Understanding the Social and Cognitive Process in Law School that Creates Unhealthy Lawyers

By Kathryne M. Young

Previous work on law student wellness and mental health strongly suggests that the seeds of professional unhappiness are sown in law school. Law students suffer from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other mental health problems at alarmingly high rates. They also leave law school with different concerns, commitments, and cognitive patterns than when they entered, emerging less hopeful, less intrinsically motivated, and more concerned with prestige than they were at the outset. So what, exactly, happens to people in law school? Although a rich body of quantitative and survey-based research on law students documents these empirical trends, surprisingly little qualitative work has examined the social mechanisms and relational processes that underpin the development of negative mental health and wellness patterns. This Article draws on in-depth interviews with fifty-three law students from thirty-six law schools throughout the United States: one interview before the students started law school, then another interview in their first three to six weeks, for a total of 106 interviews with 1L students who entered law school in Fall 2020. Even at this early stage, we can already begin to identify the social and cognitive processes that set the stage for unhealthy professional development.