Preliminary results from our study of law student wellbeing at the Australian National University are consistent with results of studies in the US and elsewhere in Australia, suggesting that law students may begin to experience increased psychological distress, including symptoms of depression, in the first year of law school. In light of this evidence, the particular challenge facing legal education is to look at the study of law itself and examine how the pedagogy, substance, and approach of legal education impact students’ self concept and well-being. This paper begins that task by exploring the formation of professional identity in law school.
In making decisions about legal content, materials, and pedagogy, legal educators (often unconsciously) adopt and communicate assumptions about professional identity that may be outmoded, incomplete, and inappropriate for the students’ futures as legal professionals. The typical law school curriculum offers a conception of the lawyer identity that is impoverished by legal education’s over-emphasis on adversarialism, detached analysis, and competitive individualism. Each of these factors may contribute to undermining students’ sense of values, feelings of power and competence, and general sense of wellbeing. Students’ exposure to this inadequate formulation of professional identity comes at a critically important time in the formation of their identities, a time when we, as educators, ought to be particularly sensitive to the messages we send.
We encourage legal educators to correct the distorting effects of a poor conception of the legal professional identity by encouraging the development of key aspects of personality, such as empathy, that are currently under-emphasised in legal education. We also argue that by improving the ways in which the law school environment fosters resilience, legal educators will contribute to their students’ current and future well-being and to the revitalisation of the profession.
Research theme: Criminal Law, Health, Law and Bioethics, Human Rights Law and Policy, Law and Psychology, Law and Social Justice, Legal Education, Private Law, Regulatory Law and Policy, The Legal Profession