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Wellness in the Legal Profession

June 12, 2023

Penn Carey Law community enjoying the courtyard
Penn Carey Law community enjoying the courtyard

From unwinding with therapy dogs to developing an award-winning wellness curriculum, Penn Carey Law strives to sustain student well-being during and after law school.

In 2017, the American Bar Association (ABA) released a report and cited research that exposed what too many in the field already knew to be true: the legal profession was unwell. The findings—disproportionate rates of chronic stress, depression, and substance use among lawyers and law students—shook the legal education and professional communities.

Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School immediately mobilized to strengthen the Law School’s existing mental health wellness programs, opened the Clinton/Parker Wellness Suite, and developed a first-of-its-kind curriculum that integrated wellness into required Professional Responsibilities courses.

Now in its fifth year, the award-winning wellness curriculum incorporates principles of applied positive psychology, educates students on the basics of mental health, and connects individual well-being to responsible, ethical practice.

Students attending the 2019 opening of the Clinton/Parker Wellness Suite. Students attending the 2019 opening of the Clinton/Parker Wellness Suite.“The Law School had been at the cutting edge of providing programming around student mental health for some time, but the 2017 Task Report made the connection between well-being and lawyering more explicit,” said Jennifer Leonard L’04, Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of the Future of the Profession Initiative.

The Law School’s ongoing efforts to address social taboos surrounding these issues and to support student mental health and well-being are rooted in the belief that good lawyers are healthy lawyers.

Incubating Culture Shift and Combatting Stigma

“Underscoring how essential health is to a lawyer’s ability to serve clients is what makes Penn Carey Law’s module so unique and well-received by students,” Leonard said.

Perhaps the most important feature of the course is its emphasis on how individual well-being affects a lawyer’s ability to practice law ethically and effectively. Unaddressed mental health concerns—including increased stress, substance use, untreated depression and anxiety, insomnia, or even normal stress responses to experiencing a traumatic event—could negatively impact the client’s outcome.

The wellness module’s seminar-style discussions examine well-being on a continuum, acknowledging the challenges of personal and professional life. Faculty and outside experts guide students through discussions focused on the emotional challenges of lawyering: increased feelings of isolation, high demands on attention and time, and stigma that can keep lawyers from seeking support.

Making space for law students and legal professionals to share their mental health experiences is an important part of shifting the culture of the profession, and some would argue that prioritizing mental health should be a top priority for firms seeking to retain effective lawyers.

Jennifer Leonard L'04 Jennifer Leonard L'04“Our Professional Responsibility faculty also have been generous in sharing real stories from practice that illustrate what can go wrong—for individuals, legal service organizations, and for clients—when we fail to prioritize lawyer health,” Leonard said. “Their experiences connects research and theory on well-being to examples that make the concepts real for students.”

The curriculum also leverages the tenets of applied psychology, such as self-determination theory, to map the connections between individual well-being and professional success. Through discussions led by faculty and outside experts, students learn about the basic self-determination needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—and techniques for maximizing those needs within a fast-paced, demanding profession. This includes differentiating between intrinsic motivators and extrinsic rewards. Examples of the latter are often considered markers of success: money, power or fame, or competitiveness. Yet each of these weakens intrinsic motivation and can increase stress, anxiety, and harmful thoughts or behaviors.

Another key component of the well-being module focuses on relationships. Practicing law involves sophisticated relationship management; developing the “soft” interpersonal skills, especially in an infamously lonely profession, can have profound impact on a lawyer’s effectiveness and overall well-being. The course teaches the importance of civility and how incivility and a lack of empathy negatively impact individuals, relationships, and the broader profession.

One of the outcomes of the wellness curriculum is that there are more and more lawyers practicing in a variety of legal specialties and sectors who understand the relationship between mental health, well-being, and professional success. These individuals are well-positioned to shape company culture and, as they move into senior roles, to manage firms and organizations in ways that foster genuine well-being.

Cultivating a Supportive Community

Faculty, staff, and students at Penn Carey Law strive to create an environment that authentically supports wellness and allows every member of our community to thrive. As the epicenter of student life, the Student Affairs Office organizes community-wide free programs and services to support wellness throughout the year. Community activities include physical fitness sessions, guided meditations, cognitive behavior therapy workshops, and healthy meal preparation classes.

Felicia Lin L'08, Dean of Students Felicia Lin L'08, Dean of Students“We talk about collegiality a lot, but it really is the hallmark of the Penn Carey Law experience,” said Dean of Students Felicia Lin L’08. “Students choose Penn Carey Law to be part of an engaged, dynamic, and healthy community. Our job is to provide the resources and programs so that all students can thrive and build on that community once they are here.”

In addition to Student Affairs’ programming, degree programs such as Penn Carey Law’s LLM and Master in Law weave wellness into their student support. As part of their five-week pre-term program, new LLM students participate in a “Wellness Day” featuring a self-care workshop lead by Wellbeing at Penn staff and group activities exploring ways to identify and manage stress. Earlier this year, the ML program hosted a “Spring into Wellness” event where students, faculty, and staff potted succulents and enjoyed self-care goodie bags.

Each 1L is matched with a Morris Fellow: upper-class law students who volunteer to mentor and guide 1Ls through their transition to law school. Named after former Professor Clarence Morris, known for his care of students as individuals and ability to create a welcoming classroom, the Morris Fellow program has provided incoming JD students with built-in support networks for at least the last twenty years.

New students then dive into a week of orientation activities and programs, including a wellness panel featuring a representative from Wellness at Penn, a licensed clinician, and experts from other departments across the Law School and the University. The panelists introduce new law students to wellness initiatives across the University, and all students receive information about mental health resources at the Law School, the University, and in the broader Philadelphia community.

Penn Carey Law students and staff enjoying some time with therapy dogs. Penn Carey Law students and staff enjoying time with therapy dogs.Other wellness-focused programs include “Wellness Week” during the fall semester, support and community-building activities leading up to final exams, mentoring programs, and the annual “LAWn Party” during the spring semester. Connection is an important component of maintaining well-being, and Student Affairs creates opportunities for Penn Carey Law students to connect and express gratitude, such as the Law School’s annual “Thankful Thursday” and “You’ve Got Mail” postcard drives in the fall and spring, reminding students to tap into their supportive networks both in and outside the Law School.

Student Affairs also provides individualized support, and an embedded Student Health and Counseling counselor dedicates time just for Penn Carey Law students.

“We aim to meet students where they are,” said Ed Rentezelas, Director of Student Support. “From assisting a student who just welcomed an addition to their family to helping a student secure an accommodation or just being there to listen, we want our students to know the door is always open.”

Learn more about student health and wellness resources at the Law School and beyond.