Perhaps the worst-kept secret in the legal profession is that many of us have a poor work-life balance. Stress, burnout, depression, anxiety and substance abuse issues are too common phenomena.
Efforts to address these issues continue to be largely reactive and piecemeal. Gym memberships and mindfulness classes can’t do much. We need a deeper answer to workplace culture issues, and law schools are an essential, if often overlooked, part of the solution.
Law school is where the next generation of lawyers first learn about the expectations and culture of the legal profession, and law school’s non-stop work culture hurts our profession. Of course, some fondly remember law school as a less turbulent time. Too often, however, the lesson law schools pass on is that students should expect to sacrifice personal happiness, well-being, and other aspects of life to complete their work.
Numerous studies showed the negative effects of law school on the well-being of many students. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the pressures and adverse health consequences.
Today, students balance law school obligations with work, family obligations, childcare responsibilities, and more. This leaves little or no time for self-care. And it shows.
In response to 2021 Law School Student Engagement Survey, nearly half of law students reported sleeping an average of five hours or less per night, including weekends. Additionally, 43.6% of respondents reported five or less hours of relaxation or socializing per week, and an additional 32.1% reported only six to 10 hours of relaxation or socializing per week. The numbers were even worse among students of color.
Consequences of lack of rest and relaxation
Lack of rest and relaxation is not only unfortunate, it has real consequences. Research shows that sleeping less than seven hours a night is bad for your health. increases the risks various long-term adverse health consequences.
More immediately, it affects the quality of work. Research found that being awake for 18 hours straight leaves the same state as someone with a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.05%, a level at which an individual is with weakened faculties.
We have lost sight of what constitutes a healthy work-life balance. I remember a practice moment when I was sitting in my office shortly after a deal was made. I had worked around the clock for weeks before the shutdown. The partner came by my office and, seeing me almost asleep at my desk, told me to come home (around 3 p.m.).
For days I told others how thoughtful it was, until a friend stopped me: “You charged an insane amount and you hardly slept for weeks. He gave you a few hours off.
My friend was right. I had lost perspective. Another week I billed 129 hours, including all-nighters on Friday and Saturday night. Arriving at the office on Monday morning, I was greeted with praise. At the time, it was good.
Today, I look to those moments as indicative of how quickly I lost all expectation about the importance of self-care and life beyond work.
Experiential learning can create more pressure
Changing the working culture of the profession requires starting at the beginning. Law schools play a key role, and they can get worse. The most recent push to expand experiential learning, while significant, may inadvertently create more pressure.
Many professors now require students to do experiential exercises throughout the semester instead of relying solely on a final exam. These changes have value. From drafting legal documents to participating in mock negotiations, experiential learning can help develop skills and produce graduates who are more ready to practice. But their costs include additional student taxation. When multiplied through the program, at some point it may be too much.
The problem is twofold: the culture of hard work leaves students burnt out and underachieving, and it conditions new members of our profession to see the sacrifice of family, friends, and personal well-being as the norm.
Of course, we cannot expect new graduates to change the working culture of the companies and organizations they have just joined. Leadership must buy in and lead the change.
But the profession’s work culture won’t change if law schools continue to produce new lawyers who don’t expect work-life balance.
Law schools must forge a culture of self-care
To enable law students to maintain a healthy work-life balance, law schools cannot simply encourage students to take care of themselves. “Take care of yourself” messages do little for students who feel like they are drowning. Faculties of law need to forge a culture where self-care is not only possible but also valued.
How law schools achieve a better work-life balance could take different forms. This can include creating real breaks for students, better coordinating homework across the curriculum, or other steps that create space for healthy balance. What I do know is that when I’ve given students a break, they come back happier, invigorated, and more invested in their work.
Of course, some might back down, arguing that students need to be prepared for the frenetic world of practice. But mimicking the worst moments of a profession isn’t the best way to prepare students. After all, if you want to develop professional baseball players, you don’t start by getting them to pitch nine innings on a short rest.
Law students learn a new trade. To truly support this learning, law schools must prioritize the development of healthy lawyers who serve their clients and communities without sacrificing the rest of their lives. In short, in law school and in practice, we can value hard work without expecting people to lead unhealthy lives.
This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Jonathan Todres is a distinguished university professor and professor of law at the Georgia State University College of Law.