Future Lawyer Blog

Avoiding Burn Out: a Law Student’s Guide

By Jessica Howard

Jess Howard

Jess Howard

It’s that time of the year. The awkward stretch before Christmas, when you’re probably already feeling completely exhausted but know you still have another few weeks to go. Especially for students, this can be one of the most straining periods. Many might just want to hunker down until the holidays, but it actually helps to be more proactive and help is certainly not far.

Mental health has been getting a lot of positive attention recently. People are increasingly accepting of conditions like depression and anxiety. Media outlets are running stories about the experiences of victims.

351 organisations have so far signed the ‘Time to Change’ pledge, of which many are universities. City signed the pledge Time to Change last year and hosted the University Mental Health and well-being day. The web is awash with advice on self-medication, ‘awareness’ exercises, and possible quick fixes.

And yet students feel as stressed and burnt-out as ever.

Caroline Strevens, Course Director of the law programme at Portsmouth University, says that law students and lawyers are particularly susceptible to problems with mental wellbeing. Her experience as both a solicitor and being in charge of the health of her students and staff have helped shape the approach she takes. ‘We address the idea of mental health flourishing, such as asking students to identify what makes them feel happy. The approach is effective, as people might not want to label themselves, but everyone wants to be able to do better and feel happy.’

The approach Caroline Strevens uses is known as positive psychology, and its something she says anyone can do something about both inside and outside the curriculum to improve general wellbeing.

Some might say the opposite end of approaches such as positive psychology is counselling. But Lydia Pell, a mental health co-ordinator at City University, is more encouraging of the benefits of coming to counselling early – even before you think you might have a more serious problem. She summed up the things people should watch out for if they’re considering counselling:

  1. Changes in sleep pattern
  2. Emotional ups and downs
  3. Comments from friends on behavioural changes
  4. Being prevented from doing things you would do otherwise

sad egg

Lydia explains that there are many things about student lifestyle that is uniquely stressful. It’s hard enough studying for exams, memorising cases, and making new friends – without also having to deal with ‘Life’. But Lydia is keen to emphasize that people should go sooner rather than later to counselling. If nothing else, it’s free and you’ve got nothing to lose, whereas you might if you wait.

Caroline agrees, specifying that law students in particular might feel the weight of the course becoming too much.

‘Law is a highly competitive area and typically attracts competitive people, who you might not feel easy opening up to. To a degree students need to be better friends. But there’s also the fact that the course encourages you to think like a lawyer, in a linear, non-creative fashion. And finally, of course, lawyers only look at disaster situations and need to find all-or-nothing solutions.’

The result she says is quite a negative atmosphere.

But what should students use as a model if they’re wondering about how to balance their activities. Lydia says, ‘aim for the equivalent of a working week around your lectures. So roughly a 40 hour working week, with increases around deadlines.’ She emphasises that City Counselling does offer Academic Learning Support, and it is something to consider if you’re starting to struggle with time management, having trouble completing the assignments or not being able to complete all the reading.

Being a GDL student, I’m definitely not alone in having experienced all of these problems at one point or another. So what should you do if you’re just feeling a little burnt out but not yet in need of counselling there are plenty of TLC techniques to stop you peaking before the all-important Christmas holidays.

There are basic external things that you can manage and that will have a direct positive effect on your mental health.

  • Getting 7-8 hours sleep – less than that and everything else will suffer
  • Eating 3 large meals a day and drinking plenty of water
  • Exercise regularly and get outdoors
  • Make time for social activities: take breaks and don’t be consumed by the course

These are the basics, but there are plenty of other things to incorporate into your daily routines to make sure you are mentally well.

  • Apps such as Headspace have a daily schedule of mindfulness and relaxation exercises
  • Mindfulness and meditation directly combat anxiety which tends to focus on things in the future – mindfulness locates yourself in the present and makes it harder to worry
  • City run workshops for students on how to cope

Many thanks to Jess Howard, City GDL student for this very practical piece.


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