Law students are “among the most dissatisfied, demoralized, and depressed of graduate student populations.” So what’s stopping them from getting their Ph.D. in art history?* After all the Mona Lisa never says “denied,” and Starry Night doesn’t depend on its lawyer to save it from the death penalty. From the WSJ Law Blog:
Law schools have their own version of Scared Straight in the form of cautionary tales. Those are the stories that professors share with students about attorneys who suffered embarrassment or worse for a mistake they made. A good example is the story about the attorney who failed to notice an autocorrect error in his appellate brief that changed the phrase “sua sponte” to “sea sponge.”
But professors who sprinkle their classroom lecture with cautionary tales about attorneys’ goofs should themselves take heed, says Abigail Patthoff, a legal research and writing scholar at Chapman University in California.
There is a reason to instill fear in law students. It’s to make them aware of the fact that their mistakes destroy other people’s lives. Patthoff has an article coming out in the Utah Law Review called “This is Your Brain on Law School: The Impact of Fear-Based Narratives on Law Students,” arguing that law professors should stop scaring law students by stories of disaster in order to reduce their stress.
“As their teachers, we cannot ignore the palpable presence of this stress in our classrooms – unchecked, it stifles learning, encourages counterproductive behavior, and promotes illness,” writes the professor. “By more thoughtfully using cautionary tales, we can actively manage one source of law student anxiety.”
What? You thought being a lawyer was about being tough and competent, worthy of being entrusted with the lives and fortunes of others who depend on you to zealously represent them in the face of a system determined to destroy their lives?
No, no, no. It’s all about the lawyer’s well-being. Is it stressful and hard to do it right? Isn’t it far more fun and pleasant to be told how smart and ginchy you are, even if you’re the classroom idiot? Doesn’t every law student deserve a red balloon?
One aspect of a legal education that appears to have fallen by the wayside is that lawyers must function in an atmosphere of enormous stress. That, dear legal writing scholar, is one of the reasons why people pay us the big bucks, because we can stand between them and the system as it uses every resource in its arsenal to ruin our clients’ day. Being a lawyer isn’t easy.
The ability to function under the most stressful of circumstances, and to do it damn well, is what one aspires to achieve as a lawyer. And more importantly, it’s what our clients expect of us. Ask any client facing life in prison if his foremost concern is his lawyer’s well-being. Ask any corporation negotiating a gazillion dollar merger whether their primary focus is on whether the lawyer feels good about himself. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
If anything, law school offers a dearth of fear and stress. This is serious business, with enormous stakes. The silliest of mistakes, of omissions, even typos, can spell disaster. Will driving this point home make a law student lose sleep? You bet, and it better. If the law student doesn’t appreciate the fact that his carelessness can destroy a family, then he had better switch to art history forthwith.
Patthoff’s point about the relationship between fear/stress and well-being isn’t wrong. What’s wrong is her outcome. She wants to improve law students’ well-being at the expense of their ability to handle the pressure of being a lawyer. She makes the mistake of seeing the law student as the focus of tummy rubs rather than the client who the law student will some day serve. That’s not how this gig works.
If the law students’ well-being suffers from the fear and stress induced in law school (which is itself something of a joke, given how law school already focuses on students’ feelings), then the solution is to strongly urge the student who can’t deal with the pressure to take his dime and hand him directions to a graduate school in a discipline for which he is better suited.
Law is not an easy profession. It’s not for everyone. It isn’t always stressful, but it can be unbearably stressful at times. Those are the times that lawyers must rise to the challenge. If they can’t handle it, they have no business being lawyers. Best they learn this in law school, rather than when a client’s life is on the line.
* No art history was harmed in the writing of this post.