Law students are getting a taste of high-level stress earlier on in their degrees — and they’re not coping. Leanne Mezrani reports.
University orientation days are just around the corner for thousands of recent high school graduates. Eager first-year law students will front up to law school with high expectations of university life, which promises independence, new friends and the time to indulge in intellectual pursuits without the full responsibilities of adulthood.
Strolling through the grounds, they will picture themselves spending an afternoon sitting on the lawns engaged in fascinating conversations about why law is the pillar of civilisation.
But, it seems, this picture of a typical law student is far removed from the reality.
University of Sydney law school dean Joellen Riley fears students simply don’t have time to enjoy life on campus — or even complete their studies comfortably — with the pressures of legal practice now creeping into the early years of their degree.
Riley points to a growing number of students who are taking on too much paid work as an example. Most Australian university regulations stipulate that students should not work more than 20 hours per week, but many work for 30 hours or more.
“We notice that students like to get most of their classes into just two days a week so they can work much more than we recommend ... and if you’re working many hours on top of full-time study, something’s got to give,” says Riley.
And they’re not bartending or waitressing, she continues, but taking jobs as paralegals, or similar entry-level roles in the legal field, in the hope that the experience will make them strong candidates for a full-time position when they graduate.
In the red
The prospect of a hefty HECS debt is also forcing some students to start their legal careers early, continues Riley.
The cost of studying law at the University of Sydney is currently $29,376 for a three-year Juris Doctor (JD) degree, up from $18,408 in 2003. Fee-paying students face a much heftier bill of $98,640, while international fee-paying students will fork out $115,200 for the same program.
The price tag attached to legal education is much the same south of the border. The average annual fee for a Bachelor of Laws at Monash University in Victoria is $9500, which does not include the recently introduced student services and amenities fee, which can cost up to $273.
Riley claims that even if students defer payment under the HECS-HELP loan program they still face financial pressures associated with the high cost of living in Australia’s major cities, particularly Sydney.
“They have high costs — phone bills, living expenses etc — and those financial pressures encourage them to try and work as much as possible.”
Those who struggle to meet their financial obligations could face another, more serious, problem. According to a study by the Brain & Mind Research Institute, students with financial difficulties are three times more likely than other students to experience high levels of psychological distress and depression.
The 2008 study also found law students experience depression at triple the rate of the general population, with common personality traits like pessimism and perfectionism increasing susceptibility to the disease.
Generally, perfectionism is considered a favourable trait in professional services. However, it can also cause students to focus on what they believe to be their failures, which can lead to anxiety and depression, reveals the Australian Law Students’ Association (ALSA) in a handbook to help law students cope with the pressures of completing a law degree.
So, ALSA claims, the same traits that propel law students to the top of their class and the heights of success after they graduate will also increase their risk of developing mental health problems. Add the reality of cut-throat competition and you have a recipe for unhappiness, says Riley, who adds that 70 per cent of the 112 Sydney Law School students currently registered with Disability Services have listed a psychological disability.
“We are seeing a number of cases of students pushing themselves to the limits and, at crunch time, when they can’t drag themselves out of bed to sit an exam that they know they’re not very well prepared for, they present as a candidate with a psychiatric assessment report,” she says.
Gillian Triggs, Riley’s predecessor and the current head of the Australian Human Rights Commission, claims that there are countless other stressed-out students who fly under the radar, struggling through their degree without asking for assistance.
Two graduates had committed suicide shortly before Triggs’ 2007 appointment as dean of the University of Sydney law school. One of the first initiatives she launched in that role was a mentoring program to shed light on what she describes as the “disturbing and alarming” rate of depression among law students.
“We tried to raise consciousness [of depression] in the law school — reflected in a lot of effort within the profession, law societies and initiatives by the Bar — to try to make people aware of what depression was and how it is identified ... and hopefully pick up who might be suffering depression.”
Triggs also notes that a number of Australia’s top law firms, including Allens, Ashurst, Clayton Utz, Herbert Smith Freehills and King & Wood Mallesons, are also educating their new recruits on the risks and early warning signs of depression.
Monash University’s law school dean, Bryan Horrigan, believes promoting positive mental health in future lawyers starts at university.
He is well aware that depression doesn’t end at graduation but, in fact, worsens: non-profit depression initiative BeyondBlue recently named lawyers as the most depressed professionals from a selection including architects, banking and finance workers, insurance brokers and engineers.
Horrigan encourages his faculty to follow ALSA’s recommendations for reducing student anxiety, which include avoiding early morning assessment deadlines.
“This avoids all-night cramming followed by tired drives to university during peak-hour traffic just to hand in an assessment.”
The university has also been running a mental health awareness program for the past five years, which offers students scientific insights into mindfulness, attention density, attitudinal psychology and other aspects of brain functioning that affect academic performance and associated mental health.
While Riley agrees that this sort of program is constructive, she also warns that making such courses compulsory could exacerbate the problem by adding to student workloads. She adds that law schools must ensure they don’t overburden students, who, in turn, must not overburden themselves.
Riley identifies the proliferation of legal resources in the digital age as an area where both students and educators might make poor choices that could promote anxiety.
“There are mountains of resources that students think they might have to look at, but there are still only a few needles of valuable material in those haystacks, and filtering through loads of material for what is relevant is a big task,” she explains.
“Equally, [educators] need to avoid the temptation of adding more reading and content to the curriculum in our desire to be innovative in the way we teach and assess.”
While Triggs admits that these sorts of pressures certainly contribute to anxiety, she also reassures students that the perils of a life in the law have been “seriously exaggerated”.
“The message out there has been an extravagant one,” she says. “They talk about the slave-driving mentality and brutal hours but the reality isn’t that bad.
“Most modern firms do not treat their graduates this badly. There are exceptions, but in the main firms are working hard to adjust to the work acceptability demands of the next generation.”
This pessimism around what it’s like to be a lawyer before their career has even begun not only highlights law students’ predisposition to depression, but it also suggests that the idealistic view of university life as an enriching and enjoyable experience is reserved for Arts and Humanities students.