Why Don’t We Change If We Are So Unhappy?
It’s no secret that law students are unhappy. Since the early 1990s, several studies have found that lawyers and law students are alarmingly prone to depression, alcohol and drug abuse, relationship problems, and suicide. One of these studies found that 32 percent of law students were depressed by the end of their first year and a staggering 40 percent of students were depressed by the end of their third year. While it’s unfair to say all law students are unhappy, these statistics paint a surprisingly bleak picture of a major issue plaguing the legal community that is rarely discussed between students, faculty and administrators in the halls of law schools. While rampant unhappiness may always be an issue for law students due to the very nature of legal work, Fordham Law can mitigate the effects of this problem has on its students.
Extreme stress and an excessive workload are the main causes of law student depression. But for today’s law students, there is one factor that is unequivocally exacerbating the depression problem: job prospects. Since 2008, economic decline has dropped the profits of even the most established law firms and companies. The result for law students has been heightened competition for the far fewer open spots in clerkships, law firms, and other legal organizations. Fewer spots mean more law students experience constant failure and disappointment, which can be quite devastating for the typical “type A” law student with a past of ample success stories. I, along with many of my fellow Fordham Law students, seem to be in a constant state of unhappiness as we worry about our lives after graduation. It is really no wonder applications to law school are at a 30-year-low. For many, law school just seems like too much work, too much debt, and not enough reward.
To keep its legal graduates desirable Fordham Law should change with the job market. Fordham needs to increase the number of courses that offer practical lawyering skills that firms, companies, and other legal institutions want in new attorneys. Fordham should help employers avoid the need to spend time and capital training new graduates. At a time when clients are squeezing every last penny out of law firms, the vast majority of firms are no longer willing to take on this cost. While learning how to spot issues in cases and understanding landmark cases from SCOTUS are important, there comes a point where it would be more helpful for law students to focus on learning skills they may use as a lawyer on a daily basis.
By establishing stronger focus on pragmatic skills in their academic curriculum, Fordham Law can boost the desirability and job prospects of recent Fordham graduates as a group of new attorneys that do not need extensive training. With a more promising job outlook, Fordham students can attain greater success, self-fulfillment, and happiness. Classes like Fundamental Lawyering Skills, Trial Advocacy, and the wide variety of legal clinics Fordham offers, in addition to extra-curricular activities such as journal work and moot court, are steps in the right direction. But they’re not enough. Fordham Law must go beyond these programs to meet the contemporary needs of employers and students.
Fortunately, some potentially drastic changes are already being discussed and evaluated, like reducing the law school experience to two years. Adding many more hands-on workshops to the legal curriculum that focus on technical skills like drafting contracts, motions, and legal documents would also be a welcome change for employers who need employees to complete these tasks. Classes on complex subjects like Corporations should be re-focused on what the student needs upon graduation instead of on a general body of knowledge. In addition, the integration of law journals and other student-run activities into the classroom would be another opportunity for Fordham to make its legal education more practical.
Fordham Law needs to make major changes (something more than adding “Legislation and Regulation” to the 1L curriculum) to help improve the mental health of current law students and to re-inspire prospective students to apply to law school. For too long, bar associations and law schools, including Fordham, have steadfastly clung to a standard three-year model in which 1Ls around the country take nearly identical classes. There is no doubt in my mind that Fordham Law students possess immense talent and ambition. The amount of time students spend in the library studying Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. is not why Fordham Law dropped 9 spots in the recent U.S. News Law School Rankings. Fordham needs the new, smarter curriculum that legal employers are asking for: one that will teach students how to conduct themselves as lawyers. Maybe then Fordham Law students will be met with more success, and cheer up a bit.
–Andrew Ringwood, Opinion Columnist