Student well-being takes priority at College of Law

The contentiousness of high-stakes courtroom battles. The intensity of negotiations. The deadline pressure of filing the latest motion.

There’s no lack of stress in the practice of law and there are days when the journey from law student to practicing attorney is no picnic either.

According to surveys by the American Bar Association, the legal profession boasts high rates of mental health problems and substance abuse issues among practitioners in comparison to other professions.

Those concerning trends are why the S.J. Quinney College of Law is taking an active role to help students better take care of themselves before they emerge into the legal industry full-time upon graduation. The beginning of the 2019-20 academic year introduced a new series of well-being objectives at the College of Law designed to make the experience happier, easier and more balanced for students immersed in learning the rules of law.

The initiatives encompass a broad spectrum of opportunities aimed at helping students connect with self-care measures that may help them become more successful students.

This year, law school staff, students and practicing attorneys with expertise in well-being joined forces to establish free weekly yoga and mindfulness courses at the law building. Leilani Marshall, assistant dean of student affairs, led efforts to partner with the University Counseling Center to provide an embedded counselor at the College of Law beginning in January. The new position will provide drop-in services, routine individual and group counselling for distressed law students as well as training for faculty and staff.

“The law can be a uniquely adversarial, isolating, and high-pressure career. We seek to provide our law students with resources and support to navigate this path in the most healthy and resilient way possible,” said Marshall.

The college is bringing the wellness conversation into the classroom, too.

Clifford Rosky

A new course developed by professor Clifford Rosky titled “Mindful Lawyering” is seeing high numbers of second- and third-year law students enrolling to gain better skills on how to manage the stress that accompanies the tough world of legal work.

“Law professors have known for a very long time that law school can be a very challenging experience for students. I don’t think that’s a big secret. We see that in the movies, we see that in pop culture and we see that in our classroom,” said Rosky.

“I know from my own personal experience as a law student, as an attorney and even now as a professor that I’ve struggled on occasion with anxiety and depression. I’ve found that taking care of myself through exercise, meditation, yoga, even therapy, have been very supportive to my success as a professional."

Law student anxiety touches on all demographics. Some students worry they aren’t doing well enough in school; some worry they are doing so well that fear over dropping out of a coveted top 10% ranking paralyzes them from relaxing as law school progresses. Encouraging mindfulness practices can help, Rosky said.

“Worry is something that lawyers do very well, so it’s not surprising that law students experience that too,” said Rosky. “I thought, why not offer my law students the same thing that I offer myself to deal with the challenges inherent in the profession.”

Mindfulness as a practice refers to the conscious effort or paying attention to whatever is happening in the present moment, from one moment to the next, without criticism or judgment. Practicing mindfulness has is linked to developing greater awareness, concentration and acceptance—allowing those who practice it to reduce distractions and respond constructively to demands instead of reacting in the moment.

Rosky’s “Mindful Lawyering” class is a two credit-hour, pass fail course, designed to communicate the law practice implications of a mindful practice. The course is divided into three units, in which mindfulness is applied to the personal, interpersonal, and institutional aspects of one’s professional identity as a lawyer.

Students cover “personal” topics such as the relationship between the body and the mind in stress and relaxation responses; using mindfulness to examine one’s strengths, weaknesses and blind spots; reflecting on what it means to be a “mindful” lawyer; and developing a mindful approach to thriving in law school and the practice of law. Students also examine “interpersonal” topics, including the “soft skills” of lawyering such as various styles of listening; vicarious trauma and empathy fatigue; basic principles of conflict management; the role of the lawyer in lawyer-client relations; and the recognition and reduction of implicit bias. Also covered are “institutional” topics such as fostering wellbeing in legal education and the practice of law, and new developments in the profession such as holistic and collaborative lawyering, restorative justice, and therapeutic jurisprudence.

Students enrolled in the class are expected to maintain a daily practice of mindfulness.

The College of Law’s efforts fit in with a broader effort by the U to become a national leader in mental health care.  In November 2019, the U announced a historic commitment of $150 million from the Huntsman family to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. The institute is expected to become a model for research, care, education and community outreach.

The institute’s focus on advancing knowledge and relieving suffering through research-informed treatment of mental illness with a strong focus on improving mental health services for college-age adults, increasing access to mental health services in rural communities across Utah and identifying the genetic underpinnings of mental illness.

Promoting well-being among college-age and professional students through the new institute is a positive step for helping students find the care they need when struggling with mental health issues—goals the College of Law’s initiatives are also promoting.

In October 2019, Marshall launched a new Well-Being Student Organization at the College of Law.

“I knew we were responding to an un-met need when there was a notable number of students interested in the new student organization,” said Marshall.

Rosky immediately signed on as faculty advisor and the student organization has already taken great strides to enhance student wellness. When Marshall asked the group to come up with a message for the student body on World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, the student organization came up with a “40 seconds of action” campaign where they encouraged their peers to reach out to someone they hadn’t spoken to in a while.

The idea was to “let them know you care whether that be a phone call, a text, or a handwritten letter. If you are struggling, take 40 seconds of action to kickstart a conversation with someone you trust about how you are feeling.”

College of Law Dean Elizabeth Kronk Warner, who has spoken candidly about her own occasional battles with anxiety, emphasized the importance of reducing the stigma of accessing mental health care and encouraging students to ask for help when they need it.

“At the College of Law, we care about the whole student. These efforts put us ahead of the curve nationally as the legal community tries to improve and promote well-being among legal practitioners across the country,” Kronk Warner said.

At a glance: The status of mental health in the legal industry

2017 report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being  from the American Bar Association states that mindfulness meditation as a practice that can “enhance cognitive reframing (and thus resilience) by aiding our ability to monitor our thoughts and avoid becoming emotionally overwhelmed.” Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety while enhancing concentration, memory, and critical thinking skills, according to research cited in the task force report.

The ABA encouraged local state bar associations to embrace the findings and Utah followed suit, issuing its own report on how special programming, creating dedicated committees, facilitating dialogue with lawyers and law firms and publicizing the benefits of mindfulness to the legal profession could improve well-being for all lawyers.

The College of Law, recognizing the importance of the movement, sought to implement its own initiatives quickly.

Leilani Marshall, assistant dean of student affairs at the College of Law and Clifford Rosky, a law professor, are both active members of the Well-Being Committee for the Legal Profession (WCLP) along with local judges, lawyers, administrators and law community members at the Utah State Bar. The WCLP meets monthly to discuss ways to prioritize individual and collaborative best practices toward well-being in the legal profession.