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Tani, M; Vines, P --- "Law students' attitudes to education: pointers to depression in the legal academy and the profession?" [2010] LegEdDig 28; (2010) 18(2) Legal Education Digest 41

Law students’ attitudes to education: pointers to depression in the legal academy and the profession?

M Tani and P Vines

19(1) Legal Education Review, 2009, pp3-39

We know that law students and law professionals are disproportionately affected by depression. There has been United States (US) data to this effect for a long time: out of 105 professions surveyed, US lawyers rank first in depression and suffer depressive illness at a rate two to four times that of the general population. Recently, this data has been added to by Australian studies which appear to agree.

Importantly, these studies show that, before they enter law school, there appear to be no differences in wellbeing between law students and the general population. Indeed, law students may enter law school with feelings of wellbeing higher than the rest of the student population. However, we also know that undergraduate law students begin to suffer depressive illness in quite high numbers within six to 12 months of beginning their studies. This suggests that something about being in or choosing to be in law school may contribute to the likelihood of depression. Our initial hypothesis was that this may be a factor of being in a professional discipline. To test this hypothesis, we compared the survey responses of law students with those of medical students, and then with students in other disciplines.

The dominant psychological theory of the aetiology of depression today is the theory of learned helplessness. This theory is based on research which has shown that patterns of thinking, or attributions, affect feelings of wellbeing.

The three factors which might be usefully considered were attitudes indicating feelings of a lack of competency, autonomy and social connectedness. Indicators of problems with competency might exist in attitudes to marks dropping, for example. A lack of autonomy might show up in attitudes to learning manifesting external rather than internal motivation. Internal motivation would be manifested by students deciding for themselves what courses to do, rather than trying to please others. It would also manifest as a concern more with what is learned than with the marks gained, and with a greater intrinsic interest in subject matter. We thus explored whether law students manifested more concern than other students about grades and whether they were more likely to have chosen law for ‘external’ reasons. Indicators of lesser likelihood of social connectedness might include a very high level of competitiveness, so we investigated whether law students’ responses indicated that they may be less likely to be social in various ways, and thus more isolated than other students.

Teasing out factors that might affect, or become manifest in, law students during the course of their study – but not in students from other disciplines – required us to identify a group of students that could be used as a natural and logical reference for our empirical analysis.

In addition to comparing the responses of law students to the responses of medical students (as another professional environment), we compared their responses to those of students in non-professional environments – in particular Arts and Social Sciences and students in the College of Fine Arts (COFA).

The data used in this paper are sourced from a database constructed with the aim of uncovering incentives and expectations that affect students’ behaviour, learning attitudes and outcomes at the University of New South Wales.

Questionnaires were completed by 2528 graduate and undergraduate respondents from all the then 10 UNSW faculties. Not every question was answered; hence, the sample size associated with each question varies. Throughout the analysis, we report the number of non-respondents to illustrate this source of sample bias.

The sample included 333 undergraduate respondents from the Faculty of Law, or 13 per cent of the total sample size. This proportion is comparable with the proportion of law students in the underlying student population.

We analysed the data in two ways. In our case, the Wilcoxon rank sum test and the Kruskal-Wallis tests are suitable techniques. Both tests compare the median of the answers’ distribution given by the (two) groups of students. In particular, the Wilcoxon rank sum test determines whether or not two populations have identical location (median) as well as spread (variance) and shape (distribution). The Kruskal-Wallis test instead determines only whether two populations have the same location (median) but can differ in their variance and shape.

Second, we carried out regression analysis in order to study the strength of the relationship between the choice of law as a field of study relative to medicine (and other disciplines), and explanatory variables that include indicators of the student’s autonomy and social connection as well as ‘controls’ for other possible sources that may influence the choice of the field of study.

To briefly summarise these results, it seems that, at a statistically significant level, law students in contrast to all other students including those in medicine have the following characteristics: (1) they are more likely to be doing their course for a reason external to themselves, such as because their parents wanted them to; (2) they are less likely to find their studies intrinsically interesting; (3) they are more likely to see employers as interested in their marks and not in other social characteristics such as their personal code of ethics or their social and leadership abilities, or ability to understand diversity; (4) they dislike group work as a learning and grading method; (5) they are more likely to value the reputation of their university; (6) they are less likely to state that they are at university to learn; (7) they are more likely to see their friendships in terms of networks which will advance their career; and (8) they see their marks as the most important motivator and indicator of their success – far more so than other students – and they are less likely to see good grades as helping them to learn.

The focus on getting good grades as a motivator is perhaps the most significant factor differentiating law students from other students.

The evidence in this survey shows some significant differences in law students’ attitudes to their education when compared with other students. Those differences suggest that inherent or learned personal characteristics may indeed have a significant impact on law students’ likelihood of developing depression.

Although we did find the expected differences from students in Arts and COFA, we were surprised to find significant differences between law and medical students on a number of matters. These differences seem to point to an increased likelihood that law students may have feelings of less autonomy and less social connectedness than may be optimal for mental health.

The findings of our analysis suggest factors which may be important for the development or prevention of depression in law students – namely, a sense of autonomy and social connectedness. Martin Seligman has suggested that the legal reasoning process – focusing on problems and warding off risk – is essentially a pessimistic process and is thus likely to predispose to learned helplessness. Whether or not this is true, first-year students and, indeed, many later year students are unlikely to have mastered legal reasoning so, for them, the sense (or lack) of autonomy and social connectedness are likely to be more relevant issues. Where there is too little of any of these factors, people are likely to suffer from depression.

Autonomy is commonly thought of as independence and the ability to take control of one’s life. It is often assumed that people with high intelligence (such as law students) automatically have autonomy. However, this assumption may be unwarranted. Lawrence Krieger prefers to think of autonomy as ‘authenticity’.

People having autonomy are relatively unlikely to accept other people’s valuations of themselves and they are unlikely to be motivated by external factors. This form of autonomy would be indicated by students who were intrinsically motivated to study in their field because they were interested in it; and/or who studied for the purpose of self-satisfaction rather than for the external marker of grades or to please other people. When motivation is considered in the context of university study, lack of autonomy may also be demonstrated by a very high level of concern about grades (external assessment) as opposed to an internal issue of whether one has learned what one needs, for example. Real autonomy might also manifest itself in interest in types of work not normally regarded as high status in the profession, in contrast with those on the ‘high status’ track, such as being a partner in a large city firm or, as a student, being selected as a summer clerk for one of those firms. Despite large firms being seen as the ‘high status’ track, the price paid for this track is often a great loss of autonomy. Seligman recognises this when he says: ‘[a] second psychological factor that demoralises lawyers, particularly junior ones, is low decision latitude in high-stress situations’.

There was a striking difference in the attitudes to matters which might suggest issues of autonomy between law students and every other cohort, including medical students. Law students had the highest rate of wanting to please their family of all students, and this was significantly higher than for medical students. The percentage of law students who chose for themselves which degree to study was the lowest in the university. Law students also valued getting good grades (clearly an external motivating factor), rather than the satisfaction of learning (an intrinsic motivator) more highly than all students, including medical students. Similarly, law students believed employers value grades very highly rather than social attitudes or abilities. The rate at which law students held this belief was higher than for all other students in the university.

The focus on grades in order to get a high-paying job may reflect the selection practices of firms demanding law undergraduates. It is possible that large, high-paying (for example, city-based) law firms only hire new graduates based on their marks, and that the opportunity cost of not being at the top x-th percentile of the grades’ distribution (for example, high distinction average) is extremely large, even with respect to the second-highest percentile group (for example, distinction). Alternatively, it could indicate that the market for new law graduates is so segmented that a difference of a mark in a student’s grade point average (GPA) translates into thousands of dollars and other non-monetary benefits during his/her career. These are matters students cannot control. All these factors point to a relatively low level of personal autonomy being experienced by law students.

An argument that is sometimes made is that law students become depressed because they have always been high achievers and when they get into law school their marks suddenly drop because they are in a similar cohort. This is an example of a felt competency factor at work. However, the change from always getting top marks to being in the middle applies to both law and medical students so this is not sufficient to explain why law students seem to begin to suffer from depression as they get further into their studies in a way which is not replicated for medical students. However, when one compares their apparently different levels of felt autonomy, the difference in depression levels and their timing is explained. This would also explain the high level of psychological wellbeing law students experience at the beginning of their studies (when all the external motivating factors operate at their peak) and the clear drop in feelings of wellbeing that seem to occur in first year. This is presumably more problematic for law students than for the equivalent medical students because of the differences in felt autonomy between the two cohorts.

People with strong links with others, who are able to interact positively with others, get positive reinforcement from those others, get support and help from them more easily than those whose only recourse is professional help. Social ease is an important part of maintaining social connection. Competitiveness might be regarded as antithetical to it, at least to some extent. Law students, as high achievers, are likely to have a high level of perfectionism – that is, ‘high and unrealistic standards combined with relentless self-criticism’ – and there is strong evidence that this sort of perfectionism may be productive of relationship difficulties. In turn, a lack of social connectedness is predictive of depression and a lack of self-esteem. People who are socially connected are likely to be supported well and therefore less likely to become depressed in response to stressful events. Being socially connected includes having friends available, as well as intimate relationships such as those between partners and between parents and children. Social skills are both a type of competency and a factor contributing to social connectedness. We believe that a high level of competitiveness may reduce social connectedness and therefore also be an indicator of vulnerability to depression. At the same time, competitiveness with others is also likely to be an indicator of lesser autonomy in that it involves using external measures for self-evaluation.

Social connectedness is therefore one of the markers for depression that law students’ attitudes to university might illuminate. Again, the results of this analysis show quite a striking difference between law and medical students in ways which might not have been expected. One would expect medical students as high performers also to be perfectionistic; but getting good grades was significantly more important to law students than medical students, and law students put good grades further ahead of having fun than anyone else. Clearly, getting good marks is reassuring that one is competent, which is one of the factors that is important for avoiding depression as well. However, the desire for good grades is also probably an indicator of competitiveness. The reluctance of law students to work in groups was far greater than that of medical students – itself probably a sign of both competitiveness and a lesser desire for social connection. This lesser interest in social connection is also suggested by the fact that law students’ perceptions of employers’ interests emphasised grades over anything else, including employees’ personal attributes such as codes of ethics.

The survey did not ask questions about the level of social connectedness of students and the data does not tell us that law students necessarily lack social connections. Indeed, the prevalence of student law society functions suggests that a great deal of social connection of some kind is going on. However, the attitudinal indicators given by this data suggest that law students may be less likely to see social connection as important per se than other students, so that they may be less likely to put effort into maintaining social connections at times of stress than others who value it more highly. One may speculate that this, then, may cause a lack of social connectedness which might increase the risk of depression when law students are under stress. It is also worth noting that one form of social connectedness, the link with family, while strong in many of these students, may operate as a form of pressure and loss of autonomy rather than as a supportive mechanism. The particular character of law students’ link with family may repay further study.

Also warranting further study is the issue of whether the results for law students at UNSW can be extrapolated to other law students. One possible differentiator of UNSW law students is that they have to meet one of the most demanding admission requirements in Australia (although, as noted above, admission requirements for all law students are demanding). The fact that the cultural mix of students in the survey did not seem to alter the answers across the university may reflect the cultural mix of UNSW students as a whole (which has a relatively high number of international and Chinese ethnic background students). Cultural background may thus be another factor that would repay further exploration with students from other universities. However, the fact that, despite the UNSW cultural mix, there is a very distinct difference in law students from all other students in the university continues to suggest that the factors we have identified as differentiating law students from others might be extrapolated to law students at other universities and may well be associated with factors leading to the disproportionate rate of depression amongst them.

This study suggests that law students’ attitudes to their education may be connected to a number of traits which have been described as factors contributing to depression. Those suggested traits in turn may help to explain the disproportionate rate of depression in law students. Further research is necessary to establish whether the factors we have identified as significant – lack of autonomy, high levels of competitiveness and a lack of social connectedness – can be directly identified in law students and whether they have a direct causal connection to the depression suffered so disproportionately by law students. Such research would need to track students who were identified as having these factors as part of their attitudinal array to determine whether they were more or less likely than law students without those factors to develop depression over time. It would also be useful to assess whether high levels of competitiveness do indeed create problems with social connection or whether it is an independent variable for law students.

Since lack of autonomy and lack of social connectedness are major risk factors for depression, these are the obvious areas for law schools to focus their attention on when designing and conducting legal education. This article is not intended to be a manual for fostering resilience to the kinds of depression and anxiety so prevalent amongst lawyers; however, the data show that law students do demonstrate attitudes that are likely to reduce their resilience and that institutional strategies focused on fostering autonomy and social connectedness may be useful and effective over time.

The general aim of strategies focused on autonomy is to increase the ability of people to stand alone and to be empowered in their studies. The principles for increasing students’ sense of personal autonomy include developing ways of increasing intrinsic motivation and reducing external motivation. Paradoxically, this might mean that we should be doing less prize and certificate-giving rather than more. It may need more emphasis on the purposes of law and legal practice, and on ways of seeing legal practice as intrinsically valuable.

One of the most significant matters for legal educators is the proportion of law students who do not, initially at least, have an intrinsic interest in the subject. This may have implications for the methods of selecting law students. It may be that interviews or other factors that are more likely to suggest intrinsic motivation to study law should be given further thought for this reason. Once the students are in the law school, however, strategies to increase a sense of autonomy should be considered. Student law societies having control of matters such as competitions may be part of this. Giving students a choice in assessment, something which is often thought of as merely allowing them to maximise their marks, might actually be more significant as a way of developing a sense of autonomy in students. The legal educator may need to consider using techniques that help students to feel more in control of their own learning; for example, using feedback to demonstrate to students how their effort increased marks. Classical education techniques such as scaffolding may be useful for developing this.

This is not to say that students are to be given total control of what amounts to the appropriate level of knowledge or what professional standards are. Part of the development of the legal professional involves accurate knowledge of such standards; however, to be robust and resilient lawyers in the profession, it is necessary to develop a sense of autonomy and to have intrinsic motivation for one’s actions. Using peer mentors to de-emphasise marks and emphasise the joys of learning and the satisfaction of knowing for oneself what one has achieved may be another way to build these characteristics. The ability of a student to feel that they have a meaningful relationship with their teacher is also likely to be important in developing resilience.

Social connectedness that will foster resilience requires strong relationships rather than merely casual ones. Student societies’ balls and drinking fests have their place but are unlikely to create strong relationships. Working together on common endeavours such as law revues and mooting competitions may well set the foundations for strong social connection. There is a limit to the extent to which law schools can and should create social connections for their students, but it seems likely that strategies such as peer-mentoring and academic mentoring may be helpful ways to begin to develop relationships. Teaching techniques that increase meaningful interaction between students, including carefully managed group work, rather than always only between staff and students may also be valuable in helping to create social connectedness over time. It may also be worth considering programs which foster social skills as a way of increasing the likelihood of maintaining social relationships. Such skills are part of the legal professional repertoire and may be able to be presented as significant in that way – as part of mooting training, for example.

The survey results analysed in this paper indicate that susceptibility to depression in law students may be at least partially explained by their attitudes to learning and university education. Attitudes related to autonomy and social connectedness may also explain the puzzling pattern observed in first-year law students of high psychological wellbeing followed by a massive drop. However, this study could not link particular student attitudes to any incidence of depression. It is also helpful in that it suggests that, without falling into the trap of attempting to be counsellors, and consistently with a professional education, legal educators may be able to use educational strategies based on data such as this to help prevent the extreme levels of depression which are currently endemic in the law student and legal professional population. It is a welcome thought that the results of this study suggest that it may be entirely possible to target strategies to foster resilience amongst law students, and the legal professionals they will later become.

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