You are not alone. Canada is full of individuals who have faced adversity in law school, graduated, and gone onto successful careers as lawyers. Here are some stories from others who have also been challenged by law school.
Mental illness is not a sign of weakness
In October of my first year of law school, a counsellor explained to me I was suffering from anxiety and depression. I knew something was very wrong, but I didn’t know what was going on or where to turn.
My doctor referred me to this counsellor after I broke down during a routine check-up. She inquired about my general health and asked, “How are you doing these days?” With that question alone, I began to sob. She sensed something was up.
Osgoode Hall Law School, Class of 2014
Law school is an emotional boot camp
Law school for me felt like a mental and emotional boot camp. During the first year, law school served to break down everything I had previously believed about myself: who I was, what I was good at, my self-esteem and place in the world. Overnight I went from being at the top of my class and being generally successful at whatever I tried, to being completely average and struggling to maintain a place at the middle-to-bottom end of my class. I went from loving school and enjoying my colleagues, to having almost nothing in common with my classmates and hating the subject matter of my classes. In my first week of law school I felt that everyone I met was better than me at everything: everyone appeared to he fit, happy, healthy, they owned business, sat on multiple boards, ran charities, had kids at home, had 5 years more experience than me, had PHDs… and not to mention pretty much everybody seemed to be related to a lawyer in some way. They all seemed to know the system and had some idea of what to expect from law school. I did not come from an upper class background. I had never even met a lawyer. I had no idea what to expect. And frankly, I hated it. I felt so out of my league. (Ontario Lawyer, Class of 2010)
“During my time in law school, I have developed increased stress and anxiety around my grades, my career, my finances, etc”
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. (Ontario Law Student, Class of 2014)
“At some point, I tried describing what I was feeling to some friends. “You’re not alone”, they said. “Everyone gets stressed”, they said. “Welcome to law school”, they said.”
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. (Ontario Law Student, Class of 2015)
“I thought I’d made a mistake in my career choice. If I couldn’t handle the first term, how was I going to get through 3 years plus articling?”
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. (Ontario Law Student, Class of 2016)
Coping with the 1L blues
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. (Ontario Law Student, Class of 2015)
“Grades are not everything in law school. But, you and I both know they do count”
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. (Ontario Law Student, Class of 2016)
Completing 1L in your thirties: A mature student experience
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. (Ontario Law Student, Class of 2016)
“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? (University of Toronto Law Student, Class of 2015)
Getting my life back into balance
My experience at law school has been quite an interesting journey. I think I spent the better part of first year wondering if someone in the admissions office had made a mistake. I really didn’t know what to expect as I am the first member of my immediate family to obtain a professional degree, actually a post-secondary degree at all for that matter. And even though I had some very successful years within my previous career before law school, I was a little more than overwhelmed at first. (Ontario Law Student, Class of 2015)
“Some of my accommodations included access to class notes and writing final exams with extra time in a separate room”
I wanted to share my experience with applying for accommodations so that other students who need them will reach out for support. Due to personal circumstances and the stress that comes with law school, I began to struggle with maintaining my mental health. For a long time I tried to convince myself that what I was feeling was under my control and that attending classes and keeping up with schoolwork could be achieved with willpower alone. However, when I was unable to force myself to “get over it” and “pull myself together”, I knew it was time to get help. (Ontario Law Student, Class of 2015)
Isolation, Fear, Safety
All my life I have known loneliness, difference, fringes. But, law school carves new wounds in my worn skin. As a half-black, half-white woman, I know too well how to survive as an outsider. Quick. Hide my sexual attraction to women. Hide my hatred of fact patterns. Hide the violence and poverty in my youth. Quicker. Hide my mounting $100 000 debt-load. Hide my inept hold of SCC decisions. No one can know. If they find out, they’ll throw me out of Osgoode. If they find out, I’ll go back to high heels & push-up bras, 14 hour days, and tips tips tips. If they find out, they’ll balk at my stupidness and the stitches coming open on my scars. No can know. (Ontario Law Student, Class of 2014)
“My First Year of Law School was without a doubt, the worst year of my life”
My first year of law school was, without a doubt, the worst year of my life. I don’t really think I could even begin to explain how tough I found the course materials, in combination with the social pressures to participate in an emotionally exhausting Orientation Week, in combination with being away from home or any support systems. Although my school provides support for individuals who are going through a rough time, it is at times difficult to see that so many other students are going through exactly the same thing. Furthermore, it is difficult to open up and connect with other students who are also scared of being vulnerable. I wish that there was some way in which we could ‘check in’ with each other during the first months of first year, formally or informally, but everyone seemed too busy for that to happen. (Ontario Law Student, Class of 2014)
I succeeded at law school by being myself and sticking to what I believed in. I made my priorities and where I want to go (end goal) the focus and aimed at achieving that regardless of what others were doing. I also stayed away from drama, focusing on the positive and my own goals. (Ontario Law Student, Class of 2014)
Learning to appreciate who you are
“First year of law school was tough”, you’ve probably heard that a million times. For me, the hardest part of first year was the feeling that no matter how hard I try, everyone else is still ahead of me. Regardless of how many hours I spent reading cases and writing case briefs over the weekend and during late nights, I would arrive at class or overhear conversations that indicated to me that other students just seemed to “get it” more than I did. I’ve met a variety of people at law school, some of who will stay life-long friends. I’ve also met people who seem to have memorized the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by the time they were 5 and seem just as comfortable in a suit as I feel in my sweatpants. I’m sure you’ve also met these students, these are the students that just seem like they’re born for law. (University of Toronto Law Student, Class of 2016)