Get a life: How to manage mental health in law school

By Alexandra Sumner

The first time I got a bad grade in law school I filled my bath with scalding hot water and stayed in there until it went cold. I don’t know if it was the hot water or the shock, but over the next few days I couldn’t feel anything. Well, anything except the sting of failure.

Mental health and the legal profession is a very “in” topic right now. Big Law firms are creating new health programs focused on self-care and anxiety management. Top educational minds have convened to find a solution to the (lack of) work-life balance problem.

The American Bar Association even created an entire day devoted to breaking the stigma associated with discussing mental health. All of these are great moves into the future, but as an incoming 1L I couldn’t figure out why they were necessary in the first place — I mean I did great in college, after all.

The biggest change between a 1L and a 3L is the realization that you’re not so special anymore. You spent the last two years putting in overtime: reading and writing until you need new glasses and buying textbooks you can (definitely) not afford. You apply to law review, moot court, a handful of internships — all of which you may not even get accepted into.

You then watch your friends become your competition and classmates with worse grades getting better internships — their dad knows a guy at a Big Law firm, of course. A lot of people want to talk about managing depression and anxiety, but it seems no one wants to talk about how we got that way in the first place.

One of the first terms taught in law school is caveat emptor. Literally, it translates to “let the buyer beware” and places the burden on the buyer to make sure that goods purchased are appropriate and in reasonable condition. In practical terms, you need to research what you buy — especially for large purchases. And I think everyone can concede that the decision to go to (and pay for) law school would qualify as a big financial decision.

So then, in the spirit of honesty, fair disclosure, and thorough research, you need to know just what to expect both in and out of the classroom. Law school is a lot like the movie Titanic.  At first you think you’re “king of the world,” but by the end you’re traumatized, poor and hanging onto your (academic) life by frozen fingertips.

Your grades are no longer what they used to be — the mandatory curve brought your 97  percent in Legal Research down to a C. (Not that I’m still bitter or anything.) Your success is no longer based on your own merits; its relative to the rest of the class. You feel stupid, worthless, exhausted and over it.

If you’re anything like me, your friends from college have all moved on. Some of them got “real jobs” and even have health insurance. Some go on vacations; some fall in love; some even get married. But it seems that no one else is falling into bed at night dreading waking up for class tomorrow. At least that’s what we tell ourselves.

Practicing the law is a solitary profession. Constant reading and writing doesn’t grow friendships. You have to sow that garden yourself. The best thing you can do for your legal career is invest in hobbies that are not, in fact, related to your legal career.

Take a cooking class, for instance. Start a hiking blog. Volunteer. Do something that forces you to get outside of your comfort zone and stop worrying, for once. Meet new people and expand your network — do something besides stressing out about “being a failure.” Find meaning outside of the classroom.

I wish I could tell you that it gets easier, that one day you’ll master your mental health monster and ride off, unhindered. That when you get that internship, that job, that girlfriend, your life will fall into place — but it would be a lie. Mental health is something you have to work at every day. It’s a tough battle between the person you are and the person you want to be, but aren’t you worth fighting for?

Alexandra Sumner is a 3L at Indiana University — Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.