Try to remind yourself of that.
So, how do you overcome imposter phenomenon? Well, here are some ideas:
Write it down. Write down achievements, and track your successes. This way you have legitimate data about your own accomplishments to prove to your brain that you are not an imposter.
Talk about it. The more we talk about imposter phenomenon and how everyone suffers from it, the easier it is to see that it’s not real. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says, “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”14 I try to share with all of my students how I still have imposter phenomenon. I have been practicing law for 15 years, and teaching for almost as long, yet I still fear that I will be “found out” as a fraud, and not as good as people think I am. In fact, I have yet to meet a single successful lawyer who has not suffered from imposter phenomenon. It helps to know this. Even Lady Gaga has her doubts, stating “I still sometimes feel like a loser kid in high school and I just have to pick myself up and tell myself that I’m a superstar every morning so that I can get through this day and be for my fans what they need for me to be.”15 Finally, from Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor: “I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit. I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.”16
Learn to accept failure and let go of perfectionism. See below for an entire section, and CALI Lesson, on grit and growth mindset. Accepting failure, and learning from it, is one of the keys to success. Not to mention, there is no such thing as “perfect.” In fact, perfect is the enemy of progress. You, and everyone else, will always find a way to improve—so let go of the idea that you or your work must be perfect.
Embrace your strengths. There are things you are good at, that come easily. But it’s easy to think “everyone is good at this” or “this comes easily for everyone.” Not true—embrace your strengths!
Attribute your successes correctly. When you find success—getting into law school, getting a good grade, getting an internship—attribute that to you and your hard work and skill, not luck.
Stop comparisons. Don’t compare yourself to others—in class, in the profession—just focus on YOU. And if people give you a compliment, or say you are doing a good job, BELIEVE them.
V. Test Taking and General Anxiety
One of the most common issues that comes up for my students is testing anxiety, or anxiety in general. This is not uncommon. As mentioned above, it is always best to speak to a clinical professional, such as a therapist, as they are best suited to provide help. However, if that is not possible for any reason, I do have some tips below!
First and foremost, testing anxiety, or anxiety in school, tends to be about fear and identity. Grades can be a large part of identity, and it’s easy to let them define your worth. This then leads to anxiety around the exam itself. I realize it’s easy for me to say this, but I promise that grades do not define you, or your worth. I also think realizing that this is at the heart of much of testing anxiety can help “name a thing” and overcome it.
Having said that, there are some strategies to combat the anxiety.
Self–care is not selfish. You need sleep, and you need nutrition. To use a sports metaphor, athletes need to rest in between training otherwise the muscles aren’t going to be as effective. Your brain is a muscle. You need to rest it, and let it process information.
You need to take breaks and find balance. Again, easier for me to say, I know. But please, as mentioned in the first section of this chapter, try to find some of that balance: take breaks, sleep, eat, and rest your brain. This is coming from the person whose job it is to tell you to study, so you can trust that taking those breaks is not selfish or wrong!
Find joy and comfort. No, really. Write down one thing that brings you joy, one thing that you find comforting, and one thing that you find relaxing. When is the last time you’ve done any of these things? Look at your calendar—are you making time for these things? Yes, I know you have overpacked plates as it is, much of that the fault of law school. However, if you can schedule even 20 minutes for something that brings you joy, comfort, or relaxation, it’s definitely worth it, and this can go a long way in reducing anxiety.
Write it down! The University of Chicago did a study17 with two groups of test-takers. In all aspects, the demographics were the same. One group was asked to take five minutes and write down every negative thought, crumple it up, and throw it away. When they did that, that group’s test scores went UP between half and a full grade. Why? Because the negative thoughts take up part of your working memory. When you put it on paper, it doesn’t have to stay in working memory. Then you have the physical effect (throwing it away) of getting rid of those negative thoughts. This frees up working memory, leading you to perform better on tests.
Celebrate successes. That’s it. Write down your successes. Celebrate them. Brag about them.
Take deep breaths during the test. Last but not least, one of my favorites: Ayurvedic Breathing, or 5-2-8 breathing. Essentially, breath in while slowly counting to 5, hold it for 2, and breath out while counting to 8, longer than you breathed in. Do this 3 times. This is a great technique to use DURING an exam, especially if you start to feel anxious or panicked.
Practice makes prepared. Not perfect, prepared! This also helps reduce anxiety. The more practice exams and hypotheticals you write (not just read and outline but write) the better prepared, and less anxious, you will be.
On that note, I will leave you with the letter that a first-generation tenured professor writes to their students!
“I suspect some of you are starting to get anxious. Although stress is actually performance-enhancing up to a point, we all know that too much stress decreases performance. So I write to offer some thoughts with the hope that they might help anyone who is struggling to manage their stress level and keep it in a more optimal range.
First, I want you to know that I was a first-generation student … at West Point (my father was medically ineligible for military service), then law school, then in two graduate degree programs after that. At EVERY stage, I wondered if I had reached too far … if I was good enough. Well, as it turns out, I was better than the little voice in my head would let me believe, but that did not stop me from struggling with “imposter syndrome” every step of the way. If you are having these types of feelings, know that you are not alone and that you can succeed. It may not be as easy as you would want it to be, but you can do it.
Remember also that we would not have admitted you if we did not think you could be successful in the study of law. You may or may not perform as well as you hope to this semester, but you have already shown us that you have the capacity to succeed. Some of my best students did not find the “sweet spot” for them until their second or third semester in law school. Others started well and then got a little complacent and struggled. For various reasons, some very successful law students do not pass the bar exam the first time, and some students who struggled in law school do.
What is the lesson? No matter how well you perform on your exams this semester, your grades will not define you as a person, as a law student, or as a future lawyer. They do not predict your future success in life or in the practice of law. They are only a measure of where you currently stand in relation to your professors’ expectations. They are a data point that will provide you with useful information about your study habits and test-taking skills. You can then use that information to improve if needed.
Of course, I do not mean to suggest that your grades do not matter at all. Some opportunities are more readily available to those who perform well. But even those opportunities are not necessarily lost forever. You can only do your best.
So please try to remember that your best effort will be good enough if you can keep a healthy mindset and set yourself up for success. Study hard but take breaks and get plenty of sleep. Try to walk or do other exercises for at least 20 minutes each day. Meditation/Mindfulness is helpful too. (If you have never done it, there are instructional videos on YouTube.) Find ways to relax…whatever works for you that isn’t illegal or potentially counterproductive (like excessive alcohol use).
Please also look out for each other. If you see someone struggling, try to be supportive. If they are having a crisis, help them find or otherwise get help. If you are struggling, call a supportive classmate, friend, or family member. If that is not available to you in the moment, call someone at the school, whether an administrator or faculty member.”
VI. Seeking Professional Support
As mentioned before, finding professional help is always a good idea if possible. If you broke your leg, you would not hesitate to go see a doctor. Well, I hope you wouldn’t hesitate. Similarly, if you are not feeling mentally healthy, please seek out professional help. Even if you are feeling relatively mentally healthy, it’s not a bad idea to seek out therapy as a continuous wellness option. It can be helpful to build a relationship with a clinical professional before you find yourself in a position where you need more intensive care.
You might be wondering how you know if it’s time to seek out professional support, or if you are just having “normal” anxiety or stress related to a graduate program. First, sometimes even those with “normal” anxiety and stress can benefit from seeking out a professional. Second, look for signs in yourself that something doesn’t feel right. Generally, people associate depression with feeling sad, or even numb. And while those feelings can be a sign of depression, there might be other signs that aren’t as obvious. The National Alliance on Mental Health has some warning signs of depression in college students.18 If you find yourself experiencing any of the below, it might be time to seek professional help:
- General negative feelings
- Disinterest in normal activities (especially ones you used to enjoy)
- Unexplainable guilt
- Irregular sleeping and eating habits
- Persistent pain
Likewise, if you notice a classmate experiencing any of the above, there may be ways you can help. The ABA’s provides guidance for law students who might be facing a student in need, including what you can do if you believe a classmate is in danger of committing suicide.
You may hear that it’s not a good idea to seek out therapy or medication because you will have to disclose it on the bar exam and it can work against you. The trend19 among the states has been to shift away from asking questions about diagnosis and treatment, and to instead focus on “conduct or behavior that impairs an applicant’s ability to practice law in a competent, ethical, and professional manner.”20 However, some states still require broad disclosure of mental health diagnoses and treatment.21 You can likely check the application questions of the jurisdiction in which you’d like to practice, and see what they ask. In each case, honest and full disclosure is important. After all, the practice of law, too, is challenging, and confronting the problem early can help prepare you for the rigor of law practice when the consequences of an unaddressed mental health issue can even be more severe. Further, according to an article published by the ABA, “Very few applicants are denied admission to the bar on mental health treatment grounds.”22 It states that “…getting treatment shows that the applicant: has control over his or her mental health issues, is self-aware enough to know when he or she needs assistance, will follow through in getting help, has a plan for getting help in the future, and has a support system.”23 It goes on to say, “All of these factors help show that an applicant is fit.”24
If you are thinking about delaying treatment or seeking professional help because of a required disclosure, talk to your dean of students or bar professional at your school and get their opinion. In addition, each state has a “Lawyer Assistance Program” or “LAP.” Lawyer Assistance Programs provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers, and law students who are facing substance use disorders or mental health issues.25 LAPs can likely provide some guidance on navigating character and fitness issues. In addition, if you are hesitant to seek professional assistance due to cost, the LAP can be a great free alternative.
Overall, just remember that it’s important that you build a support system, make a plan for self-care, and have a list of handy resources. Don’t forget that taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to succeed!
VII. Non-Standard Testing Accommodations
Non-Standard Testing Accommodations are any accommodations that differ from the standard testing environment and rules. Many law students need Non-Standard Testing Accommodations, or NTA, for law school exams or the bar exam. What counts as an NTA may vary from test to test. For example, if I am proctoring a midterm for my students, I do not prohibit drinks or small snacks. However, the bar exam does. This means that if I have a student who is diabetic, migraine prone, or has another medical condition that requires them to have more frequent food and drink, they wouldn’t need to make a request for an NTA in my exams, but would on the bar exam.
It is important that if you need an NTA, you make that request and you use it. In addition, there are accommodations that aren’t necessarily related to testing that may be relevant. Students with vision or hearing impairments, for example, might be entitled to ongoing support throughout the semester. If you’ve used any kind of accommodation in high school or undergraduate school, please continue to do so in law school. Even if you haven’t used them in the past, you can still get them for the first time in law school. There are many reasons you might need an NTA. You might have ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, or another learning difference. Any of these might be reasons to seek accommodations. Some examples of accommodations in class, or on exams, might be:
- Not getting “cold called” in class
- Extended time on exams
- A quiet or distraction-free room during exams
- Assistance with note-taking for students who are hearing or vision impaired
- Braille or large print exam booklets or screen reading technology
- Recording of lectures or classes
- Receiving slides or handouts in larger print
- Ability to take medication (or food and drink) in the exam room
- Standing desks, wheelchair-accessible testing stations, or seating next to a restroom
This list is not exhaustive and is very dependent on why you are seeking accommodations. It is merely meant to give you examples.
If you’ve had accommodations in the past, throughout high school or your undergraduate career, please seek them as soon as possible when attending law school. Now is not the time to see if you can do it without accommodations. Each law school should have a center that handles accommodations, and if you don’t know where to find that center, ask your academic support professional or dean of students as they are usually the people that can point you in the right direction. You will potentially get this information during orientation, but if you don’t, please ask!
I frequently meet with students who have struggled in their first semester and received less than stellar grades on their final exams. One of the first things I ask is whether they have typically used accommodations in the past, and if so, if they applied for them in law school. At least half the time they say no. When I ask why, I get answers ranging from “I wanted to do it on my own” or “I didn’t know” or “I was afraid my classmates would judge me.” First, you wouldn’t take a law school exam without your eyeglasses, so why, if you have been entitled to them in the past, would you take an exam without accommodations? Second, neither your classmates nor your professors should ever know that you receive accommodations. Typically, the center that grants accommodations will know, and have your medical history, so that they may determine your needed accommodations. They will then typically send over your name and needed accommodation to the dean of students. In addition, only those who need to know of your accommodations, in order to carry them out, will be informed. If you are worried about your classmates knowing that you aren’t present in the same room for exams, the classes are typically large enough that no one notices. Moreover, every other student is worried enough about their own test that they don’t notice who is and isn’t present.
The process of awarding accommodations can take some time, so don’t wait until exam time to do this. The process can also be costly if new testing is required. If you are no longer on your parents’ insurance, or your parents don’t have insurance that covers such testing, look into whether your school has options. For example, if your school also has a medical school, they may offer lower-cost testing options.
If you aren’t sure whether you qualify for accommodations, it can’t hurt to ask. But again, start the process early as oftentimes there will be required testing and documentation. In addition, seeking accommodations on standardized tests such as the MPRE and the bar exam becomes much easier if you’ve set them up in law school. For more information, see the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) .
If you need accommodations that aren’t strictly limited to testing, please ask. Essentially, if you need something to help you be successful, don’t be afraid to ask. You are adults, and you are human. You are also learning to be professional advocates, so advocate for yourself. I once had a student who was pregnant, and unexpectedly ended up on bed rest. This obviously made it difficult for her to attend classes in person. We Zoomed her in and made it work. This was pre-pandemic too! Finally, work with your dean of students or academic support professional to get what you need—they can be amazing advocates for you.