|What do you remember about your first day—and few weeks—of law school?
We likely have a mix of memories. I remember being excited about a new chapter in my life. I was looking forward to meeting new people who would become my friends, and I was a bit concerned about what it was about law school that made it so tough.
I remember coming home confused. Law school felt like any other university program in many ways but was limited to a defined group of people who had met entrance requirements. And I wasn’t sure I had met anyone who would become a friend. I remember thinking I would excel at the Boolean logic necessary for early case law research but discovered I had no such natural aptitude.
And I remember that everyone seemed really cool and confident—except me. I was shaking in my boots!
Eventually, I started making friends with some of the less intimidating classmates.
I still remember my first actual law school class, after we finished the equivalent of Foundations (but back in my day, we started in mid-August with a two-week research and legislation class before moving to the regular academic schedule.) It was Real Property, and the professor had assigned a case from our casebook. It wasn’t even a case, really—it was an excerpt of a judgment.
The case was Re Huggard Assets, a decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council that was Canada’s highest appellate court at the time (if you are a history buff, check out this description of key Alberta decisions and litigators travelling to London via ocean liner). You may wonder how I remember that—it is seared in my memory. I know exactly how the excerpt was presented in the Cirlox bound casebook with a green cover. Events that are heavily steeped in emotion, like fear, are hard to forget.
I sat down to read the case the way I had always tackled academic assignments. I made notes of everything His Lordship said. The excerpt wasn’t very long, but I had pages and pages of handwritten notes so I would know what to say if the professor picked me to brief the case. It would have involved a detailed recitation of everything that I had made notes about and would have taken several minutes. I prepared the only way I knew how, and I was dreading being called upon.
Thankfully, the professor picked someone else, and this student gave a one-line summary of the key principle that the case stood for: that mineral rights belonged to the provinces rather than to Canada.
No ten pages of noting everything that could be a key point! The difference between obiter dicta and ratio decidendi became real.
My heart sank. I had worked so hard and had no clue what the decision actually stood for. Had I been brave enough to look around the classroom, I probably would have seen other students looking the way I felt.
Not long after, I learned that the student called up to brief the case had a friend a year ahead of us and had a CAN for the course—something I had never heard of. The learning curve was steep.
But eventually reading a case in context and identifying key principles started to make sense—sometimes things can’t be rushed and have to unfold on their own timetable.
As practicing lawyers, we often fluctuate between feelings of insecurity and arrogance. Many of us learn to don garments of confidence to cover our naked insecurity, and if unchecked that cloak of confidence can develop into arrogance. Whenever I start feeling arrogant, I remember what it felt like to feel totally clueless and try to respond more empathically to others (unless they are being arrogant, too, in which case they get full-bore combat, which is a big problem in our profession in a nutshell.)
This week, new students have made their way into the hallways of the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary law schools. Their heads will be full of dreams of naturally being the most talented law student ever, tempered with moments of absolute fear. My message to all new law students is that you are not alone, and if you need us, the Assist community is here for you.
First year law school truly is a roller coaster ride.
I am privileged to be able to speak to law students about mental health and well-being early on in their law school lives. We know so much more about law student stress and distress now than we did in my day—or at least we talk about it more. One of the seminal studies on law student distress was released in 1986, the year I graduated from law school. I learned about this study five years ago or so and was shocked to learn that issues about law school well-being were being researched at that time. Law students were being studied for their unusually high levels of stress and distress, but no one told us. In fact, no one said a single word about mental health at all.
So, in my day, we suffered in silence, not telling anyone when we felt totally defeated and overwhelmed. Sometimes a classmate would disappear, dropping out we eventually concluded, but we rarely knew why. Everyone else in law school seemed so together—surely we were each the only ones hiding our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
More current research on law student populations reveals that while law students suffer from depression at the same rate as other undergraduate students (around 7%), over the course of first year, more than 30% will experience depression. About 40% will experience depression during law school.
And while law student distress is increasing, individual student’s motivation is being shifted from intrinsic (wanting to help people, wanting to make the justice system better) to extrinsic (wanting achievement like grades and being hired at prestigious firms.) Correlation or causation? All I can say is that lawyers’ happiness has been found to be linked more to intrinsic factors than extrinsic.
Assist is delighted to be working with both Alberta law schools to support law student well-being. We educate law students about law student mental health and strategies and offer community to help bridge the gap between law students and lawyers, especially for students who do not come from families with law firm connections. Each law school has a student well-being committee—a club that has a booth at club fairs where students can work together to foster health and safety.
If anyone would have brought up the idea of a law student well-being group when I was a law student to promote positive mental and emotional health, they would have received funny looks and few potential members. We all played the same game of “I’ve got it all together” and stress was dealt with via alcohol.
But two of my classmates lost their licenses due to addiction, both suffering brain damage. If we can help even one student avoid this devastation, it is worth every effort we put in.
One new development about law student well-being is that more law students are entering law school having experienced trauma and are expressing concerns about well-being. See “It Is Okay To Not Be Okay: the 2021 Survey of Law Student Well-Being”. I don’t remember anyone at law school who had experienced trauma prelaw school—except me—but maybe they were hiding it, too.
The old law school structure did an excellent job of training us to think like lawyers and molding us into what the profession expected us to be. And today’s law schools now face the challenge of instilling lawyer-thinking skills into people with diverse backgrounds who may not fit the traditional model or even want to fit into the traditional lawyer model. Maybe this will lead to the creation of more empathic and compassionate lawyer—let’s dare to dream!
What will the changing demographic within our law schools (if the trend outlined in this study is replicated here)? We don’t know, but we are here to support each and every law student.
If you are a lawyer who hid your depression, anxiety, or trauma so that you could become the “ideal lawyer” in the mold of your era, please consider if you want to join us in caring for our newest community members.
Law students can access both professional counselling and peer support through Assist so if you have insights to share from your own experiences, consider peer support training later this fall.
We will also be hosting coffee circles for students at both law schools where law students interact with peer support volunteers to ask questions and learn about the practice of law. And we hope to be holding in-person Base Camps during interview and recruitment weeks. While Assist’s counselling and peer support programs aim at students at the two Alberta law schools, there are many students attending law school out of province but who will be job-hunting here. We work with JSS Barristers in Calgary (our office hosts) and LESA in Edmonton so that students have a place to land between interviews and to deal with all the real and imagined disasters that can happen during interviews from stains on ties to hems coming down or just someone to talk to. We will be there to help students keep mole hills from becoming mountains.
Please join me in welcoming the Class of 2026 and the Internationally Trained Lawyers cohorts and supporting them, whatever their needs are.