Being perfect is bad
Thursday, December 10, 2015
Justinian in Barely Legal, Depression, Law students, Lawyers

It's depressing for law students ... Trying too hard to be perfect while feeling that work is pointless ... Where do we get off? ... Law students less inclined to share and help ... Too much competition ... Barely Legal gets the end-of-year blues 

CANBERRA can be a lonely place in the summer months. A midweek stroll down the street makes me feel that even the tumble weeds are on annual leave. 

It's much the same in other law schools and around the courts as they close-up shop for Christmas and January so that justice and its administration gets a break. 

It's a good time to shred the mental noise from the proceeding year - and this is as important for law students as it is for practitioners.

One-in-three law students experience depression - more or less in line with the legal profession generally, although law students experience a particularly acute form of psychological distress. 

As Julius Sumner Miller would ask, "Why is it so"?

 

Degrees of depression

According to the Courting the Blues Report, the root cause of much of the distress experienced by law students (and this extends to practicing lawyers) derives from the characteristics necessary to make them good lawyers and litigators.

This is the toxic mix of perfectionism, the professional pessimism required to best advise clients, the adversarial nature of the law, and feeling that your work is menial and pointless. 

As someone surrounded by law students day in, day out, I agree that these elements lie at the heart of the problem.

Symptoms may include young lawyers or students isolating themselves to better perfect their work, or to punish themselves for perceived under-performance. 

In these cases it is not the perfectionist character trait that has to be modified, rather it is how the symptoms of the trait manifest themselves. 

To put this as a question: how does a law student harness the positives of behaviours like perfectionism, while simultaneously mitigating the depressive symptoms? 

I hope to discover the answer within myself at some stage in my professional career. 

Peers' pressure

What strikes me about the study of the law is the distrust borne of a belief in the necessity of competition. Law students, at least in the big law factories of the G8 universities, do not seem to trust each other to cover for them when times get tough. 

This is in stark contrast to my BA friends and even how practitioners used to their university workload. 

Much of their ability to succeed came from interaction and cooperation with their peers - sharing lecture notes, summaries, and working together closely with their friends, to make sure no-one is left behind. 

Competition for grades on a bell curve, competition for jobs, and competition for competition's sake seem to be the name of the game at law school today. 

We need to share

There is no overriding belief we are all to be "officers of the court", each working to better serve clients and community. 

I'm sure it is this overarching (albeit imperfect) ideal from which many law students feel disconnected.   

The Blues Report encourages law students, and legal professionals, to throw off the "I'll be right" attitude to mental health and to seek help when things get bad.

In my experience the best medicine is the comfort of one's friends and fellow inmates. 

In the new year I'll take more time to ask how my friends are coping when times get rough. 

Isolation and competition is necessary to get the best out of ourselves, but to be our best selves we need each other, legally minded or not. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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