Coping with Depression in Law School

Published: Oct 19, 2021

Topics: Law  

The journey to becoming an attorney is a windy road filled with late-night study sessions, high-pressure exams, and tough competition—all of which can contribute to mental health challenges. With an estimated 40% of law students experiencing depression by graduation, it is important to understand that you are not alone if you are suffering from depression. It’s also important to know there resources available to you and that having depression doesn’t have to delay your journey to becoming an attorney.

The Facts

Law students experience depression at a higher rate than the general public. For example, one sobering statistic shows that by the end of first semester, law students are prone to depression at a rate four times higher than the general public. And unfortunately, depression is not a condition that magically dissipates after graduation. Those tackling the bar and attorneys are also more prone to experiencing depression than the general public—in fact, one article published by in the ABA Journal states that  lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to experience depression than people in other professions.

Recognition is the First Step

The first step toward coping with depression is recognizing that you have it. While there are certain textbooks signs—such as fatigue, concentration issues, and feelings of hopelessness—depression presents itself differently among different people. The signs might be especially hard to spot in a person suffering from high-functioning depression.

Recognizing that you are experiencing depression is important, but so is recognizing the cause, if possible. Identifying the cause can help you treat your depression. That said, it is also very normal for there to not be a specific thing you can point to as the cause of depression.

Consider the Effects of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is not a stranger to many law students, and it is often a factor related to feelings of depression and anxiety. Imposter syndrome was first identified in 1978 and occurs when someone feels that “they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Law school offers the perfect storm of circumstances that can lead to these feelings: Receiving a bad grade, having a bad cold call, or comparing yourself to your peers can all lead to feelings of inadequacy, even though you are anything but inadequate.

Imposter syndrome can lead law students to credit their successes (such as getting into law school in the first place) to luck, rather than hard work and intelligence. It’s normal for everyone to second guess themselves sometimes, but it also important for your mental health to recognize when imposter syndrome is creeping in.  

To tackle imposter syndrome, you’ll need to work on acknowledging and reminding yourself of your capabilities. This can be hard to do on your own, so when you’re feeling down on yourself, you might want to reach out to mentors or friends who can give you a pep talk. You might also consider keeping a file of achievements handy as a reminder of your successes when you need a boost. Finally, don’t be afraid to share your feelings with others who have been in your shoes and you can trust—you’ll likely find that your feelings are common, and hearing from other high achievers might help you recognize that your feelings are not true.

Take Time for Yourself

Another contributing factor to depression is the pressure from others and yourself to put your entire focus on law school. Yes, school is important, but you should also be putting your mental health at the front of your focus. You cannot perform well in both school and life if you are not taking care of yourself first and foremost. Take time from your schedule, whether it is one night a week or an entire weekend, where you focus on yourself and your mental health. Have a solo movie night with your favorite meal, talk to a trusted friend, or go and see people who make you feel safe.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Help

Often, it takes more to treat depression. If you need additional help, you are not alone, and it’s important to know that there are resources to help you shoulder the burden. Don't be ashamed to take advantage of the ample resources available to law students and lawyers experiencing depression or other mental health issues.

For starters, your law school most likely has a counselor and other mental health resources available for students. These services are usually either free or available at an affordable cost. But if you are not comfortable going through your school, the ABA has resources available too, including sites that are designed to assist law students on a variety of issues. The ABA created the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) to help those in the legal field who battle alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental health issues—and these service are confidential.

It may seem cliché that it is okay to not feel okay, but it is a cliché for a reason. Many attorneys will tell you that they suffered from depression during law school and beyond, and by seeking help, you are opening yourself up to conversations and resources that can help you fight back against depression and achieve your career goals.

***

Please note that if you are feeling suicidal, there is help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 24/7, free and confidential. Call 800-273-8255 to speak with someone who can help.

***