Law student wellbeing in the UK: Developments and directions

Guest blogger Emma Jones, Lecturer in Law, The Open University Law School, writes…
Therapeutic jurisprudence focuses on the law’s impact on psychological wellbeing. In doing so, it not only consider the implications of specific laws or legal practices and procedures, it also considers the wellbeing of legal actors. This includes not only members of the legal profession, but also other affected, such as clients, witnesses and law students.  

Within the UK, the wellbeing of law students as legal actors has arguably been somewhat over-looked to date. At a point where this is gradually beginning to change, this blog post considers some of the current factors potentially affecting UK law student wellbeing and the development of research in this area. It also suggests some potential future directions to explore.  

International research on law student wellbeing

There is a significant body of evidence from both the US and Australia suggesting that law students suffer from high levels of psychological distress (for example, depression, anxiety and stress) compared to both the general population and students in other disciplines. Rather than this being due to the personalities of those who choose to study law, the reason seems to lie within the law school itself in those countries.

A number of causes of psychological distress within the law school have been suggested. One is the high workload and significant academic pressures involved. Students are often competing to earn honours and professional opportunities. Some feel they lose their autonomy by trying to “fit in” with the demands and culture of the law school.  

The competition, and large class sizes, can also lead to a lack of social connectedness, with students finding it hard to form new friendships. They may find themselves concentrating on their work at the expense of time with family and friends.

Another potential cause of psychological distress is the extrinsic motivations of a significant number of law students. In other words, they may be studying law because of the possible careers and status involved, rather than because they genuinely feel passionate about it.  

The common notion of “thinking like a lawyer” can also be restricting, and even arguably damaging, for some students. This is the idea that the law requires a certain form of logical, analytical reasoning which must be applied objectively and without emotion. It can be taught as a way to “win” an argument, to prepare students for the court room. Some academic studies even suggest that “thinking like a lawyer” can cause a shift in law students’ thinking styles, making them focus a certain type of rational thought. In turn, this can cause them to become less likely to value and use other ways of thinking. This includes ways of thinking which acknowledge and utilise emotion.

The UK position

Although the evidence above stems from the US and Australia, there are indications that UK university students generally are suffering from significant levels of psychological distress and issues with mental wellbeing. There is also evidence of strains on mental health amongst the UK legal profession. For example, the UK charity LawCare, which offers help and support to the legal profession, reported a 12% increase in calls from 2015-2016, with the largest proportion (38%) relating to stress.

To date, there is very little published research on UK law students in particular, but this looks set to change in the next few years. A number of academics and universities are beginning projects to investigate the wellbeing of their students and consider options for positive change. For example, at The Open University we are undertaking a project focused on the wellbeing of law students who are distance learners (another under-researched topic) to enhance their study experience. There is a fruitful exchange of information with Australian colleagues and a UK Wellness for Law network has recently been created.  

Of course, it would be wrong to assume that the results of this fledgling research will mirror those findings made elsewhere. It may be that the differences in UK legal education to some extent lessen its impact on law students. For example, unlike in the US, law is offered as an undergraduate degree, with a purportedly liberal focus. This may mean that there is less vocational emphasis and academic competition. However, the common images on UK law school websites still often seem to promote entering the legal profession as the most desirable end-goal for law graduates. There is also evidence that the vast majority of law students begin their degree with that as their aspiration.

The notion of “thinking like a lawyer” may arguably be slightly less engrained as approaches commonly linked with this, such as the Socratic method, have never been fully integrated into UK legal education. However, there remains a focus on a form of hard-headed analysis which still promotes law as the arbiter of reason and rationality.

There are unique stresses and strains on UK law students too. At present, entry routes into the legal profession in England and Wales are under review and the outcome is uncertain. It is likely that significant changes will result, particularly in relation to the solicitors’ profession, where the proposal is to abolish the current post-graduate diploma in legal practice. The number of training contracts offered (the period of on-the-job training to qualify as a solicitor) are fluctuating yearly, but have failed to return to their pre-2008 high. The uncertainties of Brexit (the UK’s departure from the European Union) may also contribute to economic concerns and anxieties.  

A UK wellbeing agenda for the future

For those concerned with the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic effects of the law on legal actors, these changes and uncertainties make it more crucial than ever that research is carried out on UK law student wellbeing. More than that, it is key that the findings are translated into positive action and impact as and when it is shown to be necessary.

In terms of research, it will be necessary to examine whether the UK law school experience does place particular challenges in its students’ path. This will necessitate comparisons with other disciplines and jurisdictions. There will also be fascinating comparators to make between law students within different parts of the UK. Including asking questions such as whether the differences in legal education and the legal profession within Scotland and Northern Ireland lead to equally different impacts on law students?  

Overall, there is an increasing acknowledgment within the UK of the need to engage with issues of student wellbeing. For law students, this can be done within the context of international research findings which have suggested possible contributing factors. Identifying the presence or absence of these within UK legal education, unpacking the unique issues affecting UK law schools and working out how to translate research findings into constructive change are the key challenges, but also the vital opportunities, available to the UK’s legal academy.

Dr Emma Jones is a lecturer in law at The Open University in the UK. Her research interests centre on the role of affect within legal education and the legal profession. She is currently undertaking an empirical research project on the wellbeing of distance learning law students.
Contribute to the conversation about law student wellbeing…leave a comment below…

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What can mainstream courts learn from aboriginal sentencing courts…

Guest blogger Jordan Tutton writes…

In early 2016, a young Indigenous Australian man robbed a liquor store in the southern suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia. He pleaded guilty and asked to be sentenced in a specialist criminal court established to sentence Indigenous Australians.

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Creating a Re-Entry Court by wagging the probation tail

Guest bloggers Professor David B. Wexler &  Judge Michael D. Jones  (Retired) talk about how to improve people’s chances of successful transition from prison to community through a therapeutic application of existing law…

recent Mainstream TJ blog explored the “exportable elements” of the Louisiana Reentry Court spearheaded by Judge William (“Rusty”) Knight that could be explored in other jurisdictions.

That invitation led us consider how the Arizona device known as a “probation tail” could be tweaked in a way that would enable an interested judge to create his or her own reentry court, one case at a time.

Here’s our tweak…

Use probation post release

In a lengthy textual footnote (footnote 8) in his New Wine in New Bottles paper, Wexler quotes a detailed description by Judge (Ret.) and now Professor Michael Jones of a “probation tail.” Basically, the probation tail was devised to provide a more rigorous form of parole after incarceration for a serious offense.  By agreement, the defendant pleads to a serious offense that would lead to a term of incarceration, and would simultaneously plead to a second, probation-eligible offense that would lead to a consecutive sentence of probation. The probationary term would begin upon physical release from incarceration, and was created in order for offenders to be supervised by superior court probation officers (well-educated and often specialized) rather than seriously overloaded and underfunded parole officers.

Re-focus on responding to risks and needs through therapeutic interventions

Jones explains that, in contrast to the underfunded parole officers, “our probation departments … are experienced in coordinating jobs/housing/treatment programs for drugs, alcohol and mental health issues, which are exactly the types of major issues for people just released from prison.” These are, of course, the very issues about which Louisiana Judge Knight has been concerned.

One major difference, however, between Judge Knight’s innovation and the Arizona probation tail is that the tail has been employed simply to shift post-incarceration supervision from parole officers to probation officers. The Knight approach does much more: it relies as well on meaningful judicial monitoring and supervision: a series of follow-up hearings.

Add judicial monitoring

Accordingly, our tweak would suggest that, in appropriate cases, judges sentencing to incarceration followed by a probation tail take on the additional task of regular judicial monitoring. In essence, they would be creating their own reentry court, one appropriate case at a time.

In these appropriate cases, the judge would regularly hold visits (by video if necessary) during the incarceration period, and case management would seek a seamless transition from incarceration to probation, helping to arrange housing and employment, and scheduling the first probationary hearing to be held the day after prison release, at the same location where sentence imposition occurred.

Use Early Termination as an incentive

Toward the end of a successful probationary period, the judge could take advantage of a TJ-friendly legal provision and decide to terminate the probationary period early. This could be accompanied by inviting family and friends to the final court session, where an informal “graduation” ceremony could be held.

We hope this short piece will contribute to the reentry discussion, even in situations where split-sentencing itself may be unavailable (e.g., mandatory incarceration provisions, or limitations to certain charges or to durational limits on confinement periods).

In an earlier piece, Wexler and Jones discussed creative uses of Criminal Settlement Conferences, another aspect of the law where Jones has been heavily involved. That earlier piece did not discuss whether Probation Tails and reentry matters might be the subject of such conferences. Now, we wonder if they just might be.

This piece is also available on Ssrn

Editor’s note:  This blog is a great example of how Therapeutic Jurisprudence thinking works to improve mainstream law and legal systems:

First you look at how existing laws can be applied to act more “therapeutically” that is to improve the well being of people affected.  This is the “Therapeutic Application of the Law” or TAL, that is, what can the legal actors (judges, lawyers etc do differently to improve wellbeing or what legal processes can be altered to improve wellbeing?

Sometimes you then identify that the law itself is getting in the way of improving the wellbeing of people (for example, in respect of the above reentry court idea, even with the most creative use of the law, your law simply does not allow for a ‘probation tail’).  Then you may need to look at law reform to improve the Therapeutic Design of the Law (TDL). 



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Amateur Therapists or Amateur Justice? Why we can’t let fear of progress slow therapeutic jurisprudence reform

I cannot imagine a more dangerous branch than an unrestrained judiciary full of amateur psychiatrists poised to “do good” rather than to apply the law.
– Judge Morris Hoffman

Some critics of therapeutic jurisprudence argue that when judges adopt a therapeutic role they act beyond both their expertise and beyond their proper functions as judges.

Are these objections to therapeutic jurisprudence (‘TJ’) a fearful reaction to what is actually positive reform of the legal system? Continue reading

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Key elements of a re-entry court for people transitioning from prison to community

Guest bloggers Judge William Knight, Caroline Cooper and David Wexler describe the Louisiana Reentry Court and identify features that may be exportable into other jurisdictions…

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A judicial officer assists offenders to set rehabilitation goals & strategies (TJ Court Craft Series #8)

The TJ Court Craft Series provides practical insights and tools for judges interested in therapeutic jurisprudence, problem solving or solution-focused approaches.  Read other blog posts in the Court Craft Series here.

In this post Michael King, a judicial officer in Victoria Australia and author of the Solution-Focused Bench Book,  shares a tool he uses in court with offenders …

Setting goals and strategies is a technique advocated in the therapeutic jurisprudence literature. Research suggests achievement is promoted through the setting of goals. There is a well-developed literature on the value of goal setting.  It is also well accepted that behavioural change and rehabilitation is best driven by the person seeking to make the change.

One tool I use with offenders to facilitate this process is a goals-and-strategies /rehabilitation plan form.

When do I use the form?

While your own court processes may differ this form is adaptable to various mainstream criminal court processes. I have used this strategy while sitting in as a magistrate in two jurisdictions now – Victoria and Western Australia and have been able to adapt the strategy for use in both mainstream courts. I have also used it while Perth Drug Court magistrate and while sitting in a family violence court.

I am having accused/offenders complete the form:

  • When I am considering a bail application and the accused has underlying issues that they wish to address. The contents of the plan contribute to my assessment of unacceptable risk.
  • Where I am deferring sentence to see whether a person can follow through with rehabilitation before I decide on the final sentence
  • When I am considering whether to sentence a person on a Community Corrections Order (a probation order) or when I sentence them to a Community Corrections Order I require them to complete the form by their first judicial monitoring appearance.

This type of form could also be used when considering parole or re-entry from imprisonment.

It could also be used by lawyers and community corrections officers. For example, a lawyer could encourage a criminal client who wishes to plead guilty to a charge to prepare a rehabilitation plan in preparation for the case in court.

Setting positive goals

Accused/offenders should be encouraged to set positive goals. – in the literature these are called “approach goals” – as they have been found to be more effective than negative goals.

For example, a goal of having respectful, caring and loving relationships is better than a goal of not being violent; indeed the seed of how to achieve the goal is in the former but not the latter.

Advantages of the form
I find that it has a number of advantages:

  • Giving accused/offenders ownership in their rehabilitation that may contribute to an increased commitment to pursue it.
  • Having them think about and form a vision of how their life could be.
  • Providing the court the opportunity to support an accused/offender’s belief in their ability to change – an important requirement for rehabilitation according to the literature – by approving and praising the plan (with modifications where needed) and by giving praise when goals are achieved.
  • Holding accused/offenders accountable for their own rehabilitation as well as for their actions.
  • Providing the court with an internal rather than an external reference point at judicial monitoring or other hearings in addressing a situation when performance is lacking – “you said you would do X in your plan. How does you doing Y fit in with that?” instead of “I told you to do that, why didn’t you do it?”. The former has less chance of promoting resistance to change.
  • Involving accused/offenders in decision-making processes concerning their own rehabilitation.

I have had some great successes with the use of the plan. Of course there have been cases when it has not worked, but that is the case with most court processes.

The form can be found here: goals-and-strategies

I am most grateful to David Wexler and the late Bruce Winick for introducing me to the strategy that judicial officers and lawyers can use of setting goals. Their writings provide a wealth of knowledge about TJ practices.

There is more information about setting goals and strategies and references to the research in the Solution-Focused Judging Bench Book, pp 167-170.

Message from the editor:   Feel free to share ideas you have for offender rehabilitation by clicking on the “Leave a comment” link below or  email: to contribute your own blog post


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The Jury finds itself ‘Not Guilty’…

Guest blogger Yael Boneh explores how Therapeutic Jurisprudence thinking can improve the experience of jurors…

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) proposes that the legal system, judges, court officers, and lawyers constitute social forces that can exacerbate or alleviate potential harms on those coming in contact with the legal system including jurors.

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