Arguably the worst kept secret in the legal profession is that many of us have poor work-life balance. Stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, and substance use issues are all-too-common phenomena.
Efforts to address these problems continue to be largely reactive and piecemeal. Gym memberships and mindfulness classes can only do so much. We need a more far-reaching response to work culture issues, and law schools are a critical, though often-overlooked, part of the solution.
Law school is where the next generation of lawyers is first taught the expectations and culture of the legal profession, and the nonstop work culture of law school is harming our profession. Sure, some fondly remember law school as a less hectic time. Too often, however, the lesson law schools impart is that students should expect to sacrifice personal happiness, well-being, and other aspects of life to complete their work.
Numerous studies have shown the negative effects of law school on many students’ well-being. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated pressures and adverse health consequences.
Students today balance law school obligations with work, family duties, child-care responsibilities, and more. This leaves little to no time for self-care. And it shows.
In responses to the 2021 Law School Survey of Student Engagement, nearly half of law students reported averaging five or fewer hours of sleep per night, including weekends. In addition, 43.6 % of respondents reported five or fewer hours of relaxing or socializing per week, and an additional 32.1% reported only six to 10 hours of relaxing or socializing per week. The numbers were even worse among students of color.
Consequences of Lack of Rest and Relaxation
The lack of rest and relaxation is not just unfortunate, it has real consequences. Research shows that sleeping less than seven hours a night is bad for your health—it increases risks of various adverse long-term health consequences.
More immediately, it affects the quality of work. Research has found that being awake for 18 hours straight leaves one in the same state as someone having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%, a level at which an individual is impaired.
We have lost sight of what constitutes a healthy work-life balance. I can recall a moment in practice when I was sitting in my office shortly after a deal had closed. I had worked around the clock for weeks leading up to the closing. The partner came by my office and, seeing me nearly asleep at my desk, told me to go home (around 3 p.m.).
For days, I told others how thoughtful that was—that is, until a friend stopped me: “You billed a crazy amount and hardly slept for weeks. He gave you a few hours off.”
My friend was right. I had lost perspective. Another week, I billed 129 hours, including all-nighters on Friday and Saturday nights. Arriving at the office on Monday morning, I was greeted with praise. At the time, it felt good.
Today, I see those moments as indicative of how quickly I lost any expectation that self-care and life beyond work mattered.
Experiential Learning May Create More Pressure
Changing the profession’s work culture requires that we start at the beginning. Law schools play a key role, and they may be getting worse. The more recent push to expand experiential learning, while important, may inadvertently be creating more pressure.
Many faculty now have students complete experiential exercises throughout the semester instead of relying solely on a final exam. These changes have value. From drafting legal documents to participating in mock negotiations, experiential learning can help develop skills and produce more practice-ready graduates. But their costs include further taxing students. When multiplied across the curriculum, at some point, it can be too much.
The problem is twofold: The nonstop work culture leaves students exhausted and underperforming, and it conditions the newest members of our profession to view sacrificing family, friends, and personal well-being as the norm.
Of course, we cannot expect new graduates to change the work culture of firms and organizations they are just joining. Leadership needs to buy into and lead the change.
But the profession’s work culture won’t change if law schools keep churning out new attorneys who don’t expect work-life balance.
Law Schools Must Forge a Culture of Self-Care
To enable law students to maintain a healthy work-life balance, law schools cannot simply encourage students to take care of themselves. “Take care of yourself” messages do little for students who feel as though they are drowning. Law schools need to forge a culture in which self-care is not only possible but also valued.
How law schools ensure better work-life balance could take different forms. It might include creating genuine breaks for students, better coordinating assignments across the curriculum, or other steps that create space for a healthy balance. What I do know is that when I have given students a break, they come back happier, reenergized, and more invested in their work.
Of course, some might push back, arguing that students need to be prepared for the frenetic world of practice. But mimicking the worst times in a profession is not the best way to prepare students. After all, if you want to develop professional baseball players, you don’t start by having them pitch nine innings on short rest.
Law students are learning a new profession. To genuinely support that learning, law schools must prioritize the development of healthy lawyers who serve their clients and communities without sacrificing the rest of their lives. In short, in law school and practice, we can value hard work without expecting people to live unhealthy lives.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Jonathan Todres is a distinguished university professor and professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law.