Our duty to care: Tackling law school’s mental health

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November 13, 2017

10:37 PM

On my first day in William and Mary law school, Dean Davison Douglas addressed the 238 members of my class. He impressed upon us that we were joining the legal profession that afternoon. Our careers will not start when we take our last final, when we walk across the stage at graduation, or when we (hopefully) pass the bar — 238 legal careers started that first day.

Law schools often get a bad reputation for inducing stress and depression. Knowing this, it is incumbent upon law students to actively care for one another. We have already joined this profession, and therefore we must create an authentic community.

It is not solely the administration’s job to fix the mental health crisis facing law students. It is also our job as attorneys — not someday, right now. My life has been profoundly impacted by someone who has put this into practice.

I was sitting on a couch one afternoon trying to decide which of the dozen overwhelming tasks on my agenda to tackle next. A professor walked by, paused and asked if I was okay — not in the typical trite, formal way but in an authentic, caring manner that says, “I’m going to call you out when you say you’re fine because I know you’re not.”

I sat in her office for over two hours that day. We made a plan of attack, talked to my other professors and she made sure I ate enough nutrients to get through the day. But most importantly, she sat and worked next to me. My professor, by merely sitting with me and working alongside me, exemplified the kind of person and attorney I strive to become. She recognized my struggle and took action to get me on a better path.

I have struggled a lot in law school. I have laid on my bedroom floor thinking I don’t deserve to be here. I’ve cried in professors’ offices, in the career services suite, in my car, on the phone and into my pillow.

Law school is hard. The legal profession is hard. We will handle weighty matters and continue to face challenges. I have chosen to intentionally pursue the things that lift me back off the floor — the mentorship of several amazing women and the companionship of my fellow students. There are real challenges, but the College of William and Mary is a special place where people truly care, and I have never been alone.

At the College, new law students take the Honor Pledge, committing to uphold personal and professional integrity. We join the “community of trust” because we believe in self-enforcing this integrity.

There are problems in the legal profession and in law school, but the solution is not necessarily to transform legal education or make law school less competitive. The answer is creating an authentic, honest community.

But honor is not just being ethical. Being an honorable lawyer involves bettering our profession. It is our responsibility to look after each other — we cannot leave this duty to anyone else. The administration cannot monitor us and ensure that law school isn’t taking its toll.

There is a time for administrative action, but it is our duty and privilege to tackle these challenges ourselves. There are problems in the legal profession and in law school, but the solution is not necessarily to transform legal education or make law school less competitive. The answer is creating an authentic, honest community.

Whether you are a law student, an undergraduate thinking about law school or someone who wants to tackle mental health challenges, pay attention. When you walk through the campus, or you think a friend might be struggling, take the courageous step. Ask them, like my professor did for me, if they’re okay, and then pay attention to their answer. Be willing to sit with them in silence.

We don’t always have to take drastic measures — sometimes silence is the best thing. But we do have to care. It is only by creating authentic community that we can dismantle the mental health challenges we face. If we do, the rewards for our friends, our communities and our profession will be truly great.

Email Afton Paris at [email protected]

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