Fear and Stress Are The Lesson

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.

17 thoughts on “Fear and Stress Are The Lesson

  1. Josh King

    This is an excellent point. One thing that makes the law so challenging and stressful for new lawyers is that just as you’re trying to learn a complicated craft, there is always someone looking to capitalize on the slightest mistake you make.

    Law students are taught about the adversary system in the abstract, but the more they can learn about what it means for them personally, the better. Silly mistakes WILL be pounced on by adversaries, potentially harming the client and certainly requiring the attorney to go to whatever ends necessary – from extra late night work to abject humiliation before a judge – to apply the corrective. Law schools could use more cautionary tales, not less.

  2. BJC

    My reading of the paper is not that “fear stories” make it harder for the student to pass law school without being overstressed. It’s that these students will become lawyers without listening to these warnings and then will screw up their clients even worse than if some other pedagogical method had been taken.

    I’m almost 10 years out of law school, and I remember the “fear stories” being very useful for practice, but almost always not necessary to remember on the final exam, much less the bar. You can get a pretty good grade in Civil Procedure without having to internalize double-checking various critical items on a civil summons, I sure did and it was a painful learning curve on the other side.

    As I read the SSRN paper, the social science cited inside said that, after a certain point, people bombarded by warnings or already under stress just stop caring, even if the warning is as serious as having safe sex in a place where the HIV infection rate is near 40% of population.

    I agree with the premise that a lot of precious snowflakes unsuited for the rigors of the law are going to law school, but, even with the crummy post-crash employment numbers, enough of them are still getting jobs as lawyers that we have to care about the quality of their work. So, if we can’t keep them from getting law licenses, and if fear isn’t teaching them how not to generally screw up their clients, how do we get through?

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s certainly an issue with overload and “will it be on the test” for law students, but that’s also reflective of their lack of concern for becoming lawyers, rather than passing law school. If they can’t handle it, or don’t care about it, this isn’t the right profession for them.

      Part of the answer is law schools, and lawprofs, drumming out those who don’ belong. Part of it is not offering admission to anyone who breaths and can get a student loan. Part of it is “putting it on the test,” making sure they have the chops to be lawyers. And a key part of all of this is lawprofs who can tell the difference and have the guts to tell a student they won’t cut it.

  3. william doriss

    These issues are so problematical, it’s hard to know where to begin? So many questions, so few answers. As a civilian, I’m deeply troubled myself. I keep wanting to compare the “legal profession” with the “medical”, but there’s no comparison really! Hippocratic Oath comes to mind, the first part of the classical rendition reads:

    “I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfil according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant:

    “To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents and to live my life in partnership with him, and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in male lineage and to teach them this art – if they desire to learn it – without fee and covenant; to give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my sons and to the sons of him who has instructed me and to pupils who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, but no one else. ”

    In my experience, and IMO, few–very few practitioners–of the legal arts are even remotely qualified or dedicated to the arts to which they have subscribed and sworn to. They’re interested in themselves, naturally. As much as I dislike visiting doctors and such medical practitioners, I trust, reluctantly them more than practitioners of the legal arts. Just as you cannot tell a “good cop” from a “bad cop” by looking at him (They all look the same, really), so you cannot tell a competent lawyer from an incompetent merely by the blather that emanates from his distasteful breath. Or the written notices sent to your mailbox for that matter! It could be total gibberish or the Real Deal. You just don’t know? How could you? You did not go to “law school”, nor are you well-connected or well-endowed. You don’t know who his friends/connections are? You don’t know how well, or whether, he knows the judges on the docket? This is crazy, utterly crazy. I can name names, believe me, and I have. Many have been deleted. Now I am getting old, and am having a hard time remembering those bloody names.

    It’s a terrible enterprise. The so-called judicial system fails us on a daily basis, over and over again, year after year, decade after decade. And yet we live with it, assuring ourselves and the public that the we have the “best judicial system the world has ever known,” in the (paraphrased) words of my blanketey-blank trial judge in New Haven. May she got to Hell in a hand-basket. You herd it hear first.

    No, I’m not finished. Just ran out of time. Ha. All the best.
    Finally, on stress: It’s a give-and-take. No one said it was going to be easy. You give it your best shot. Joan Rivers comes to mind. No one does it better than Joan, an inspiration to all of us. We are missing her terribly. However, when you are facing serious prison time, it’s not v. funny, needless to say. You sober-up pretty quickly.
    Being a bus driver or subway engineer in NYC can be stressful too, for the uninitiated members of the readership who may live in the Mid-West or hinterlands of Amerika.

    1. SHG Post author

      As you know, Bill, comments like this usually end up in the hopper. But how you somehow got to Joan Rivers and NYC bus drivers amazes me.

      1. william doriss

        I’m amazed at myself, a legend-in-my-own-mind! Am further amazed that you let the comment thru?
        Barleycorn, Fubar and others are much better than me. See how humble i am, Esteemed One? Am especially fond of that federal judge out there in the middle of the county. Don’t cut him off! Whatever you do? We do miss Joan, sincerely. I know a couple of her jokes; she was the best. Oh, and I got a couple of lawyer-jokes which are not appropriate to the forum or the above topic: Lawyer jokes we don’t need; good, dedicated lawyers we need, in abundance. Ha. Judges too.

  4. RKTlaw

    I have had somewhat similar discussions with physician friends who believe that the treatment of residents has softened to the point where it is detrimental. Getting away from extended on-call shifts and rounds, they believe, has allowed a new set of doctors to get too comfortable and not have that well of self-discipline to pull from on when the s**t hits the fan.

    1. Jack

      I can assure you it is just a case of “when I was in residency we walked uphill both ways in the snow and still saved lives, god’nagit!.” There is still crazy on-call hours, rounds (really? everyone with “dr” in front of their name, or who hopes to have it there soon, does rounds in school and residency if they work in-patient), zero to one weekend off per month, and the typical 5 sick days (but if you use more than 1 or 2 you are out), and no vacation. All for the princely sum of 45k a year.

        1. David

          As you know, there’s a huge difference between needing to learn to act under necessary stress and emergency situations (for lawyers or MDs) vs. putting patients or clients at risk because of unnecessary stress created to teach the MD or lawyer. Should patients or clients pay the price in increased risk because it is thought best to stress out residents (or junior lawyers) to teach them? How is teaching the professionals (which benefits all patients/clients, at least future ones…) vs. serving the current patients/clients balanced?

          In particular, the 5 sick days, but if you use more than 1 or 2 you’re out, particularly disturbed me, at least thinking about airborne respiratory diseases like SARS where my understanding is that people who may have been exposed should call in sick, and avoid contact with other medical professionals, or patients.

          Please note, the all-caps is for the abbreviation, not emphasis…

          1. SHG Post author

            Whoa. I’m talking about law students in law school, who aren’t anywhere near real clients. Let’s not conflate the medical residents analogy to new lawyers. That’s a whole different matter.

        2. Jack

          Hell no, I wouldn’t put myself through that, even for what you earn when you get done with residency. But my fiancee, for whatever reason, decided it was an awesome idea and got a residency this year. At least they defer student loans during residency – if they didn’t do that you would be relegated to living in a box.

    1. SHG Post author


      The blog changed platforms a while back, and the URLs for posts predating the change were all changed in accordance with the new program. Unfortunately, old links in other posts still have the old URLs. Just delete the .aspx if you want to read it.

  5. Ray Ward

    I practice civil litigation (oxymoron?), not criminal law. Still, stress is part and parcel of the job. I am almost 24 years into this profession, and I am still learning how to manage the stress. It’s possible to be happy as a lawyer. But not easy.

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