Law students struggle with their mental health. As I write this essay, many are stressed out, burned out, depressed, and anxious. Even before Covid, rates of depression among law students were high: 8-9% before the start of law school, 27% after the first semester, 34% after 1L year, and 40% after 3L year. Law students also had high rates of anxiety before Covid; in a 2016 study, 37% of law student respondents screened positive for anxiety disorder (compared to 13% in the general population).
Now, during the Covid pandemic, law students are facing extremely high levels of distress. The 2021 results of The Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) showed that 49% of law students reported that their “mental or emotional exhaustion increased very much.” These symptoms are precursors to or evidence of burnout.
Depression and anxiety among law students during the pandemic have become a crisis. “The vast majority of law students (85%) reported that they suffered through depression that interfered with their daily functioning this past year, including over one-quarter (27%) who felt this acutely. Similarly, the overwhelming majority (87%) managed anxiety that interfered with their daily functioning, including one-third (32%) who reported that it did so ‘very much.’” Thus, more than eight out of ten law students have been depressed and/or anxious during the pandemic. Teaching law to students who are struggling with their mental health is a task that must not be underestimated. And yet as I show, universities, and law schools, keep doing so.
Faculty have seen consequences of students’ mental health struggles in our classrooms: procrastination on assignments, poorer-than-normal work product, frequent unexcused absences, and so on. But when the consequences are so prevalent, figuring out what is going on can be hard. It can be tempting to shrug and say, “It’s the pandemic. It sucks for everybody.” But we must not let the prevalence of the mental health crisis drive us to complacency.
From my own observations, some law professors have continued to blame their students for these manifestations of mental health struggles in the classroom, blaming laziness and poor work ethic. Many professors refuse to alter their pedagogy despite the overwhelming social upheaval we are living in, citing the necessity to maintain “rigor.” (These professors are wrong on both counts.)
I propose a new way to think about how the pandemic is affecting law schools. Law schools are facing a “population shock event,” which is a far-reaching traumatic event that has affected a large group of people—in our case, the pandemic. One consequence of this population shock event is what I have termed “systemic burnout.” Systemic burnout is burnout caused by a large-scale event (such as Covid) that is difficult to perceive, and to treat, because of its prevalence in a population. But despite these challenges, law schools must address the systemic burnout our students face—and the depression and anxiety that almost inevitably follow. Caring for our students’ mental health is the duty of any institution of legal education.
As my colleagues and I at the University of North Carolina learned tragically in the fall semester of 2021, taking care of students’ mental health is a matter of life and death. In October of 2021, UNC’s campus was rocked by multiple deaths by suicide and suicide attempts. These deaths were a massive institutional failure.
Burnout, and its bed-fellows depression and anxiety, are not limited to students. Many law school faculty are nearing or experiencing burnout. However, as I show in this essay, among law faculty, what I have called “front-line” law faculty are more at risk because of the extra work they are being asked to do. This work is directly related to helping our students with their mental health struggles. As our students suffer, front-line faculty do as well, and they are in turn less able to help students.
Front-line faculty, for my purposes, are faculty who have close contact with students and are therefore in a position to notice—and do something about—students’ mental health struggles. As I explain below, faculty frequently end up on the front lines because of institutional pressures related to race or other marginalized status, gender, teaching subject, and job position. I have spent my entire career teaching writing (a subject with low institutional status) off the tenure track (which also has low institutional status, and typically job insecurity). Furthermore, I am openly disabled, making me one of the few disabled faculty members students can turn to for advice. I therefore identify as front-line faculty.
As front-line faculty, we see the mental health consequences of the pandemic not just in the classroom but also in our offices, where our students come to us when they are desperate. Students share their struggles with us, ask for help, and sometimes collapse in crisis. They come to us because they believe they have nowhere else to go. Sometimes, they are right about that. But how can we help our students when we can barely help ourselves so much of the time?
The burnout and other mental health struggles that both front-line faculty and law students are facing are widespread, and it can therefore be tempting to give up hope that law schools can make a difference. What we need is a change of mindset. It is not up to individual faculty to save the day. Instead, we must understand the mental health crisis we are facing as systemic, which means that the crisis requires more than individual fixes via one-on-one sessions with our students. Because the problem is systemic, solutions require institutional action.
In this essay I first provide a description of population shock events and systemic burnout to show how the large-scale mental health problem requires a large-scale solution. Law schools cannot rely on the individual labor of front-line faculty to solve the crisis.
Next, I provide a taxonomy of front-line professors to show who is doing the work of supporting law students’ mental health right now and how the distribution of front-line work is inequitable. I argue that institutions must fix this inequitable distribution for the sake of professors and students. Law schools can start this process by formally recognizing who is doing front-line work and who is not and then by making that difference known to everyone in the law school community. For our students’ sake, if nothing else, we must say “the quiet parts out loud” about who is doing the work, as Chew and Gurvich recently put it.
Finally, I provide some suggestions that front-line faculty can take to help students’ mental health that will lighten faculty emotional loads. These suggestions are for actions that have a broader influence than one-on-one meetings, hopefully decreasing our own emotional strain while increasing our students’ support systems.
In order to effectively address the emotional labor disparity in the realm of mental health, I have multiple intended audiences for this essay. I am writing this essay for all members of a law school community to read: (1) front-line professors who frequently tend to students’ emotional needs; (2) those who have institutional power to effect change (maybe someone can place this essay on their desks); and (3) professors who do not help students in distress, either by choice (deliberately making themselves unavailable) or by accident (by putting off vibes of standoffishness or by just not being physically present).
I also intend for students to read this essay—not to shame them for needing help, but so that they can understand which professors bear the burden of caring for students’ emotional needs and why we might run out of juice. Also, if they are feeling so inclined, they can go to the faculty who are deliberately not providing emotional support and hassle them about it.
I. The Mental Health Crisis We Are Facing Is Systemic
Since the start of the pandemic, we have experienced a large-scale social disruption called a “population shock event.” Population shock events are “unexpected or unpredictable events that disrupt the environmental, health, economic, or social circumstances within a population.” They “can increase the prevalence of depressive and anxiety disorders” and other mental health issues.
Population shock events are not new. For example, when I was a law student, there was a large basement space we called “The Rumpus Room” (really) where there was a large television that usually showed sports. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was a 1L still half asleep and heading to Contracts class when my dear friend L. grabbed me and dragged me downstairs. I watched with dozens—maybe more—of my fellow law students as the Twin Towers fell. After the initial panic abated, for weeks afterward we were in a daze—and North Carolina is nowhere near Ground Zero.
There are other events that have affected large swaths of the U.S. and world populations: any world-wide economic downturn. Hurricane Katrina. And, most recently, the overturning of Roe v. Wade (whose effects on our students’ mental health we are only beginning to see—but must prepare for).
The pandemic population shock event has caused large-scale burnout. According to medical experts, burnout is “[a] psychological syndrome that is the result of long-term, job-specific, physical, and emotional exhaustion from interpersonal stress.” The consequences of burnout include “detachment, cynicism, reduced feelings of efficacy and accomplishment.” But the burnout we are experiencing due to Covid is different than the burnout that has come before. Now, the burnout is systemic.
What I have called “systemic burnout” is burnout caused by a large-scale event (such as Covid) and is difficult to perceive, and to treat, because of its prevalence in a population.
Systemic burnout is not “institutional burnout,” which occurs when there is widespread burnout within an institution caused by institutional culture. For example, in addition to the systemic burnout caused by Covid, your law school might also be experiencing institutional burnout caused by the institutional disparities and unreasonable expectations that I discuss in this essay. But institutional burnout (or institutional anything, really) is similar to systemic burnout in that they are both large scale. The institution is often a microcosm of the societal.
Systemic burnout is also not “systematic burnout,” which means “methodical” or even “predictable.” (This is not a technical term, just one that has been, unfortunately, used a lot during the pandemic.) For example, there is systematic burnout among doctors and nurses due to the Covid pandemic. There is also systematic burnout among first-line professors in law schools due to the care we have had to provide to our students.
What is so special about systemic burnout?
First, the fact that it is systemic means that it is widespread, and the fact that it is widespread means that it is hard to spot. Among our students, then, we must assume that everyone is burned out. The same goes for our colleagues. Now, some of us are under greater pressures than others and are therefore likely experiencing a deeper sense of burnout. For example, front-line faculty who take on the emotional load of tending to our students’ emotional needs in addition to their regular work will suffer greater burnout than faculty who opt not to do this difficult yet necessary work.
In short, systemic burnout allows us to start with the assumption that all of our students are burned out and work from there when planning courses and other student responsibilities.
Second, systemic burnout is a large-scale problem, and therefore it can only be remedied with large-scale solutions. No, law schools cannot stop the pandemic—they cannot fix a systemic problem. But as I mentioned above, the institutional is often a microcosm of the systemic, and it is in the case of Covid and higher education. Thus, our institutions should be persistently responding to this systemic problem using their institutional power. This power includes control over scheduling, over faculty and student workloads, over course requirements, and more.
But our institutions are not responding well enough to the problems their communities face. For example, many institutional responses to burnout on campus put the onus on individuals. Schools emphasize “self-care” and provide free yoga and meditation classes. But a faculty member cannot attend a yoga class if their schedule is full and their energy is low. It is good that some institutions are making these nods toward fixing burnout on campus, but individual-oriented responses are not the solution. Instead, they pass the buck to the burned-out individual to fix themselves. Individual self-care cannot solve a large-scale problem.
Everyone across higher education is arguably feeling the pressure I am describing. Institutions must make the choice to lighten everyone’s load from the very top to the very bottom of the pay scale. An institution’s response must be active (“here is a day off”), not passive (“go to yoga”). But institutions are not implementing effective solutions, frequently for financial reasons. Instead they are offloading responsibility onto front-line faculty, as I show in this essay.
A systemic problem caused by a population shock event on a global scale will only end (if ever) with a global solution. That is not happening any time soon, and it certainly is not something we can control. What we can influence are the institutional responses to the problem—getting law schools to change their practices to accommodate burnout and mental health struggles, and the individual responses that faculty can take even without institutional buy-in.
I am arguing here for an equal distribution of responsibility among faculty: all faculty need to step up to the front line, including those who currently hide behind fear or self-importance. And I am arguing for more institutional support for faculty working on the front lines.
II. We Are All On the Front Line Now (But Not Really)
Front-line faculty, in the context of this essay, are faculty who have close contact with students and are therefore in a position to notice—and do something about—students’ mental health struggles. Front-line faculty tend to occupy lower-tiered positions in the law school hierarchy. Meera E. Deo refers to a similar group as “vulnerable law teachers,” which includes “the overlapping categories of caregivers, untenured faculty, women of color, and white women.”
Front-line faculty are the faculty who frequently engage in what Deo refers to as “academic caretaking.” They have done so since long before the Covid pandemic, and they receive little to no institutional recognition or extra pay for this extra labor.
Academic caretaking is part of the “invisible work” that takes place in law schools, “which includes the work associated with teaching and service, such as having student meetings, giving feedback on assignments, and professional advising or writing letters of recommendation.” This work is typically done by professors in non-tenure-track skills positions, and these professors are typically women. Given the cultural stereotype of women as natural nurturers, it is not a coincidence that caregiving tasks have ended up in the shadow job descriptions of the legal professoriate’s pink-collar jobs.
Ideally, all professors would share equally in tending to students’ mental health. If we distributed front-line labor across the entire professoriate of a law school, each professor’s average emotional load would lighten. Yes, some professors would be taking on a new burden, one they have never had before, but the burden would be far less significant than the burden each front-line professor carries now.
Furthermore, that burden would have benefits as well. If all professors were on the front line, then all professors would have knowledge of our students’ current concerns, fears, and needs. All professors would be listening to what our students have to say about their lives both in and beyond the law school classroom. Just as Sarah J. Schendel points out that “[t]ransparency and frank discussion about the mechanics of the classroom afford professors the opportunity to show students that we understand they are full people with lives outside of the classroom,” showing that we see our students as full people with lives outside the classroom will improve dynamics inside the classroom.
What a gift we would give to our students and to ourselves to know a student as a whole person. After all, we are teaching our students to be lawyers—counselors, if you will—not torts or admiralty law scholars. By teaching law students with such a whole-person approach, we better model actual lawyering, in which our students will have to deal with whole people, not just names on a seating chart.
Unfortunately, many law professors are able to opt out of being on the front line, and they choose to do so. This is an institutional problem. Most of the professors on the front line are there because institutional circumstances require it, and they cannot opt out. Thus, those who are able to opt out of front-line work typically have the most institutional power. Those who are unable to opt out typically have the least. (Note, however, that some of the professors who are required to be on the front line might choose to be there if given the option; the point here is that they do not have an option.)
Who is unable to opt out of the front line now, in the Covid mental health crisis (and could not do so before, during regular law school times, when law students were also facing mental health struggles)?
First-year legal writing professors are front-line professors because of institutional circumstances. These circumstances include teaching a small section course to first-year law students whose other courses are frequently all large lecture courses. Because of these circumstances, a 1L’s legal writing professor may be the only professor who even knows the 1L’s name; the professor is often the only person the 1L feels comfortable approaching for help. Lack of institutional power also keeps legal writing professors on the front lines; if a professor felt like opting out, they would likely be afraid to do so. Legal writing professors often have little institutional power because they teach on contract, with job security depending, at least in part, on student evaluations. Now, some legal writing professors would opt to be on the front line if the institutional circumstances did not put them there, but not all would.
Law librarians and professors who teach in law school clinics are also front-line professors. They interact closely with small groups of students and support them through difficult learning experiences. They also share institutional circumstances similar to those of legal writing professors in that they are also frequently contract professors with little institutional power.
Professors in academic support programs (ASP) provide academic support—but providing academic support involves frequently, if not all of the time, providing emotional support. The ASP professors that I know have taken it for granted that their work includes helping students with their mental health, decades before Covid. In this way, ASP professors usually cannot opt out of front-line duties. Like legal writing faculty and clinical faculty, ASP faculty also tend to work in contract positions with little institutional power.
Some professors (usually those with tenure-line jobs) teach upper-level seminars with small enrollment, and because of the class size, they form close relationships with their students. These professors, due to their job status, tend to have some ability to opt out of front-line work. For example, if they have tenure, they would not be punished (in a material way) for closing themselves off from students. However, the structure of small seminars tends to create bonds between student and professor, leading to situations where a student will turn to the professor for help. One would have to have a cold heart indeed to turn away a student one has a close relationship with.
Professors from underrepresented groups also tend to be front-line professors. Professors from racial or ethnic minorities, disabled professors, LGBTQI professors, and so on are underrepresented on law school faculties. A student who is a member of one of these groups might not be in a professor’s course but will nevertheless reach out because the student needs someone who might understand the experience of attending law school as a Black student, a gay student, and so on. Although some professors (usually tenured) who are members of underrepresented groups will opt out of front-line work, the default is that they do participate.
I have personal experience with this work as a disabled professor. Because I am public about my mental disabilities of bipolar disorder and autism, students seek me out for emotional and professional support in those areas. Recently, a student asked to meet with me to help them understand what law school and the legal profession would be like for someone with bipolar disorder. Although the meeting was emotionally draining for me, I felt it was my duty to provide support for this student who was struggling to see themselves as an attorney at all.
Who is not on the front line? Tenured professors who teach large lecture classes have the ability to opt out of front-line labor. In order to teach a “stand up and talk” course, the professor need not learn student names or speak to them one-on-one at all, except during stressful, in-class Socratic interactions and the brief office hours that the professor might not even hold because of Covid. These professors receive no institutional punishment for abdicating front-line labor.
I have heard many excuses as to why certain professors cannot do front-line work. Here are some examples:
“It is too hard for someone with my research agenda” or “It will get in the way of my real work.”
“That [front line] work is better suited to a different type of person” or “Other people are better at it.”
However, some lecture professors choose to join the front line. They choose to put themselves in a place where students can reach out for help by making themselves available, sharing the important burden of tending to our students’ mental health alongside those of us who do not have the choice.
Being on the front line is emotionally draining. Not only must we carry out our regular responsibilities, but we must also do unrecognized and unremunerated care work for our students who are desperately in need of it. To make matters worse, front-line faculty look around and see their colleagues who have greater institutional power opting out of this work and shirking all responsibility for their students’ mental health. This shirking adds to the burden front-line faculty bear, and it also harms our students because many of their professors—whom they look to for mentorship—pull away from them.
If you are front-line faculty, it is thus natural to feel infuriated at those who opt out and make our jobs harder. It is also natural to want to do something about the disparity.
III. Strategies for the Front
If you are a front-line professor, here are some concrete ideas for making front-line labor less laborious. You might have already implemented some of these ideas. Some of them might not work for you. With all of these ideas, my goal is to systematize your labor so that you do not have to start over with your emotional work every time a student comes to you for help.
If you are new to the front line (welcome!), you can use this section as a guide to help you help your students. You can share this section with your colleagues who have opted out of the front line in order to show them how easy it can be to start engaging with their students. Lastly, you can share this section with your dean and associate deans to encourage them to take actions that reduce inequities in faculty duties.
A. Turn your syllabus into a reference for students, not a burden
You can, right now, start providing a lot of support by using your syllabus in new ways. You might wonder why you should bother putting any more substantive material on your syllabus because your students are unlikely to read it.
It is true! Our students are not reading our 10-page, single-spaced syllabi, especially right now, because they are overwhelmed. Accept that truth, and then help them by prioritizing information for them. As you write your syllabus, divide your front matter into “primary” (read immediately) and “secondary” (use for reference). Organize your syllabus into meaningful and useful sections and subsections.
Finally, at the top of your syllabus, add a line like this for guidance:
This syllabus contains important information about the course and law school. Please read the “primary” information now. Skim the “secondary” information so that you can use it as a reference when problems arise throughout the semester.
Then, using your writing software, create a table of contents for your syllabus and put it right under your basic course information. Now students can find what they need quickly. Once you have created a “reference syllabus,” you can reuse it in the future. Plus, it will lighten your load right away.
As ASP professor Sarah J. Schendel puts it, “[T]he syllabus is an overlooked and undervalued tool.” To lighten the load on the front line, make better use of the tools at hand, starting with your syllabus.
Some of what I suggest below is more information that you can add to your syllabus now that it is a reference tool for your students, rather than a burden.
B. Use absences to intervene
Absences give you the chance to intervene before a student who is struggling goes off the rails. Absences might be the only sign that a law professor has that a student is not okay.
You might be required to have a statement on your syllabus that tells students where to seek counseling help. These statements (if they are read at all) put the onus on the student who already needs help. If you have a student who has started missing classes, they have already shown they cannot get to a place where they are supposed to be.
You can use your statement about attendance to create a supportive atmosphere and let students know that you are paying attention to them not to punish, but to assist:
If you are absent regularly, I will presume your absences mean that you are struggling in some fashion. I will request that you meet me after class or during office hours so that, together, we can make a plan to help you attend class regularly.
This intervention catches problems early and allows you to redirect early—before a student falls behind too far academically and with their mental health. As a result, you will also have fewer students coming to you when they have already sunk into crisis.
C. Talk about mental health. A lot.
My most recent teaching semester, I shared my struggles with depression and anxiety with my students. It was our very first class meeting after multiple deaths by suicide had occurred on our campus, and the air was fraught with tension and grief. I knew I had to address mental health, and the best way for me to do so would be to talk about my own experiences with mental disability. To be real.
Not every untenured professor can do what I did. In fact, I have, over and over, advised against disclosing mental disabilities in the workplace, especially in higher education, unless you have bulletproof job security, and even then, you must be cautious.
But you can still talk about mental health directly to your students. You can acknowledge that their lives are hard. Just saying the words out loud can do a lot for your students. You are saying that you see them. Share your own struggles if you feel comfortable. Or simply acknowledge, “We are all struggling, and our suffering is real.”
After you say a few words about mental health and how hard things are, be silent, giving your students space to talk. Wait—longer than you think. Your students are not accustomed to talking about this topic either.
These acknowledgements will get easier the more you do them—for you and your students.
Your students will benefit from frank discussions about mental health. Having a class-wide discussion on the matter will likely decrease the number of students who need to come talk to you in private. Not only are you giving students space to share their worries, you are also cultivating a supportive community among themselves. They will learn that they can also turn to each other. You are showing them that they are not alone in how they are feeling. They have each other.
Be sure to address the topic multiple times throughout the semester. Your students will get better at talking about mental health the more you do so. Perhaps start the last class meeting of every week with an earnest, “How are you doing?” followed by “I am doing . . .” and an honest description of your mental health situation. Every time you talk with your students about mental health, you destigmatize it, give your students a way to talk about their own struggles, and build a stronger community.
D. Teach students how to ask for extensions
Extensions are a normal part of law practice. When facing mental health struggles, meeting deadlines can be difficult. Professor Sarah J. Schendel advocates for teaching students how to appropriately request extensions as a part of the law school curriculum. “[O]ur focus should be on teaching students to anticipate the need for extensions, and how and when to ask for them.” This is a skill that many, if not most, students lack. Teaching how to ask for extensions will help our students learn an important professional skill. It will also help their mental health because it will relieve the pressure of overwhelming deadlines. Teaching extensions lightens your load because you will receive requests in a timely fashion instead of as last-minute Hail Marys. You will also spend less time running down late assignments and meeting with students who fail to turn in work.
I suggest an addition to your syllabus that discusses extensions and how to ask for them. Mention that you will also be teaching how to ask for them in class:
I welcome requests for extensions. We will spend class time learning how to professionally request extensions.
Then, using resources such as the ones I have cited here, teach a module on extensions. By teaching students how to professionally manage their time, you will give yourself more time.
E. Hold meaningful office hours
Each of the suggestions I have made above has had the goal of reducing the amount of time front-line faculty must spend managing students in crisis, including one-on-one during office hours. However, office hours remain important. (I hardly need to tell front-line faculty that.) But there are ways to improve office hours that protect yourself from overextending.
Office hours are remarkable periods of time. They provide the spontaneity students in crisis need in order to come to us for help. The spontaneity is crucial—they wander past, a door is open, and in they come, even if they were not planning to. Office hours work because they are empty time reserved for such spontaneous interactions.
However, many of us have had our office hours scrambled by Covid. As we have returned to campus, I have seen many notices on colleagues’ doors that now read that office hours are “by appointment only.” But “by appointment only” is a barrier to entry. Unless you want your students to avoid you, you must make it easy for them to find you. Requiring the step of making an appointment prior to the step of actually coming to see you is asking too much of a student in distress.
The simple answer is to hold actual, old-fashioned office hours. Leave your door open. Create the space for your students to fill.
But I recognize that sometimes being on campus is not practical, especially if you are worried about exposure to Covid, you are struggling with a lack of childcare, or you have other pandemic burdens.
So here is another solution: hold virtual office hours (also at predictable times). During your office hours, keep a Zoom meeting open for students to “knock” on your door. Of course, put your Zoom address at the top of your syllabus so it is easy for students to find, and send email reminders to your students, automated by Zoom, a few hours before your office hours start. (Ask your IT department to help you set this up if you are not sure how to do so. Once it is set up, it automates every week of the semester.)
However, as Schendel points out, “For some students, office-hours on camera may be more intimidating.” In that case, she suggests “arrang[ing] group office hours where two or three students meet with you together in a Zoom room.” On your syllabus, when you discuss office hours, state that you welcome office hour visits in pairs or groups of three. Make sure students do not feel like they must come alone.
On a similar note, if a professor chooses to opt out of front-line work during office hours, institutions must require them to make this information known to their students. Thus, professors who have opted out of the front line must add a line to their syllabus like this:
During my office hours, I am only available to discuss Torts [or whatever course]. I am not available to discuss any topic concerning your mental health.
This change is important for protecting student mental health. We do not want students to turn to a professor for help and then be painfully rebuffed. After such a rejection, the student may not seek help again.
Law schools must step up and use their institutional power to stop systemic burnout, depression, and anxiety among law students and front-line faculty. It is not a problem that individuals can solve.
For front-line faculty, law schools can fix the institutional inequities that allow this work to be unevenly distributed, unacknowledged, and unremunerated. Administrators must step forward and implement some of the suggestions I have made here. For example, if they cannot require opted-out faculty to help students, then they can require that those faculty make their opted-out status transparent.
Administrators can also provide support to front-line faculty via methods such as decreased committee work (and other service work) and course releases. Make the choice simple for faculty: advise students or teach more. Administrators can also add more professional staff who are trained in counseling to whom students can turn for help. Some law schools have already put counselors on staff. If an institution cannot find it in the budget to justify such a crucial resource, consider this: surely it is less expensive to have a counselor than it is to lose dozens of students, and their tuition fees, to attrition.
When considering how to help students going forward, law schools must recognize that, as Professor L. Danielle Tully puts it, “legal education is perpetuating and even building new forms of inequality while fostering profoundly unhealthy professional practices.” Tully suggests that we use this time of upheaval to overhaul legal education by removing “the enduring obstacles that produce and reproduce unnecessary inequality: faculty caste systems, high-stakes exams, and the curve,” and she provides guidance for how to do so. These are big changes, yes, but they would dramatically improve law students’ learning and health. If there was ever a time to make such changes, it would be now, while there is momentum to act in the best interests of our students who are, empirically, at the edge of a cliff.
Front-line faculty cannot save law schools. Law schools must save themselves.
I use the term “mental health” frequently in this essay to refer to the struggles our students are facing, but this essay is also about mental disability. Depression, anxiety—these are disabilities that people in the law school community are developing at a rapid rate. Many might not want to acknowledge that what they are experiencing is a “disability”; that is understandable, because being disabled, especially mentally disabled, is so stigmatized in both law school and in the legal profession. See Doron Dorfman, Fear of the Disability Con, 53 Law & Soc’y Rev. 1051, 1079 (2020) (“Because people with disabilities are stigmatized, they’re more concerned with their social standing in society and tend to be more self-conscious, perceiving themselves as under scrutiny.”).
David Nee Foundation, Lawyers and Depression, https://web.archive.org/web/20220113153309/http://www.daveneefoundation.org/scholarship/lawyers-and-depression/ [https://perma.cc/EYW7-7PVY] (original website no longer available; web archive site substituted).
Jerome M. Organ, David B. Jaffe & Katherine M. Bender, Ph.D., Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns, 66 J. Legal Ed. 116, 137 (2016).
Id. at 137, n. 78.
The Covid Crisis in Legal Education: The Law School Survey of Student Engagement 2021 Annual Survey Results at 11, Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, https://lssse.indiana.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/COVID-Crisis-in-Legal-Education-Final-10.28.21.pdf [https://perma.cc/XG8Y-2WML].
See Rebecca Pope-Ruark, Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal 8 (2022).
The Covid Crisis in Legal Education, supra note 5, at 12.
When I use the terms “professor” or “faculty” in this essay, I am referring to all higher education workers who educate law students, be they librarians, clinicians, academic support professionals, or classroom teachers. I have opted not to use the arcane terminology that sends the “message is that ‘Professors of Law’ are the ones who really teach the law, while those with the other titles teach something else less important.” Rachel López, Unentitled: The Power of Designation in the Legal Academy, 73 Rutgers U. L. Rev. 923, 925 (2021).
The stratified academic job title system provides an excuse for who should be doing the caregiving and whose work is too important to waste on such work: “Labels, in the form of titles, help cement these disparities, concretizing them into a caste system that justifies unequal pay, less power in faculty governance, and, at times, abusive behavior.” Id.
“Rigor” in this context is a way of weeding out students rather than teaching them. It is a salve for the professor’s fears, not a valid pedagogy. See Jordynn Jack & Viji Sathy, It’s Time to Cancel the Word “Rigor,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 24, 2021 (“Far too many faculty members still think a challenging course should be like an obstacle race: You, as the instructor, set up the tasks and each student has to finish them (or not) to a certain standard and within a set time. If only a few students can do it, that means the course is rigorous.”); see also, Katie Rose Guest Pryal, Darkness Interrupted: Reckoning with Mental Health in Higher Education (Kansas U.P. forthcoming) (coining the term “rigor angst” to refer to “the fear, held by a professor or administrator, that a curriculum will not be difficult enough to meet the academic standards of a particular institution, department, or course”).
COVID-19 Mental Health Collaborators, Global Prevalence and Burden of Depressive and Anxiety Disorders in 204 Countries and Territories in 2020 Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, 398 The Lancet 1700, 1708 (Nov. 2021)
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673621021437?via%3Dihub [https://doi.org/10.1016/ S0140-6736(21)02143-7].
See Pryal, Darkness Interrupted, supra note 9 (coining the term “systemic burnout” and linking it to population shock events).
Maria Carrasco, UNC Takes Day Off to Mourn Student Suicides, Inside Higher Education, Oct. 13, 2021. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/10/13/unc-chapel-hill-grieves-after-reports-suicides-campus [https://perma.cc/RK6H-JKJB].
See Meera Deo, Pandemic Pressures on Faculty, 170 U. Penn. L. Rev. Online 127, 137 (2022) (“Professors are lonely, hitting their limits, and feeling both psychological and physiological effects.”); see also Pope-Ruark, Unraveling Faculty Burnout, supra note 6, at 16 (“[B]urnout is endemic in higher education—and only increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic.”).
“[A]s educators, we are on the front lines of students’ mental-health issues, and we are often called upon, in the heat of the moment, to listen to what may be shocking revelations from our students—about their mental health, addiction, trauma, or more.” Katie Rose Guest Pryal, Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education 141 (2017).
See Alexa Z. Chew & Rachel Gurvich, Saying the Quiet Parts Out Loud: Teaching Students How Law School Works, 100 Neb. L. Rev. 887 (2021).
Global Prevalence, supra note 10.
See Katie Rose Guest Pryal, Abortion Is a Higher-Ed Issue: The End of ‘Roe’ Will Worsen the Campus Mental-Health Crisis, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 30, 2022 https://www.chronicle.com/article/abortion-is-a-higher-ed-issue [https://perma.cc/S6YQ-LDD9].
Sherrill W. Hayes et al., Perceived Stress, Work-Related Burnout, and Working From Home Before and During COVID-19: An Examination of Workers in the United States, Sage Open, Oct.-Dec. 2021, https://doi.org/10.1177/21582440211058193, at 3.
See Pryal, Darkness Interrupted, supra note 9.
The pandemic has created many financial crises for institutions, the largest of which occurred when schools had to shut down. In mid-2020, before we had vaccines, institutions folded to financial pressures to reopen in-person learning. See Michael J. Sorrell, The Hard Truth About the Fall, The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-hard-truth-about-the-fall/ [https://perma.cc/B2QB-S9WB] (“Far too many colleges and universities are ill-equipped to weather any prolonged financial storm, especially after this spring . It is therefore tempting to cling to the hope, however fleeting, that ‘normal’ will return before fall and save us from near-certain financial ruin.”).
Deo, Pandemic Pressures on Faculty, supra note 13, at 130.
Meera E. Deo, Investigating Pandemic Effects on Legal Academia, 89 Fordham L. Rev. 2467, 2469 (2021).
Deo, Pandemic Pressures on Faculty, supra note 13, at 139.
Renee Allen, Alicia Jackson & DeShun Harris, The ‘Pink Ghetto’ Pipeline: Challenges and Opportunities for Women in Legal Education, 96 U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. 525, 541 (2019).
Id. at 525 (“In legal education, women predominately occupy skills positions, including legal writing, clinic, academic success, bar preparation, or library. According to a 2010 Association of American Law Schools survey, the percentage of female lecturers and instructors is so high that those positions are stereotypically female.”)
“Pink-collar describes work traditionally performed by women. The term distinguishes female-oriented jobs from others like blue or white-collar work. Teaching, along with domestic and clerical work, has long been considered pink-collar work.” Id. at 526. See also Colleen Flaherty, Where and How Gender and Caregiving Intersect for Professors During COVID-19, Inside Higher Education (Mar. 31, 2021), https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/03/31/where-and-how-gender-and-caregiving-intersect-professors-during-covid-19 [https://perma.cc/Y9SZ-XLXJ] (explaining “trends related to research productivity and employment are likely to impact women and caregiver academics for years to come”); Sun Joo Ahn, Emily T. Cripe, Brooke Foucault Welles, Shannon C. McGregor, Katy E. Pearce, Nikki Usher & Jessica Vitak, Academic Caregivers on Organizational and Community Resilience in Academia (Fuck Individual Resilience), 14 Commc’n, Culture & Critique 301, 302 (2021) (“The challenges of childcare, homeschooling, and elder care further increase gender disparities in promotion and tenure, potentially for an entire cohort of women working in higher education and caregiving, including contingent and teaching faculty—the majority of whom are women.”).
Sarah J. Schendel, Due Dates in the Real World: Extensions, Equity, and the Hidden Curriculum, 35 Georgetown J. Legal Ethics 203, 229 (2022).
See L. Danielle Tully, Shifting From “Soft Skills” to “Power Skills,” 1 Proceedings: Online Journal of Legal Writing Conference Presentations 19 (2020). Tully advocates for “deepening” the human context in legal education, even in large lecture courses. “Professors should also aim to counteract the prevalence of one-dimensional ‘cardboard clients’ by considering the identities and experiences of the fictional characters who people their simulated legal problems or hypotheticals.” Id. at 24. The benefits? “Adding context and dimensionality allows professors to engage students in conversations about the complex people and stories they will encounter in practice. It also allows students to connect their identities and experiences to their law study.” Id. at 25.
See Amy H. Soled, Legal Writing Professors, Salary Disparities, and the Impossibility of "Improved Status," 24 Legal Writing 47, 48-49 (2020) (pointing out the vast pay disparities between doctrinal and legal writing faculty).
See Taleed El-Sabawi & Madison Fields, The Discounted Labor of BIPOC Students & Faculty, 12 Cal. L. Rev. Online 17, 21 (2021) (“While some law faculty and administrators, who were proactive in identifying the struggles that their Black students faced [during the pandemic and attendant periods of intense racial violence], reached out to their students to determine how they could support them during these trying times, many did nothing. Based on our experiences, those faculty that did reach out to the affected students were predominately BIPOC faculty or faculty who are gendered women.”)
See L. Danielle Tully, What Law Schools Should Leave Behind, Utah L. Rev. (forthcoming 2022) (“[The Socratic Method]—particularly when used in large, curve-based, first-year casebook courses with limited assessments or opportunities for constructive feedback—hinders student learning.”)
One way to describe opting out of any service work in the law school setting is “social loafing.” Andrea A. Curcio and Mary A. Lynch researched social loafing in the context of committee work in Addressing Social Loafing on Faculty Committees, 67 J. Legal Educ. 242 (2017). They defined social loafing as the “tendency of some to sit back and let others do the work when working in groups.” Id. at 243. Social loafing has negative consequences for those who do not loaf: “[S]ocial loafing can lead to inequitable workloads, and, according to social cognition theorists, unchecked social loafing can have a spillover effect on those who do carry their fair share of the workload, as well as on those who traditionally pick up the slack for the loafers.” Id.
Sarah J. Schendel, The Pandemic Syllabus, Denver L. Rev. Forum, Nov. 30, 2020, https://www.denverlawreview.org/dlr-online-article/pandemicsyllabus [https://perma.cc/2AWK-B9JV].
See, e.g., Katie Rose Guest Pryal, Disclosure Blues: Should You Tell Your Colleagues About Your Mental Illness? The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 13, 2014, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4158926 [https://perma.cc/R2GK-GZN6].
“Sometimes extensions are granted broadly in extreme or widespread situations, for instance, in response to COVID-19. However, even in more routine practice, extensions are both commonly requested and granted.” Schendel, Due Dates in the Real World, supra note 30, at 209.
Id. at 211.
Schendel, The Pandemic Syllabus, supra note 36.
Tully, What Law Schools Should Leave Behind, supra note 34, at 11.