Law and Society (Part 2): Teaching Happiness

On Wednesday, June 6, I attended a roundtable discussion entitled, “Engagement, Happiness, and Meaning in Legal Education and Practice.”  What I took away from the discussion was that there is significant evidence to suggest that law students are unnecessarily and excessively suffering from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other unhealthy responses to the stress of law school, and that law schools should do a better job of educating students about these risks and providing them with tools to help them better cope with stress.  What follows is a brief overview of the roundtable discussion, which I hope will provide some useful contacts for those wishing to learn more about what we can do as educators to help our students thrive.  I apologize in advance for the brief coverage (particularly of the last three speakers), which in no way does justice to the tremendous work each of these individuals is doing.  I hope you will take the time to follow-up on the links I provide.

The roundtable began with Rhonda Magee guiding us all through a mindfulness exercise.  I have some experience with mindfulness meditation (I’ve edited a book of dharma talks given by my sensei Ji Sui Craig Horton of the Cleveland Buddhist Temple during the year that I studied zazen with him, which is available at cost here--accompanying photobook available at cost here), and Prof. Magee struck me as someone who is highly skilled at conveying the essence of good practice in this area.  She is also President of the Board of Directors of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which seeks to transform higher education "by supporting and encouraging the use of contemplative/introspective practices and perspectives to create active learning and research environments that look deeply into experience and meaning for all in service of a more just and compassionate society."

Peter Huang then spoke about his work with the Telos Project at the University of Colorado School of Law.  I pulled the following from a news story that you can find here:

In order to broaden student's perception of the legal profession, the university has implemented the Telos Project. The project organizes 25 students to reflect on their chosen path in a non-credit, reading intensive course. “The Telos Project is a small group seminar designed to engage law students in conversation about the behavioral and ethical dimensions of their legal training and prepare them for the legal profession,” University of Colorado Law School Vice Dean Dayna Matthew said.

Todd Peterson then discussed some of the empirical evidence that supports the conclusion that law schools have a problem in this area.  You can find his article, “Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology,” on SSRN here.

To round out the discussion, Marjorie Silver spoke about her work on therapeutic jurisprudence, Daniel Bowling noted that if you purposely wanted to design a course of study that would induce learned helplessness and depression you likely couldn’t come up with something better than the typical 1L experience (and he has designed a course to try and deal with this problem), and Lorenn Walker talked about her work with restorative justice for healing.

Finally, I couldn't help but think about the work my wife, Dr. Maria Pagano, has been doing in the area of substance abuse, where she has empirically validated the helper principle.  Certainly there is no shortage of techniques, from meditation to reflective writing to reframining to service work, that we can leverage to help our students avoid the pitfalls of excessive stress.

Stefan Padfield