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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3 Responses to Law student wellbeing in the UK: Developments and directions

  1. Chris Osborn says:

    Great article. I suspect that the more this issue is discussed openly, the more it will become safe for law students, barristers, and solicitors to open up about the stressors & struggles they face. And that will be a good thing, because only by naming the problem and getting it out in the open can anything be done about it. Bar organizations and law firms in the US and Australia are making a great deal of progress in helping lawyers deal with stress in a more productive and sustainable manner, and law schools are beginning to change for the better as well. Keep up the great work and please let me or my colleague Michael Kahn know if you would like to chat more about ongoing efforts in the US and Australia, where we have spoken extensively on the topic.

    Like

    • mainstreamtj says:

      Agree it is so important for these issues to be spoken about. I feel by bringing concepts of emotion humanity and relationships back I tot he law to have a balance between non adversarial and adversarial approaches that we can reduce the damage the legal system does not only to litigants but all of us who work in it. Another blog that is talking about new approaches to the law to build resilience of law students and lawyers is https://newlawyerlanguage.com

      Like

  2. Emma Jones says:

    Hi Chris

    Thanks for your reply. I totally agree – the more this becomes discussed and acknowledged, the more progress can be made. It helps challenge the “norms” of mainstream legal culture which still seem to all too often revolve around excluding emotion from interactions and putting forwards notions of professionalism which disregard parts of the realities of practice.

    I would love to hear more about the discussions in the US and Australia and will definitely be in touch.

    With kind regards

    Emma

    Like

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