This article contains a discussion of mental illness, suicide, and substance abuse.

Though some may enjoy their time in a post-graduate setting and experience no detrimental effects therefrom, many law students would beg to differ.[1] They are no strangers to the struggles of poor mental wellness. According to one survey, more than 75% of law students reported an increase in their levels of anxiety because of their education, and over 50% had experienced or were experiencing depression.[2] Their alcohol and substance use outweighs that of college graduates in their peer group, with their intake of alcohol increasing most between their second and third years.[3] Even when comparing professional degree programs, law students consistently beat out medical students in their levels of alcohol abuse and stress.[4] The list of emerging symptoms only grows:

The tales of law student and lawyer depression, overwork, dissatisfaction, alcohol abuse, and general distress are legion, and many of us see, more clearly than we would like, the undoing of our students’ collective energy, enthusiasm, and engagement after only a few months of law school.[5]

These issues do not cease upon graduation. Symptoms of psychological distress linger for years into a lawyer’s career.[6] Unhappy law students turn into chronically depressed and chemically dependent lawyers which, in turn, turn to obituaries.[7] Because depression is one of the most likely indicators of suicide and lawyers are nearly four times as likely to experience depression than the general population, the math begins to do itself.[8]

Despite the anecdotal and empirical evidence, there have been claims that lawyers are not at all “uniquely unhappy.”[9] Mental health resources abound within law schools, so some may think the issue is a thing of the past.[10] The problem is, even given the increase in mental health resources, the culture itself has yet to change. Students are not empowered to ask for help because doing so is not normalized in the law school environment.[11] As a result, the resources go underused.[12] Shame is also perpetuated by faculty, administrators, other students, bar examiners, and prospective employers, further quashing any inclination a student might have to reach out.[13]

Just as with the bootstraps mentality and the cult of personal responsibility, the onus is pushed onto the individual to atone for the sins of the system.[14] When searching for resources like counseling, support, or treatment of any kind, often the first interaction a student or attorney has with those mental health resources is a pamphlet containing a list on how they can mediate their strife with self-implemented techniques.[15] The problem is that people in crisis “need fewer wagging fingers or homilies about bootstraps, and more helping hands.”[16] Part of a law school’s commitment to their student body is to develop an environment that develops lawyers who are not only capable, knowledgeable, and ethical, but also well-adjusted, emotionally intelligent, and stable.[17] Instead, institutions throw together a few PowerPoint slides and make sure 1Ls are made aware of the statistics that are stacked against them from day one of orientation. From then on, it becomes the responsibility of the student.

This is not to say that the administration doesn’t care. What this is saying is that the administration is complacent. Faculty, administration, and even alumni must act and challenge themselves to lead by example.[18] For the sake of the students and eventual legal professionals, it must go further than demanding the individual learn to cope with the damaging effects of the system. We must treat the disease, not the symptoms.

Law schools as we know them today reflect a 150-year-old tradition of education stemming from Harvard Law School in 1870, spearheaded by Christopher Columbus Langdell and his development of the case method of teaching.[19]While these methods are often examined, lauded, and critiqued as far as their value as educational tools, they are one of a student’s first brushes with intimidation, humiliation, and subsequent disillusionment.[20] Specifically, the Socratic method (the close and persistent questioning of students without warning before the entirety of their class to encourage a thorough reading of opinions, but often regarded by students as an ill-disguised venture in hazing by professors) adds another intense layer to the already frighteningly competitive environment.[21] If a student from 2023 were transported back to the 1870s, their legal education would operate in largely the same way with different precedent to study. This is an issue. If the only reason we’re still doing something is because “we’ve always done it this way,” that cannot be enough of a reason.

While discussing two “alternative pathways to lawyer licensure” in Oregon, one legal sector analyst states that “the bar exam is a [grueling] ordeal with a racist and exclusionary history that has never been validated and . . . doesn’t actually assess a candidate’s readiness to [practice] law[.]”[22] While discussing these alternative pathways, there was mention of lawyers needing to be assured by the Court that the proposed licensing processes were not “less rigorous” than the traditional education they themselves received.[23] This abusive pattern of thinking perpetuates the quasi-generational pain that law students endure; because those before this generation of students suffered, so too must modern students suffer.

As the mental wellbeing of law students continues to decline, universities will be faced with the growing demand to act. It cannot be enough to insist that individuals cope with the overarching damage done by the system in place. The system itself must be changed.[24] If nothing shifts, the consequences will remain. Law students and lawyers will suffer. Some will not make it out alive. If mental health, wellness, and stability was the goal, law schools and the leaders within them would not look idly by while the statistics continue to prove that the way we’ve always done it is detrimental, dangerous, and deadly.

Law schools, bar administrations, law firms, and every legal institution must examine what it does for its members. Institutional denial cannot continue.[25] To break patterns, it begins with the core beliefs embedded in the legal profession, namely to “top-ten-percent tenet,” “contingent-worth paradigm,” and “thinking ‘like a lawyer.’”[26]

The American Dream was never about prestige or wealth, but rather that anyone regardless of their identity can manifest their own successful versions of themselves within a society in which the chance for upward mobility is universal.[27] Students attend universities for hope of a better future or, at the very least, to have credentials to pursue a career they enjoy.[28]

After an overhaul of the expectations of legal education and the profession generally, law schools can do away with the curve, the Socratic method, and other harmful, humiliating teaching tactics. This would benefit students because “[t]he interplay of these dominant law school constructs ultimately teaches many students to put aside their personal life and health and accept persistent discomfort, angst, isolation, even depression as the cost of becoming a lawyer.”[29]Furthermore, institutions must regularly engage in reflection and research of the principles that are implemented and their utility in promoting a healthy learning environment for students.

Tolerating and even encouraging students to prioritize their studies above everything including their health and wellbeing is unethical. Learning and working spaces and everyone within legal culture must devote themselves to the creation and continuance of the entirety of a lawyer—one who is knowledgeable, ethical, and very much alive.

[1] Jessica R. Blaemire, Analysis: Well-Being in Law School—Law Students Aren’t OK, Bloomberg L. (Feb. 3, 2023, 4:00 AM), [] (“The survey also asked law students whether they experienced various mental and physical health problems ‘because of law school related issues.’ The response from most students was a resounding ‘yes.’ . . . Only 11% of law students reported experiencing none of the given issues.”)

[2] Id.  

[3] Todd David Peterson & Elizabeth Waters Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology, 9 Yale J. Health Pol’y L. & Ethics 357, 359 (2009).

[4] Id.

[5] Lawrence S. Krieger, Institutional Denial about the Dark Side of Law School, and Fresh Empirical Guidance for Constructively Breaking the Silence, 52 J. Legal Educ. 112, 113 (2002).

[6] Peterson & Peterson, supra note 2, at 359.

[7] Id. at 358; Brian S. Clarke, Coming Out in the Classroom: Law Professors, Law Students and Depression, 64 J. Legal Educ. 403, 403–04 (2015) (recounting several lawyer suicides covered in a CNN report, including Mark Levy).

[8] Risk Factors, Protective Factors, and Warning Signs, Am. Found. for Suicide Prevention, []; Billie Tarascio, Depression Among Lawyers: The Statistics, Mod. L. Prac., (“[A]mong more than 100 occupations studied, lawyers were the most likely to suffer from depression and were 3.6 times more likely than average to do so.”) [].

[9] Yair Listokin & Ray Noonan, Measuring Lawyer Well-Being Systematically: Evidence from the National Health Interview Survey, 18 J. Empirical Legal Stud. 4, 4 (2021).

[10] Edward Bechard-Torres, Feeling Inadequate: Reframing the Mindsets of Legal Education to Promote Mental Health, 44 Man. L.J. 66, 69 (2021) (“Faculties have begun to rely extensively on external sources of assistance, such as improved access to on-campus counselling, mindfulness training, relaxation spaces and even therapy dogs. Some have instead turned towards pedagogical reforms, targeting heavy student workloads, intimidating ‘Socratic’ exchanges, and curved grade distributions that can distort students’ sense of achievement.”).

[11] See Michael John McCue, An Ecological Systems Approach to Understanding the Lived Experiences of Law Students with Mental Illness 87–96 (2016) (Ph.D. dissertation, Michigan State University) (on file with Michigan State University) (finding that law school culture perpetuated feelings of isolation, competition, anxiety, and overwhelm as well as the belief that mental illness is a weakness in both an academic and professional context).

[12] See generally id. (discussing the stigma law students face regarding mental health and seeking help therefor).

[13] Id. at 1–2.

[14] Caroline Bologna, Why the Phrase “Pull Yourself up by Your Bootstraps” Is Nonsense, HuffPost (Aug. 9, 2018, 4:15 PM), (“To pull yourself up by your bootstraps means to succeed or elevate yourself without any outside help . . . To pull yourself up by your bootstraps is actually physically impossible. In fact, the original meaning of the phrase was more along the lines of ‘to try to do something completely absurd.’”) []; Neil Vallelly, The Self-Help Myth, New Internationalist (June 2, 2020), (“[T]aking on greater responsibility is ultimately useless in ensuring individual . . . wellbeing. [It’s] not that responsibility is pointless, but that the kind of responsibility we are encouraged—and in many instances, forced—to take is one that places the entire burden of systemic problems on us as individuals.”) [].

[15] Angela Nieves, Top Tips for Mental and Emotional Well-Being While in Law School, Am. Bar Ass’n (Feb. 10, 2020), [] (“Stay grounded, set your schedule and boundaries, stay connected, and be good to yourself.”).

[16] Nicholas Kristof, Pull Yourself Up by Bootstraps? Go Ahead, Try It, N.Y. Times (Feb. 19, 2020), [].

[17] See David Jaffe et al., ‘It is Okay to Not Be Okay’: The 2021 Survey of Law Student Well-Being, 60 Univ. of Louisville L. Rev. 441, 496 (2021) (“While some law school administrators may maintain they are not responsible for the personal well-being of their students, this student development is very much a part of the professional formation now expected at every law school.”).

[18] Janet Thompson Jackson, Legal Education Needs a Wellness Reckoning, Bloomberg L. (April 7, 2021, 3:01 AM), [].

[19] Susan Katcher, Legal Training in the United States: A Brief History, 24 Wis. Int’l L.J. 335, 356 (2006).

[20] Russell L. Weaver, Langdell’s Legacy: Living with the Case Method, 36 Vill. L. Rev. 517, 519 (1991).

[21] William M. Sullivan et al., Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law 184–86 (2007).

[22] Jordan Furlong, The Way We’ve Always Done It Is Wrong, Law21 (Jan. 19, 2022), [].

[23] Id. (“‘The way we’ve always done things’ has an iron grip on this profession.”)

[24] See Kreiger, supra note 5, at 126–129 for further discussion on what legal institutions and administrators can do to move forward.

[25] Id. at 117.

[26] Id.

[27] Adam Barone, What Is the American Dream? Examples and How to Measure It, Investopedia (Aug. 1, 2022), [].

[28] Derek Newton, Americans Strongly Agree On Benefits Of College Degree, Forbes (July 25, 2022, 11:04 AM), (“That more and better education makes people more employable overall and more likely to land high-wage, high-profile careers is not news . . . . It probably should not be big news that Americans agree with it either.”) [].

[29] Kreiger, supra note 5, at 118.

Thursday, March 9, 2023