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Torts, Trials and ... Treatments

January 4, 2007

Think student health services and what comes to mind? Most likely an office on an undergraduate campus that primarily caters to 19, 20 and 21 year olds. 

Students in professional schools are often overlooked as candidates to partake in self-destructive behavior. Take law students. They are, as a whole, high achievers who have passed a series of academic and life tests. 

But a panel of health professionals, professors and law school administrators said the mixture of lofty expectations and a high-stress environment for these students is a formula for a potential breakdown.

In a session titled "High risk/high stakes student problems: New approaches inside and outside the classroom for addressing substance abuse, gambling and other self-destructive student behaviors," panelists at the Association of American Law Schools' annual conference urged administrators to consider their students' mental health and inform them about available resources. 

Many of the vices mentioned during the session -- binge drinking, drug abuse and Internet gambling -- are just as likely to be issues on undergraduate campuses as they are at law schools. So what makes the circumstances different for 1Ls? The environment tends to be less nurturing and more cut-throat, speakers said.

“Law school is a truly toxic experience for a large number of people,” said Robert P. Schuwerk, a professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center. “Put in one place a group of type-A-personality students who want to finish first and it can be an isolating experience.”

That's why the American Bar Association, more than a year ago, published a text, “Substance Abuse in Law Schools: A Tool Kit for Law School Administrators,” that is intended to be a resource guide. (The AALS has had for more than 15 years a special committee on problems of substance abuse, whose recommendations are detailed in the tool kit.)

The ABA report argues that the quality of the legal profession is affected by lawyers who "are impaired as a result of abuse of alcohol and drugs." One of the co-authors who spoke at Wednesday's meeting in Washington, Cal Baker, is a recent law school graduate and director of a company that provides chemical dependency treatments.

Baker, a recovering alcoholic, said alcohol and drug abuse are the two top problems he sees among law students. (Other panelists said students often report depression and extreme anxiety, as well as substance abuse issues. ) He said he would have been unable to recover from his condition while in school, because nearly all the planned social activities were centered around bar nights.

One of the largest hurdles, Baker said, is convincing students that admitting their drinking problems won't lead to disciplinary action. Many who have previous alcohol-related citations are concerned about their professional futures.

“Most students would rather die of their condition than disclose it and risk being reported to the [state] bar [association],” Schuwerk said. “You have to convince students that bringing up their issues is better than risking no treatment at all."

Baker said that can be a hard sell. That's why he developed a "law school anonymous" group at his former institution -- though he said only a few students participated.  

Panelists plugged another resource, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a Massachusetts-based group that counsels lawyers on their personal and professional lives. Barbara Bowe, a social worker who serves on the group's staff, said she works with deans and other officials to link students with other licensed health professionals.    

Bowe said she has found that the highest-risk students are those who come directly from an undergraduate institution, those who were stars in college and those who are enrolled merely to avoid employment.  

“It’s amazing how often I hear, ‘I was good in English, people told me I argued well and I like to read,' ” Bowe said.

In an article published in a Texas law review, Schuwerk said that professors who teach personal and professional ethics courses should incorporate into their syllabuses conversations with students about why they are enrolled and what their "greatest fears" are about law school.

Schuwerk said law school faculty have a reputation for concentrating most of their attention on the students who are thriving. He wants more to consider the others.

Baker, the law school graduate, said schools need to develop clear policies on how to handle students who seek personal help. A law school administrator from Mississippi said his institution requires that admitted students with documented problems have a meeting with a counselor before starting classes.

Panelists praised that program but said such troubleshooting is still too rare.

 

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