This article is written is by Wardah Beg, student, Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University.
Lawyers are meant to look, dress and behave a certain way, apparently. Yet no one gets into law-school on the basis of how they behave, what personality they have or how savagely they can argue.
One gets into law school because they know certain things more than the others, usually by cracking some entrance exam. So we find a different variety of people inside law schools, just as we find a variety of people outside it.
There are introverts, there are party animals, naturalists, bookworms, politicians, wayfarers, travellers, and a hundred other different types of people, which makes it wrong to make any generalizations. You may have your own reasons to get stressed, which are not related to law school.
When I talk about stress here, I mostly mean stress that is due to law school, something that is the same for everyone there.
Excessive stress undermines our capacity to work.
A lot of us fall behind as unproductive, lazy and aimless couch potatoes. I know people around me who do nothing except whining all day. I tend to keep myself at a distance from these crybabies, so that I don’t eventually end up becoming one.
At the same time, we can not dismiss the amount of things that get thrown at you in law school, compared to other colleges, and the recent spurt of suicides prove just how gravely alarming the situation is, and that something needs to be done about it.
Again, a disclaimer here is necessary. Please see professional help if you think you are going through serious mental health issues, we are only talking about everyday law school stress in this article.
Why do law students get stressed?
While stress has become an alarming health epidemic with 86% of people claiming to suffer some sort of stress all over the world, the rate of students suffering in law colleges is comparatively higher. I would believe that the degree of stress is also a lot more.
There are various reasons why I as a student may feel stressed out in law school. A lot of things come on flying into one’s face as soon as one joins college – the pressure to do great in exams, internships, moot court competitions and what not.
The exams never seem to end, moot courts looks too demanding and often students have no idea how to apply for good internships. Moreover, there is excessive competition among classmates, parental pressure to be at the top of everything you do, peer pressure, the pressure to be cool.
And then there are your own personal problems. As you are growing up, you form new relationships, while older ones wear out. Relationships require an effort to maintain, and a lot of times just end up stressing us even more.
The stress that students from NLUs go through is even higher, due to the highly competitive environment in most of them. Year-losses too have been cited to be a major reason affecting the mental health of law students, in a report by NLSIU Students Bar Association.
A lot of students find themselves lost and misguided because there is no one to mentor them. No one tells them what they should spend most of their time doing, is it worth spending so much time on a particular competition, paper, or internship, what are good internships, etc. Students fall victim to myths and false beliefs. Someone, perhaps a senior, would come along the way and tell them this is right, and they would religiously start doing it, until some other day some other senior would come and say something opposite.
Students often end up doing too much, to get only too little results.
It is important for students to realize that everything their seniors say is not worthy of being written in gold, since they themselves are figuring out things and their advice should be taken with a pinch of salt especially if the said seniors have not yet really achieved anything great out of their own methods. They are, like you, at some stage of development in their lives, and have not fully matured.
The same often applies to teachers too. While some of them have good advice to offer, many of them are doling out outdated insights, which are often delinked from any reality. If they do not make time to meet industry people and learn from them, they are unlikely to be able to guide you on the right path.
What causes stress?
Most of the stress is law school is experienced due to the overload of work, peer pressure, performance pressure, or being unable to deal with your self-image.
Questions to ask yourselves
While the stress in law school is general, some of us still suffer more than others.
Ask yourselves these questions and see how many you respond positively to:
-Are you not getting enough sleep?
-Could you be performing better if not for this or that? Are you giving too many excuses for your failures?
-Do you have too much to do at once and it all feels beyond your capacity?
-Are you not interested now in the things you used to enjoy?
-Do you find it hard to move and would rather stay in bed?
If the answer to most of these questions is yes, there is a problem. But don’t panic. We’re all in this together.
Coping with stress in Law School
You are not your grades
We all have bad phases, and it is a matter of fact anyway that not everyone tops the class. Only one person does. So, it is in fact in the interest of our health to accept this as a truism, and rather than bashing ourselves for something that we can’t actively control, we should focus on investing our time in things that we can work and excel at.
Also, remember that topping the class is no indication of ultimate success in life. Many of the top lawyers, judges and legal academicians had performed very poorly in law school, only to excel later.
If your goal is to succeed, you will succeed. Now or later. Believe in that. Repeat that to yourself until it becomes an entrenched faith. Obsessing after grades is unhealthy and also unproductive in the long run.
Don’t try too hard to become what you are not
Do not fall for what others are projecting as their persona, lifestyle or abilities.
Although I don’t want to generalize, a lot the so-called stars are very inauthentic and are just projecting themselves to be what they are not. While we should all put our best foot forward, you need to engage in a constant battle of envy. A lot of the successful people you are jealous of are as clueless and as lost as you are. They are just showing something else to the world.
Do not question yourself and your self-worth based on Instagram pictures or what people say or show off about themselves. A lot of that would be unbelievably ‘made up’.
Do not be one of the people who are on their gadgets all the time, who would hardly initiate a conversation with anybody on the dinner table. Do not just talk about the supposedly ‘important things’. There are people who, even in their college lives, already behave like the typically busy professionals. You don’t need to do that. It is unnecessary.
It is great to have goals. It is great to be driven. It is great to be focussed. But do not be inauthentic. Do what you will genuinely like to do.
Do not try to create an image that is not true. You will pay a huge price even if you succeed. That price is stress, depression and isolation.
Trying to be interesting is stressful and hard. Taking interest in other people is amazing and will lead to better results.
Trying to impress others will create distance with people even if they are impressed. It will also be incredibly stressful to constantly maintain that impressive image.
These things are not needed for success!
Pick one thing at a time
I have been here, and I see so many people doing this: They sign up for everything that is there.
They are mostly in front of the notice-board, taking notes of all the coming opportunities. Opportunities are a great thing, and it is sad to miss a great one, but to end up doing nothing just because you have so much to do at once is sadder.
Dividing your attention towards ten different things isn’t going to work. Have a laser-sharp focus. Say no to opportunities so that you do not spread yourself too thin.
Amazing success does not come from chasing every opportunity in front of you. It comes from converting one opportunity at a time. Pick the one that inspires you, and then give it your everything.
Unless you think you can, if you are already doing a moot court competition, and it requires a lot of preparation, don’t sign up to co-author a research paper at the same time. This will undermine the effort you could put in one of these things and excel in that.
And this is a great way to avoid completely avoidable stress.
Ask for help
When I see someone really suffering because of college or personal stress, I ask them to seek professional help, and a lot of people just laugh it off. “It isn’t so bad,” “Come on, I am not a mental patient”.
If you have a lot of stress that is preventing you from being your best self, it is a mental health issue. If you were not able to walk fast, let’s say because you have a corn under your feet, would you not say you have a health issue that needs medical attention? If you are not able to focus on work or having too much stress that causes physical symptoms like headache, lethargy etc then you certainly need attention from a professional.
Even as mental health continues to come up more in conversations, people still have taboos attached to it. It is completely okay to seek counselling. In fact, some of us need to work on opening counselling cells of some sort in our colleges, so long as the college, itself is not providing for any such amenity.
It is also important for you to surround yourselves with people who are positive, or just anybody who you find comforting to be with. It is also important to have open conversations about what you are going through, with anybody that you trust.
What is the best way to stay in good shape yourself? Helping others to do it.
How did a Nazi concentration camp prisoner maintained dignity? It was common for inmates to lose their mind. However, Viktor Frankl, a survivor who went on to write a classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, did not lose his dignity. When he was hungry and had little food, he gave some of that to another inmate who was in worse shape. He smiled at people, tried to give them hope and encouragement. Even as a prisoner, he was at service of those who were less fortunate.
And that is how you lift your spirit up and never lose hope and courage even in the worst of situations.
If you think you are not doing good, look around. You will see that there are always some people around you who are suffering a lot more. If you think you can help them in any way, however small it might be, do it.
I remember one particularly low week that I had in my college, and nobody really noticed that I wasn’t really talking or acting like I do. I didn’t, either. Except for one day when I got home, I received this message from a classmate (screenshot attached below).
I am not particularly good friends with her. We do not ‘catch up’. Yet, the power of this message cannot be underestimated. It made me feel so much better.
I always imagined my college to be full of walking zombies, and that perception changed. There still are people who care, and the thought was consoling. Imagine doing that to someone. It doesn’t cost one to throw a smile at a classmate, or complement them on their new watch, or the answer they gave in the contract law class.
Be friendly, and try to give out positive energy. You could really be changing people’s days and maybe their lives too. But one life will certainly change, and that is yours.
Once more, I remember, a classmate sent me his notes on email, telling me how he noticed I hadn’t been coming to college and might not have those for the coming exams.
Help people even before they have to ask you to. A lot of us may not come forward and confess that we’ve been falling back, were sick or too much was happening around us, for us to be able to attend the class. It doesn’t cost you anything to share your notes, and maybe you get to feel a tinge of pride and happiness for having helped someone.
Career choices do change
You do not have to have it all figured out just yet. Nobody has to. It is when you are in law school that you get the time to explore what you want to do, not after having passed out. Use these five years to figure out what you like, what drives you and what challenges you want to take up. (I just want to put in a small thank you here for Gareema Ma’am, who is a mentor, for this gem of a thought).
Don’t worry if you do not have the answer to when someone asks you what do you plan to do after your graduation. A lot of the people out there just pretend they do, and end up doing entirely different things eventually.
And that’s perfectly alright.
Get rid of the negative people around you
One major thing in college that repels me so much is the amount of negative people I have to interact with everyday.
I decided one day to stop trying to fit in and cut the unnecessary conversation with the negative people around me.
These are those people who want you to worry about everything, all the time. Not just that, as soon as you enter your classroom, they would try bringing up some random person up and talking bad about them for no reason. Most of the times I would have no idea who the conversation is about, and talking about anybody except the people in the room seemed very rude and intrusive in someone else’s personal affairs.
Be wise in selecting who you spend your time with.
Self Care and Self Development
There are various ways law school students use to keep up with this stress. Some people do have plans, things seem to be working out just fine for them, and everything seems to be in place. We wonder if it is just us who has a problem. Maybe the problem lies within us?
The thought is self-sabotaging. The world is an inherently difficult place to live. If nothing in our own personal lives, so much evil seems to be lurking around all the world, that it is depressing to imagine living comfortably in a world, in a corner of which entire cities are being bombed, children are starving, the wage gap ever increasing.
I’m reminded of Uncle Walt’s poem here-
“O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish..
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me..
What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse”.
It is important to remember that no one carries their problems hanging in front of them in pouches. Which is why it is easier for us to look at people and imagine that they are living the happiest, most fulfilling lives, while in reality most of us are suffering equally, in some way or the other. The least we can do is to help each other through this. Work on developing yourself as a person and a professional. Contribute a verse.
But whatever you do, you must first take care of yourself. Your health, your fitness, your happiness, your self-worth. Wherever you go, you must be the first person you embrace.
This is not selfish. A person who does not love himself cannot love someone else. If you do not take care of yourself, you will not be able to take care of anyone else either. Not in the long term at least!
You are the most important person in your life, so treat yourself as such.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
I only recently came across this therapy in an article by Joseph Trunzo (who is a clinical psychologist from Rhode Island), and I could connect so much because I realized I had already been unconsciously following it.
The idea behind Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) essentially is, instead of attempting to control extreme and difficult emotional processes, one should do more to accept and move through them.
The first thing to do would be to pay very close attention to what is happening in the present moment, that is to focus on any uncomfortable pain, feeling or sensation that there is. As a species, our initial and natural response to any feeling of discomfort is to avoid it, which is why, when we are driven by our feelings (for instance, fear) we make decisions that are influenced by them.
I will give you an absurd example. I have a fear of pressure cookers. I don’t know where it came from, but every time one of these suddenly whistles somewhere and I am close to it, I freak out.
If I want to boil potatoes or rice, and I want to do that quick, the decision I would make to stay away from pressure cookers forever will not help me complete my action fast, say have a quick lunch.
ACT asks you to practise taking decisions in the absence of any such influence of feelings. The idea is to focus more on the value of your action, and the importance of it, and to do it in the absence of your irrational fear of doing it.
Which is why I have come to accept that law school is going to be hard, but then life, too, essentially is; and since it is hard for everyone, the only way to get through is to work on our creative capabilities and our personal development rather than worrying too much about something that we can’t control.
Now, this does not mean losing or giving up. We can take a lot of practical steps to improve our productivity and spend time doing meaningful things in our college, that will help us in our careers.
Do what you can do. Even if it is a small step, take it. Do not worry about the big things that are outside your control.
Deal with challenges on an ad hoc basis
Take things one by one. Focus on what is going on now, than worrying about 3, 4, 5 years down the line. Make small goals that are practical, and actually achieve them. It will make you feel so much better as you complete them one by one. For example “I will do one Moot court competition by the end of this semester” is too big a goal and not something you can do right now.
However, “I will find an amazing book on mooting and learn everything I can from it about how to be an ace mooter” is a small and specific goal that you can do immediately and move forward towards your larger, long term goal.
Or “I am going to join toastmasters this week so that I can improve my speaking skills” is also a fantastic goal which would help the cause of winning a moot. You cannot win a moot right now, but you can increase the likelihood of that happening by finding a toastmasters club in your area and signing up for it. Or by simply signing up for a good course on mooting.
Small goals that move you forward are very important, as achieving them grows your strength, focus and likelihood of eventual success.
It’s called slicing the elephant. You can eat an elephant but only one small bite at a time.
Engage in Professional Networking
Meet people. Your college might not be the treasure island of people successful in their own lives and careers, so go out, network. Networking will also help you come across better opportunities, and it will also help you stay social. It will give you more opportunities to be generous and to learn from others.
Being social is a great antidote to stress.
Do practical, real-life stuff
It is beneficial, not just for your profile, but also to achieve a sense of fulfilment when you actually use your knowledge of law to do practical things. Go out and hear people’s problems, research on them, come up with potential solutions, advise them. Go to lengths to help bring justice to people. This will keep you updated on the laws than your peers, you will get a chance to give back to the community and actually gain hands-on experience.
This would enhance your confidence, make you feel worthy and take your knowledge and skills to a new level altogether.