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Experiences as a Tool to See Flawed Details and Cope with Stress

This Legal Problem Solving post is by James Dorian, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

There is no doubt law school is stressful. After the ABA and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation released the 2016 study identifying the alarmingly high substance abuse rate in the legal profession, it seems clear that stress is not dealt with appropriately.

In Creative Confidence, Tom Kelley and David Kelley explain the “think like a traveler” part of the design thinking process. Thinking like a traveler helps creativity because a traveler is experiencing her surroundings for the first time and has not grown accustomed to details. If you see details like you are seeing them for the first time, then you can better see the flaws. When you can see flaws in details, you can identify the space for a creative solution.

My suggestion for law students and practicing attorneys is to break away from obsessing about law school or a person’s legal career. This can help reduce stress by taking your mind off things. Also, breaking up your experiences help flaws stand out as areas for improvement, rather than blend in to a routine.

There are some common aspects of stress in the law school experience: getting excellent grades (particularly 1L), checking all the extra-curricular “boxes,” and obtaining full-time employment, among others.

These stressors all require a lot of time. From the first day of law school, students spend an incredible portion of their lives at the law school. The problem I see is not that students spend a lot of time at the law school, but that students spend a lot of time only at the law school.

Last spring I grabbed lunch with a friend, who was also in law school, as a break from everything going on at school. We talked about what classes we were going to take, what our summer job plans were, what kind of practice area we were drawn to, and so on, and so on.

We enjoyed our conversation over lunch and I got ready to go back to the library. But by the end of the meal, I realized that what was supposed to be a break from law school had really only been a discussion about law school. That is no break at all.

What caught me by surprise was the lack of what filled in the gaps. Yes, there is not much time left to spare in the standard law student’s or attorney’s life, but why are those precious lunch and other gap-filling moments still revolving around law school or one’s practice?

I decided to dedicate more time spent on things that have nothing to do with law school. It worked. I spent time hanging out with friends who were not in law school. I started reading for pleasure again. I went to more Nashville Predators and Nashville Sounds games. Overall, I stopped letting myself obsess over law school when time should appropriately be devoted to something else.

If that means branching out and making new friends outside of the law school, I recommend doing it – you can have more than one group of friends. If that means asking someone special in your life to help you focus on other things, I recommend doing it. If that means going to a Predators game and one less Bar Review each month, then I recommend doing it. If you’re hanging out with other law students, don’t be afraid to shift the conversation to a topic having nothing to do with law school – in my experience, it is generally well-received.

Once you get things done, don’t obsess over what else you can possibly do. Do something to relax that has nothing to do with law school at all. This has worked for me. Once I get the things done that need to be done, I try taking on an experience that is wholly unrelated to law. When I do get back to work, I sit down with a fresh mind and do not have a library-hangover. The fresh start after a new experience is where I see “thinking like a traveler” as a helpful way to stay alert for details that would otherwise blend in with a person’s routine.

To be on alert for details and their flaws, having a fresh start helps. What works for me is to have a lot of fresh starts for legal thinking by injecting new experiences (“travelling”) into my routine. Breaking away first requires resisting the urge to obsess, especially when it seems like everyone around you is obsessing. While seeing details helps the creative thinking part, I also see it as a way to lower stress.

Hopefully this is just one way law students and attorneys can help the design thinking process, while also providing an opportunity to de-stress. With a high substance abuse rate and a changing legal industry, I see “traveling” into these new experiences as a way to de-stress and engage design thinking broadly to better identify solutions to flaws.