How has COVID-19 exacerbated the disproportionate stress experienced by law students?
Stress, the all-too familiar feeling that law students have probably become accustomed to at this point. The Junior Lawyers Division found that over 93% of respondents in a resilience and wellbeing survey – which included law students, graduates, trainee solicitors and those up to five years’ qualified – reported experiences of stress, and this will doubtless have grown as the pandemic continues to affect our day-to-day life.
While it is easy to accept a few general contributory consequences, including the lack of social activity and feelings of loneliness, just exactly how has COVID-19 impacted the stress experienced by law students?
Even during normal times, the competition for opportunities was extremely fierce. With limited places at firms and chambers for mini-pupillage and vacation schemes, it already felt difficult and stressful enough to try to aim for these experiences.
There are more eager law students than available work experience, making applications a cut-throat process where candidates plough through countless application forms and assessments, with no guarantee of making it through the various initial rounds to the interview stage. It can feel very demotivating when you spend days working on an application, researching the place you are applying for and meticulously crafting your answers, only to receive an impersonal rejection, making every application you fire off a taxing process. The lack of transparency around the process and how rigorous it is further contributes to stress levels, as students feel pressured to excel academically to stand as a viable candidate.
This has only worsened during the pandemic, with a gaping hole in the place of where once-sparse opportunities lay. Many barrister chambers had to postpone mini-pupillage schemes due to the restrictions around court visits, and many vacation schemes were unable to proceed as the whole population was plunged into a home-working environment. The pressures arising from this are not only immediate, as students scrabble to search for some sort of experience during their years of study, but continues to ricochet in the long-term by placing cohorts of this year at a disadvantage to previous years when trying to make further career progression. Although many chambers and firms can understand the difficulties brought on by this year, it does not negate the worries that more experienced candidates will be favoured especially when the applicant pool will expand from the reduced number of available placements.
The right path
The limitation in work experience not only increases the intensity of the competition for these positions, but also contribute to stress by taking away from students the chance to gain insight into what area of practice they may want to go into. Legal degrees remain rather prescribed due to the professional requirements of the subject, and so students are not as able to explore the different avenues of law within the academic setting to inform their future career choices. The inability to experience a range of practice areas generates a significant amount of uncertainty for those about to graduate, as they have to contemplate and decide upon which path they will embark on without much knowledge of how their chosen area will operate in reality. Unlike other subjects and career paths, lawyers specialise rather early on and when you do not have the insight available to make an informed choice, it is easy for anxiety to build over whether or not you are going down the ‘right path’.
While there are certainly enough preoccupations about the future and graduate prospects to make any law students’ head spin, we have yet to consider the impact of the pandemic on the students’ current stage of education. Law is a subject notorious for requiring its learners to read and work through a voluminous amount of information, with lengthy reading lists never failing to strike an unspeakable fear into our hearts.
From working through case judgments, interpreting legislation, and analysing academic articles, the huge swathe of information requires a lot of motivation and will-power to get through – and it never ends. There is always more to read than you have time for, already placing students in a position of strain, and when the distinctions between ‘work’ and ‘home’ becomes so blurred over lockdown, it is a struggle to find the right balance between productivity and relaxation to prevent burnout. It can easily lead to a vicious cycle where students struggle to find the drive to work, before getting alarmed at how little they perceive themselves to have done, forcing a short burst of overworking which inevitably leads to extreme exhaustion and mental overload that restarts the process again.
Students may also experience anxiety from feeling like they simply cannot get through the amount of work being expected from them. Although this problem is not a novel phenomenon brought on by the pandemic, its effects have been exacerbated as communication with course-mates and tutors have been impaired, creating a disconnect between what students believe is demanded of them and what they are actually capable of.
The importance of checking in with others cannot be understated: realising you are not the only one finding the work difficult and falling behind, brings huge relief. However, the virtual way of working has made us more disconnected from each other – it’s harder to gauge the extent of anxiety amongst our peers and you can feel like you are the only one who is not coping.
Furthermore, prior in-person discussions of cases and other set material could help with identifying which areas you needed to do work upon more, as well as create some stimulation to get through the work. These candid conversations could assist with clearing up uncertainty and provide a casual engagement with the course material to provide familiarity.
A way forward?
Having identified various ways in which the pandemic has disproportionately contributed to the stress levels of law students, one might beg the question on what can be done. While there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer, it requires work on behalf of institutions and individuals to understand that the output of work will not be typical and that prior expectations cannot remain the same. The responsibility does not fall solely on either institutions or individuals, and a more compassionate approach from all sides will be greatly welcomed. Otherwise, the already sky-high figures of stress will continue to rocket until the newcomers to the legal profession inevitably buckle.
Many thanks to Athena Kam for this student view on the impact of the pandemic. As you may know, Athena is the interviewer for our Mental Health and Wellbeing interview series.
She is a second year law student at the University of Oxford, with a view of becoming a barrister one day. She is the forthcoming Secretary for the Oxford University Bar Society, having previously held the position of Mooting Officer. She hopes to help push for a more inclusive and mental-health legal profession.