Studies show that beginning in law school, overexposure to fear-based narratives undermine lawyers’ ability to productively cope with stress. These strategies can help.
You are sitting through your law school lecture about contract formation and the UCC, when your professor offers some food for thought: One party forgot to include a comma in a contract, the other party was able to renegotiate their fee due to a punctuation caveat, costing telecom company millions of dollars. The message? Beware: proofread down to your last comma, or risk failure.
This dramatic but real-life example of the somewhat infamous “2 million dollar comma” is an example of the type of cautionary tale you will most likely hear in law lecture halls. The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) offers insight into why law professors commonly use fear-based narratives to teach. First, to increase their credibility by using real examples, sometimes making their arguments more persuasive by quoting mishaps from their personal lives. Second, they aim to teach you a lesson about professionalism and ethics in a cut-throat, competitive environment.
While a tempered use of fear-based appeals can make a lecture more engaging, a study cited by the Utah Law Review found that too much of this approach can be counter-productive – especially in law schools, where students are already at higher risk of suffering from anxiety, depression, and stress.
Encouraging professionalism with empathy
In the previous study, students who received “fear-based” feedback on their assignments had a lower likelihood of going to the professor for help, with those students having significantly lower motivation. On the other hand, students in the study who received cautionary feedback accompanied by messages of encouragement were more motivated, excited to improve their learning, and made more resilient future lawyers.
Heidi Brown, now the Director of Legal Writing and Associate Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, felt the real effects of anxiety and fear as both a law student and a practicing lawyer. In her book, Untangling Fear In Lawyering, a Four-Step Journey Towards Powerful Advocacy, she offers an alternative to the status quo, “Instead of reinforcing the myth of the infallibility of the ‘successful lawyer, "... let’s train law students and lawyers to untangle the knots of fear and circumstances that could lead to mistakes.”
In her book, Brown explains that plenty of other fields have acknowledged the presence and impact of fear, and the high-stakes of failure, and exposure to trauma in their respective fields, and have made interventions to address this reality a best-practice for educators. Medical schools, for example, are openly addressing the fear associated with losing a patient by acknowledging the fact that even the best-trained doctors are subject to medical mistakes, outlining how to approach patients’ families, and working through ways to prevent the same mistakes in the future. Similarly, journalism schools have started incorporating wellness programs into their curriculum to help students handle fear-related trauma in the journalism industry. Making a similar approach more commonplace in the legal profession could instill strength and resilience in law students earlier.
While overexposure to fear-based messaging can undermine resilience, there are also resources out there to help law students and lawyers rewire their brains to better handle stress and adversity. The American Bar Association offers a resource, The Best Lawyer You Can Be: A Guide to Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Wellness. The book provides resources for “everything from smart collaboration, autonomy, competence, emotional intelligence, resilience and more," straying away from traditional fear-mongering strategies that have only proven to be detrimental to productive and healthy learning.
You can also check out the Thine Guide: Building Resilience for Lawyers for insights and tips to build resiliency, including easy-to-incorporate exercises and strategies from Thine, the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and more.