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Solving the Problems That Plague Our Profession

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Emily Lipka, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

I took my first antidepressant when I was 18. It was during a period of especially turbulent personal life after my first year of college. I struggled with mental health problems through most of my preteens and teens, but was on the “I swear I’ll never take a prescription” train. I quickly swallowed that pride and recognized the realities of my mental chemistry. Eventually, with therapy, meditation, and weaning off the SSRI, I developed a healthy set of skills to cope through my second half of college. I was doing well (I thought). Things basically stagnated, and even when they weren’t great, I “was fine.”

Then I hit November of 1L. I had heard the tropes of the depressed/anxious/overwhelmed first year law student, but thought that I’d be able to survive with my newfound routine and coping mechanisms. But by March something needed to change. I saw a slew of professionals from all angles and developed a routine that is the best for me for now. I have mindfulness intertwined with medication and talk therapy. Maybe one or two of these will suffice in the future, but for now it’s how I manage to live a happy and meaningful life.

But I’ve wondered over the past two years: what happens to people who don’t know how to help themselves? What happens to those law students who feel their first “I’m not worthy” or “I can’t do this” when they’re in the bowels of the library at 2 AM without anyone to turn to? I came from a lineage of people with therapists, benzodiazepines, and acute sense of self awareness that we were wound a bit more tightly than those around us. But I can’t shake the feeling that law school may not be amply communicating resources to those people who have their first bout of mental unwellness without expectation, plans, or a safety net. Or what happens when it saunters its way into the mind of a second year associate doing 3AM memo writing in a dark office? Yes, we know the realities and statistics of the drinking, drug use, and depression in our profession (one in three!), but awareness does not equate to preparedness.

And awareness does not equate to problem-solving. Yes, many high achieving people self-select into the legal industry and are predisposed to depression and anxiety. But they also self-select into medicine, the tech sector, and banking. Those industries are clearly doing something differently that we can learn from. The legal industry is a pressure cooker: we’re constantly stacked up against our peers and ranked among them, accompanied by a keg or glass of wine at arm's length.

There needs to be active preparation aside from the one lunch talk and passive email forwarding of available counseling resources. We have an app that helps us walk home safely, and one to make student health appointments at the click of a button. Why not have an app that checks up on if we’re taking deep breaths and breaks from work and eating a vegetable. How are we mentally feeling today? Have we seen the sun? This type of active self-awareness would not need to be reported on, but much like the SAMH well-being assessment, we could be astutely aware of our needs that are not being met.

And if our score is troubling, how about a reminder of all of the resources that are available to us? Project SAFE and counselors in the law school basement, the counseling center right across the parking lot, peer groups for people struggling with addiction. These resources need to be pinned to our browsers, prescient in our brains. Our professors could take two minutes twice a semester encouraging us to do something mentally healthy or conduct the survey. We love reducing waste and time wasted, but no time is wasted if it may help two people get mental health help.

The legal field focuses on better access for clients and adapting to the changes we need. Our constant goal is pleasing the client and meeting a bottom line. We tailor our services to meet those needs. Isn’t it time to meet our own needs and tailor them to a plan that works for each of us as individuals? Lawyers are in the business of problem solving. It may be about time that we solve the problems that plague our own profession.