Ann Althouse is a great writer and a clear thinker, but in her February 20 New York Times column “A Skull Full of Mush”, she writes about something close to her -- teaching law -- and gets it wrong. She ends the column this way:
"The students who come into our law schools are adults who have decided that they are ready to spend a tremendous amount of time and money preparing to enter a profession. We show the greatest respect for their individual autonomy if we deny ourselves the comfort of trying to make them happy and teach them what they came to learn: how to think like lawyers."
Ms. Althouse is responding to an issue that is rapidly gaining attention in the world of legal education: the tremendous damage that going through law schools does to many students. Studies going back more than 15 years have repeatedly shown that law students suffer significant negative psychological chages during law school. Although they look much like other undergraduates coming in, by the end the first year 30% are depressed, and it goes to 40% by the end of law school. Drinking as a coping behavior goes up. Anxiety, hostility and paranoia increase. And, there is a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivations for practicing law. In other words, students go from wanting to do good to wanting to get the goods. And these trends continue into practice where lawyers lead the professions in the rate of depression. To put it mildly, this is not good for clients!
Ms. Althouse's position is a very convenient one for a law professor. “Hey, what I’m doing is just fine! In fact, it’s good for them! And don’t your dare suggest otherwise!” And she's not alone here. Another law professor, James J. White put it:
"Until better data come forward, I will continue the traditional law teacher's reign of pillage and abuse. I do that happy in the belief that my hectoring will leave my students better, if momentarily sicker, lawyers."
Mr. White seems to suggest we are currently doing an acceptable job of creating a great start in the law for new lawyers. Actually, that's not fair. What he suggests, like Ms. Althouse, is that the only job of law schools is to teach students to “think like lawyers.” This, of course, is not what either the students or the public wants from law schools – we want those schools to teach students to be lawyers. And good ones. We most definitely are NOT OK with law schools pumping out depressed, unhappy students to face an extraordinarily tough transition into the profession without a healthy mindset to support them in that effort.
Anyone see the connection to concerns about professionalism here? In fact, we roll students out of law school reeling from three disorienting, unsatisfying, mind-numbing years that they hate in overwhelming numbers to face a transition into a very demanding profession that is a significantly more stressful today than it was just a few decades ago. Then we do virtually nothing to assist in that transition. Why are we surprised when lawyers fail to flourish and the profession comes under increasing public hostility that stems, at least partially, from the root of unhappiness that is planted in law school?
I am in favor of helping students better cope with the challenges of law school. Positive psychology has developed proven approaches that can help students develop and maintain positive explanatory styles to ward off depression, experience more positive emotions so their base for learning, cooperation, and pro-social behavior will remain strong, and develop stronger relationships that will sustain them through their professional and personal lives. Law school should feel an strong sense of urgency about making training in these techniques available to students. Significant components of that training are available in web-based formats and could be rolled out for a tiny, tiny fraction of the tuition charged by even the most modest law schools, let alone the elites.
Beyond that, we need to consider carefully why law school is so damaging (and, yes, it seems more so than other post-graduate options). The discomfort some on legal faculties may feel at the possible disruption of a system that works for them is understandable, but most will surely be willing to engage in the effort for the good of students and society. And, when they do, I think they're going to be proud of the results.