Monday, September 2, 2013

Happier in Law School: The Research

Recent research again examined the mental health, happiness, and well-being of law students.   The news is not good, but we've known that for many years. 

Research conducted in 2012, in Australia, examined whether a relationship might exists between emotional intelligence (EI) and better psychological health among law students.  Prior research had reported high rates of depression among law students.  "They experience a significant deterioration in their mental health status during law school  . . . . [that] may begin in the first year of study."
The research, using self-assessment tools of three types, indicated that students with higher EI were:
  • Less likely to suffer psychiatric symptoms, 
  • Less likely to use alcohol,
  • More likely to be satisfied with life.
The so-called ""Big Five"  personality factors of agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, and neuroticism had a stronger link to psychological health.  

The researchers expressed concern that law students appeared to have dispositional factors that made them "prone to depression and other mental health problems."  Accordingly, they recommended further research.  

They also recommended:  "[L]aw (and other) schools should be motivated to develop programs that effectively engage and help law students to become aware of the risk factors for poor psychological health, including dispositional factors, and provide skills training in how to take responsibility for their psychological well-being within the demands of their studies."  A summary of the research appears here.

Law Students and Positive Emotions

Earlier research involving over 100 1Ls law students and over 100 2L law students indicated that more
successful students, measured by class rank and GPA, have certain positive emotional habits.

They show:
  • Various kinds of optimism,
  • A willingness to reframe events in positive ways, and 
  • An ability to overcome obstacles.

Lawyers and Emotions

The mental health problems arising in law school carry forward into practice and the stress of practice may cause even more lawyers to suffer psychological distress.  Lawyers, overall, have a higher incidence of symptoms of various kinds of negative emotion.  In addition, they may lack sufficient levels of positive emotions.  

Emotions are “contagious."  New research shows the brain has "mirror" neuron cells, which may explain this phenomena. In addition, research shows that the electromagnetic field of the heart can sense perceived threats.  The heart then sends signals to the brain that can trigger feelings of fear, anxiety, hurt, resentment, judgment, depression, stress, and fatigue.

So, lawyers need to pay more attention to how their emotional moods may affect prospective clients, clients, and opposing parties. Luckily, lawyers may have greater potential for training in efficient or positive emotions than persons in other professions.

Professor Len Riskin approached this issue by advocating the use of mindfulness meditation by lawyers.  See Leonard L. Riskin, ADR and the Contemplative Lawyer: On the Potential Contributions of Mindfulness Meditation to Law Students, Lawyers, and their Clients, 7 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 1 (2002). 

As you recall, I described three meditations I did with incoming 1Ls here and here.

Over the next several postings, I'll discuss the research and recommendations in greater detail. 

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