University of Ottawa course helps students cope with stress of law school – and for life as a lawyer

Professor Lynda Collins says 'Happiness and the Law' offers ways to handle a high-pressure profession

University of Ottawa course helps students cope with stress of law school – and for life as a lawyer

In her 16 years of teaching at the University of Ottawa’s law school, Lynda Collins has seen "too many students" suffering from mental health issues. So, she decided to do something about it. The result is a class called “Happiness and the Law.”

"We bring students into a high-stress learning environment, and then we push them out into a high-stressed work world without really training them to deal with law being a uniquely challenging profession when it comes to mental health," says Collins, a professor in the Centre for Environmental Law & Global Sustainability at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Law.

Collins has taught the course for six years. It is not mandatory, "but many students who have taken it say it should be," says Collins. It is offered as a first-year elective and has also been offered in senior years. It is also complemented by an upper-level course on "mindfulness."

She adds that research shows legal professionals experience higher levels of psychological distress, depression, anxiety, burnout, and suicidal ideation compared to the Canadian working population.

"Human happiness is arguably one of the underlying drivers of law and legal systems. Yet legal studies often overlook this need and desire, and lawyers sometimes fail to cultivate happiness within their own professional lives."

As a result of this deficit in helping would-be lawyers reach their full potential for their professional and personal lives, Collins created the course, which aims to look at the role of happiness in legal systems, and the research around happiness at work. It also offers practical tools for maximizing happiness in law school and legal practice.

The course has two components. The first is "well-being education," which looks at evidence-based research on what students may be lacking in their lives to be happy and productive as students. "The data shows that some of the most significant drivers of happiness are the most obvious."

For example, her class deals with the importance of sleep, with research showing that it's essential for physical health and optimizes cognitive function. "People who get enough sleep are smarter," she says, adding that it is also helpful in combating anxiety and depression.

Nutrition is also essential, Collins says, pointing out that law students often sacrifice eating well and instead rely on stimulants such as coffee.

Exercise is also crucial to well-being, as is "social connection." Collins says there is this belief that "you have to sacrifice your social life if you are a law student," she says. On the contrary, she says, research shows that engaging socially is a crucial part of mental wellness.

The second component of the course involves giving students specific tools for coping and improving well-being. Her classes start with a short meditation, for example, and Collins encourages keeping a journal of positive experiences and things they appreciate.

She also has students write a "self-compassion" letter that can help refocus thoughts and feelings on being supportive, helpful, and caring of themselves and tone down negative emotions and thoughts.

Collins says research shows "that when we consistently look for things to celebrate, we feel better – it does move the needle." Not everyone will embrace these ideas, she says, but for those who have practised with some of these tools, "it made them more resilient to stress, more effective in school, and happier.

"Honestly, I've never met a lawyer or law student who didn't need more self-compassion."

Another tool for mental wellness taught is the importance of "drawing boundaries" to preserve mental health and optimize performance. "Saying 'no' can be really challenging, and I want students to understand there are times when you do need to say no."

Other issues she discusses in her class are the problem of "digital distraction" and paying too much attention to social media. She says people can't get in the focusing "zone" for tasks if they are constantly distracted. "There is research that shows this can be a real stress factor," she says, "there is just a barrage of digital platforms competing for attention."

Collins says research shows "controlling digital distraction is a wonderful way to increase efficiency and calms the brain, as opposed to being interrupted 19 times while you're trying to complete something that actually matters, which is inherently stressful."

Simple tricks like putting your phone in another room or on airplane mode can help reduce distraction, she says, adding she has had one student who puts her phone in the freezer.

Collins says that when she first started teaching the course, it looked at not just the well-being of lawyers and law students but also how the law can increase happiness in society more generally.

She realized there was a "tremendous hunger" for information on the well-being of law students and lawyers, so she adapted the course to meet those needs.

Collins says there's been an "incredible appetite" for this sort of information, noting that it has been packed every year offered, with long waiting lists, with some wait lists double the capacity of the course.

Collins says teaching the course has been transformative for her as well. "I get emails from students saying how much really change their lives. I've had students tell me that the breathing techniques I teach has really something like meditation has helped them when they are about to go to a big interview."

She adds: "It's incredibly heartening., I actually keep a Word document and cut and paste these emails, because it's a great reminder that these skills can be taught. And law students and lawyers need them."

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