It was twenty years ago now, but I still remember what it was like showing up at law school that very first week or so. I didn’t know anybody, and I felt a little bit like a fish out of water, because it had been a while since I’d been in school. I was the first person in my family to become a lawyer, and I didn’t know what to expect, so I was pretty nervous. But I was also excited! I knew I was going to be around really smart people, that we were going to talk about things that mattered, that law school was going to be a real challenge, and I was going to prove that I was up for it. I was ready to get going. For me, it was the first step toward a new beginning.
But that was then and this is now. For those of you beginning law school this fall, I’m guessing that starting your legal education during a pandemic is not what you had planned. Getting your feet on the ground and finding your place is complicated by a mixture of Zoom, masks, and distancing. You probably feel a mixture of emotions. You want to be enthusiastic, but maybe you are also worried for family members, friends, and others who may be impacted by the current crisis. You might feel proud of the accomplishment of being admitted, but you are also concerned for your health and well-being. Some of you might be thinking that we have more important things to worry about right now, so starting school isn’t really a big deal in the scheme of things. Maybe it just doesn’t feel right to be excited, or proud, or happy during a pandemic.
But as Dr. Ryan Howes points out, feeling positive emotions right now “doesn’t make you a monster. Actually, it can be really helpful.” It’s OK to feel excited. It’s OK to feel happy. In fact, getting in touch with and being able to access that excitement, that enthusiasm, that passion, may be important both in helping maintain your well-being and in helping you succeed in school.
Grit. Resilience. Stress Awareness.
First of all, your passion can help you keep moving toward your goal. Dr. Angela Duckworth talks about “grit” – the ability to meet challenges and overcome obstacles — as being “passion and perseverance for long-term goals.” Developing and staying in touch with your “passion” is what gives meaning to the tasks you need to complete to reach your goal. It’s the “why” in “why am I excited to be in law school?” Being able to recall the “why” can help keep you going when things get challenging.
Next, your passion can help you bounce back from adversity. “Resilient” people, that is, people who are able to “bounce back” following setbacks, are people who, among other things, have learned to develop supportive social connections, cultivate positivity and a sense of optimism, learn from their mistakes, stay connected to their values, and have a connection to a greater purpose, according to Dr. Greg Eells. If you are like me, you will have plenty of opportunities to be resilient in law school. We all do. Being able to think back to the excitement you feel right now, to remember your greater purpose – the “why” in “why do I want to be a lawyer?” − will help you get back up when you stumble.
Your passion (or, at least, your ability to distinguish excitement from anxiety) can help you manage stress and perform better. If you experience anxiety, say, in getting up and talking in class, according to a study by Harvard Professor Alison Wood Brooks, simply saying to yourself “I’m excited” rather than “I’m calm” or “I feel anxious” can help boost performance. (She conducted this test with people singing karaoke, so saying “I’m excited” rather than “I’m calm” before singing might get you more applause during a night out as well!) In fact, as Dr. Kelly McGonigal explains in her popular 2013 TED Talk “How To Make Stress Your Friend,” being able to recognize that feeling of stress or nervousness as a positive – of your body getting ready to help you perform rather than as a negative – can have a positive effect on your overall health and even help you live longer.
Finally, bringing your passion and positivity to your personal time can help you reduce stress. Prioritizing positivity leads to better health outcomes. I’m sure I speak for most 2Ls and 3Ls when I say that you have to remember to have fun! Think about the things that you like to do, that bring you joy and contentment, and make time to do them. With the demands of law school, it’s easy to “back burner” the things that we enjoy and that support our well-being. What are one or two things that you are passionate about that you don’t want to give up during school? How can you be intentional about keeping them in your life? For more about positivity and stress management, check out our “OAAP Stress Management Tools and Tips.”
So, in the end, I hope you are really excited to get started. I wish you well. First year of law school was one of the best years of my life. I did meet really smart people, and some of them became my friends. We did learn, and talk about, things that mattered. And it was fun, and it was truly a challenge. But, as they say, law school is a marathon, not a sprint, and I didn’t plan on a marathon. Later in law school, I ran into a few challenges, and the OAAP was there to help. That’s a different story for another day, but if you run into challenges and need someone to talk to, I hope you’ll call. It helped me when I needed it.
The OAAP is a free, confidential, and voluntary counseling service for lawyers, judges, and law students throughout Oregon. If you have any questions about resilience or how to manage stress, or you would like to talk to someone about anxiety, depression, substance use, or any other issues that may affect your ability to perform well, please call 503.226.1057 or visit www.oaap.org.
Resources for Law Students
OAAP inSight Articles:
- Managing Stress With Mindfulness (March 2019)
- Bouncing Back: A Short Guide To Resilience (April 2014)
- Developing Healthy Habits: Strategies for Success (December 2017)
- Control‐Your‐Stress Checklist (March 2016)
- Positive Emotions and Taking in the Good (June 2016)
- Survival Skill No. 1 for Lawyers: Emotional Resilience , AttorneyAtWork.com.
- How to Make Stress Your Friend, Dr. Kelly McGonigal, TEDGlobal 2013.
- This one weird trick could improve your law school performance: Sleep − ABA for Law Students
- Substance Use & Mental Health Toolkit for Law School Students and Those Who Care About Them – ABA Law Student Division and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP)
- Law School Toolbox Podcast – Podcast Episode 254: Starting Law School Successfully During A Pandemic
- ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Program Resources For Law Students and Law Schools