Experiential Legal Education: An Antidote to Law Student Stress

The phenomenon of law student stress —and the ensuing high stress levels of practicing lawyers—is not new. We, alongside countless others both within and outside of the academy, have long felt they need to be more completely acknowledged and addressed by law schools.

A recent Insight suggests that one of the sources of stress experienced by law students is the expansion of experiential learning in law school. We think that a more careful assessment of which aspects of legal education are causing—and which might ameliorate—stress leads to a different conclusion.

Given the long history of law student stress and the more recent growth of experiential education, we look first to the wellness challenges posed by the traditional form of classroom doctrinal teaching. The observations are not new, but they remain true.

Law schools at every level of the legal education hierarchy send students the not-inaccurate message that their performance in traditional, large doctrinal classes will be the primary driver of their access to their desired career paths.

Because grading in these courses is curved, success in them is profoundly competitive. Student learning assessment is often based on a single summative examination which typically is timed, closed-book, and in a format entirely unfamiliar if not completely confounding to first-year students. The work is often done in isolation, with little guidance along the way, and in a manner that does not connect the journey to the student’s goals or purpose in attending law school.

As a practical matter, teachers of these large, consequential courses simply cannot always know, much less work individually with, each of their students. Wellness is rarely among the learning goals of these courses.

Clinical Teachers Work Closely With Students

In contrast, clinical teachers and other experiential faculty are much more likely to be aware of the mental health of their students. They work closely with them and discuss with them the impact on them of their clinical work. They make balance, wellness, and managing the secondary trauma of much legal work a part of their curriculum.

Clinical teachers can and should intentionally teach students how to practice law in ways that preserve their own strength and health to maintain their efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction over a long career of engagement in those tasks. Unlike the solo nature of the competitive traditional classroom model, clinical and experiential education engages students in collaborative enterprises.

Students work with and alongside peers, faculty, and clients. Under careful faculty supervision, they learn how to work with others, how to support and lean on each other when necessary, and how to reflect productively on their own performances. Classroom teachers of legal doctrine by necessity have a limited role in teaching these skills.

Bringing Meaning to Legal Education

Experiential learning, like classroom learning, can be stressful and draining, but it is also something different, active, and engaging in new ways. Quite literally getting up on one’s feet and taking some action in the world provides a break from the inactivity unfortunately associated with the usual regime of classroom-based study.

Moreover, as clinic students report in feedback, their assumption of responsibility for real-world consequences helps to bring meaning to their legal education. The work they do on behalf of others adds new value. The meaning of the work makes handling the stress both more imperative and more manageable.

Curve-graded exam-based doctrinal courses inevitably promote a sense of inadequacy—and stress—in the 90% of students who are not in the top 10% of their class. In contrast, experiential education is designed not to sort students out, but to develop in each of them the competencies, including wellness, they will need as professionals and so a sense of confidence in their abilities to do the job. It is the best way for adults to master professional expertise.

As experts in educational theory have concluded, “adults learn best through active participation and reflection.” Medical schools such as Harvard have recognized this and adopted experiential learning throughout the curriculum.

After law school, surely no small part of the well-documented stress and anxiety felt by practitioners arises from feelings of inadequacy and insufficient preparation for the array of legal tasks that they are called upon to perform. For all its strengths, classroom learning does not guide students in how to conceptualize, plan, perform, or self-assess the daily tasks and responsibilities of being a lawyer. Experiential learning does, and it is learning that, when well delivered, will last a professional lifetime.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Claudia Angelos is a clinical professor of law at New York University School of Law.

Randy Hertz is director of clinical and advocacy programs at New York University School of Law.

Andrew Williams is director of the lawyering program at New York University School of Law.