Thinking Like a Lawyer is a Legal Skill, Not a Life Skill – Review of “The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress,” Part 3

Exhibit A: Disconnection

Exhibit A: Disconnection

Today’s post finishes reviewing Professor Larry Krieger’s helpful booklet, “The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress.”  The booklet is available here.

According to Krieger, the “hidden” sources of unhealthy law school stress—and their accessible remedies—include the following:
(1) The stress not the heavy law school workload in and of itself, but our unrealistic attitudes about that workload.
REMEDY: Continuing to prioritize our physical and mental health.  sleeping enough, getting enough exercise, eating well, and maintaining our connections to family and friends.  Practicing realistic and effective time management.  It is only when these basic elements are in place that we can perform at the top of our abilities.
(2) The stress of false values—namely, the belief that the purpose of law school is to graduate in the top 10% of the class.
REMEDY: Recognizing that the purpose of law school is to learn.  Further, understanding that being in the top 10% of the class is not necessarily the road to happiness, and that personal and professional satisfaction can be acquired through any number of other paths.
(3) The stress of “thinking like a lawyer”—that is, approaching human conflict from a narrow analytical framework—may require you to disengage the beliefs and values you brought with you to law school.  You may lose faith in yourself and develop a cynicism about the law and its ability to give the “right” answer, or even consistent answers.  In turn, this disconnection from one’s own values combined with cynicism about the law increase the risk that lawyers will behave unethically, because they no longer believe in their own sense of right and wrong or that the law reflects any real, fixed sense of right and wrong.
REMEDY: Prof. Krieger has a great quote on this point: Remember that thinking like a lawyer “is a legal skill but not a life skill.”  In other words, compartmentalize your experience in a way that is self-aware and that ultimately maintains your integrity.  Understand that your skills as a law student and lawyer are useful in certain contexts, but need not take over the entirety of your life and identity.  To that end, maintain your connection to who you were before law school and to the people in your life who are not related to your law school experience.
(4) The stress of fear of failure and lack of control in face of the indeterminacy of the law, which supports the desire to exert greater control over external circumstances and other people.  This effort to exert unrealistic levels of control is a set-up for failure and frustration, because there is little we can control beyond our own attitudes and actions.
REMEDY: Identify what is within your control, establish a standard for properly and ethically completing that task, and follow through on achieving that standard.  Recognize the factors that are beyond your control, and don’t imagine—or promise others—that you can control those factors.
(5) The stress of partying.  Unfortunately, many of the sanctioned behaviors for relieving stress—in particular excessive consumption of alcohol—accomplish just the opposite.  The key here is the term “excessive,” a term that means different things for different people but can be defined by its results.  A glass of wine with a friend can enhance connection and relaxation; shots and hangovers dramatically increase the stresses you will face in completing the work of the next day.
REMEDY: The issue of drug and alcohol abuse in the profession of law is signficant and complicated, and well beyond the scope of a single post.  But in brief: consider your body an ally in the challenge of law school.  Feed, nurture and rest it so that it can help you instead of dragging you down.
(6) The stress of law school debt.
REMEDY:  Simply, live frugally during law school and after, don’t indulge in unproductive worry, and know that others have pursued the job they love—not the highest salary—and have succeeded in paying off their debt.
(7) The stress of lying.  As a law student and law professor, but much more so as a practicing attorney, I have witnessed attorneys lying.  As Krieger points out, lying is an understandable (although not excusable) response to the stresses of law school and the profession.  But again, it is a response to stress that paradoxically increases stress, and can trigger a downward spiral of negative thoughts, feelings and actions.
REMEDY: Don’t do it.  Take pride in your integrity.  Any short terms gains that lawyers achieve by lying are eclipsed by the long-term gains of being professional, reliable and honest.

2 responses to “Thinking Like a Lawyer is a Legal Skill, Not a Life Skill – Review of “The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress,” Part 3

  1. Haha! Your image in this post cracks me up. It reminds me of how the office next to me at work is empty because it’s a “shareholder” office. I’m guessing the office is approximately 200 sq. ft. at maybe 30 – 40 dollars /sq. ft. (Dowtown Denver Lodo). This is just an estimate, but do the math; the firm would rather pay a ridiculous amount of money to leave the office empty than put an associate or even of counsel in the office because someone would throw a fit. I don’t understand it at all, but what do I know.

    • Thanks for the comment Danielle! There is a lot of concern with status in the profession—true of most workplaces, I imagine. But is that concern in any way different for lawyers? And does it contribute to the work at hand? It makes me wonder what a law firm would look like if it were not overly concerned with issues of status. It’s difficult to imagine.

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