Managing depression in Law School

University of Toronto Law Student, Class of 2015

This is a simple story about the most important lesson I learned during law school. It details my journey from “normal” to clinically depressed to happiness and authenticity.

I came into 1L with few expectations. Gaining admission to U of T Law had been my goal for at least three years, and arriving was something of a letdown. It was another “accomplishment” on the list, but the only thing that felt real was the crushing isolation of being surrounded by people I didn’t feel I measured up to, in an alien culture I didn’t grow up in, buried by piles and piles of work. I didn’t know, concretely, what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I liked or was interested in. All of my choices to date had been utilitarian: what will bring me the greatest amount of socially-validated “success” for the least amount of effort?

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Completing 1L in your thirties: A mature student experience

Ontario Law Student, Class of 2016

I did it! I got into law school. Wait, how am I going to tell my wife and kids?

As anxious as I was about getting into law school, it was explaining my decision that was the hard part. Just as I was reaching, what could have been, a stable point in my professional and personal life I risked it all on law.

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“Grades are not everything in law school. But, you and I both know they do count”

Ontario Law Student, Class of 2016

You have probably heard the saying that “Grades are not everything in law school.” But, you and I both know they do count. They count in the decision-making for assistantships, internships and law-related jobs. And, while I do think grades are important for these decisions, I also think it is appropriate to understand how grades are arrived at.

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Coping with the 1L blues

Ontario Law Student, Class of 2015

I really struggled through parts of my first year of law school. During the months of December and January, I was upset most days. This was mainly due to the anxiety that came from my sense that I was being given more work than I would ever be able to get through. We were repeatedly told that first year marks were extremely important and as much as I always have a “do what I can” mentality, that pressure got to me. I was also getting a strong message that success equates to a career as a corporate lawyer on Bay Street. That view did not suit my interests or desired lifestyle. The disconnect between these two visions made me feel isolated and unsure of my decision to attend law school.  While my close group of friends was very supportive of one another, I also found the class as a whole very competitive.

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“If I couldn’t handle the first term, how was I going to get through 3 years plus articling?”

Ontario Law Student, Class of 2016

My biggest struggle with law school was that I didn’t realize how much of a mental and emotional toll it would have on me. From the infamous bell-curve to the super-humans that were my peers, my confidence took a huge hit. I tried telling myself “obviously they accepted you because you can do it.” But as my first term progressed and we hit midterm season, I started breaking down more and more. I felt like everyone was getting it and I just wasn’t. I couldn’t keep up with the workload, I didn’t understand what was going on in class, and my anxiety was so bad I couldn’t eat or sleep properly.

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“You’re not alone”, they said. “Everyone gets stressed”, they said.

Ontario Law Student, Class of 2015

 

I am a proud nerd. I always loved school. Sitting down and pouring over texts came easily to me. As did paying attention in lecture and taking notes. I was thrilled when I got accepted to law school. It had been a dream of mine for a while and my hard work paid off.

When I started law school, my attitude slowly began to change. My class attendance was irregular and I was vocal about not caring about school. I goofed off in class when I did attend. At first, I thought that the fact that I didn’t care was healthy. Law school is known for making people care too much. I was not letting that happen to me – I was beating the system. Fellow students were consumed by their work, spending every free minute in the library. I laughed at the guy who asked me in October if I started my summaries. While everyone appeared to be working a lot harder, I was living it up, spending hours talking to friends during my free time and binging on television shows at home.

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“During my time in law school, I have developed increased stress and anxiety around my grades, my career, my finances, etc”

Ontario Law Student, Class of 2014

 

In many ways law school has been beneficial for me; in terms of the education I’ve received, the career opportunities I’ve been able to take advantage of, and some very wonderful and like-minded people I’ve met. However, in other significant ways law school has changed me from a person who was relatively healthy to a person who is unwell.

During my time in law school, I have developed increased stress and anxiety around my grades, my career, my finances, etc. The structure of law school is one that fosters competition, exclusivity, and contentious behaviours among students and sometimes even professors. It takes students who are all accomplished in their own right and accustomed to over-achieving, and puts them in classes where only a handful of them will get A’s. It subjects students to the pressures of OCIs with few alternatives (and the alternatives that are presented are made to feel second-rate). It advertises the names of prominent downtown law firms on its walls, classrooms, and even on the back of t-shirts that first-years are told to put on the minute they arrive, all of which serve as a daily reminder that those careers are our goals and anything less is a failure.

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