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Promoting Law Student Well-being Through a First Year Law Subject. Rachael Field: Senior Lecturer and ALTC Fellow 2010 (QUT) James Duffy: Lecturer (QUT). Introduction – An uncomfortable Pop-Quiz. Do you think law student psychological distress is a serious issue?

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promoting law student well being through a first year law subject

Promoting Law Student Well-being Through a First Year Law Subject

Rachael Field: Senior Lecturer and ALTC Fellow 2010 (QUT)

James Duffy: Lecturer (QUT)

introduction an uncomfortable pop quiz
Introduction – An uncomfortable Pop-Quiz
  • Do you think law student psychological distress is a serious issue?
  • Do you believe that the current curriculum and teaching practices in your own law school are contributing to the decline in law student psychological well-being?
  • Does this make you uncomfortable / ill / sick in the stomach?
the increasing sophistication of law student well being literature in australia
The increasing sophistication of law student well-being literature in Australia
  • We are discovering what the Americans knew 20-30 years ago.
  • Australian literature has progressed from anecdotal reporting of the problem towards cross-sectional and longitudinal empirical studies.
cross sectional empirical studies
Cross sectional empirical studies
  • First, the incidence of psychological distress in law students is uncomfortably high.
  • Second, we cannot identify with precision the exact factors that are causing this psychological distress.
  • Third, cross sectional studies (by themselves) cannot tell us whether it is law school that is creating these levels of psychological distress, or whether prospective law students already possess these attributes.
  • Fourth, if law school is somehow causing or contributing to this psychological distress, cross sectional studies (by themselves) cannot tell us when in the law degree psychological distress is most likely to occur.
longitudinal empirical studies
Longitudinal empirical studies
  • There are no significant psychological differences between law students and the general population before they begin law school.
  • Symptoms of psychological distress appear soon after law school begins with negative affect and depression being more prevalent at the end of first year, compared to the beginning of the year.
  • Worryingly, the more advanced US empirical research suggests that symptomology of psychological distress in law students does not significantly decrease throughout the law degree or into the first few years of legal practice.
we cannot hide from this
We cannot hide from this!
  • We must be open to the idea that as law academics, we may or may not be individually contributing to the problem. Regardless of that, we must be prepared to acknowledge that we are collective members of a greater law school community that is most certainly contributing to the problem.
lwb150 at qut
LWB150 at QUT
  • LWB150 Lawyering and Dispute Resolution represents an explicit attempt to use the curriculum to promote law student psychological well-being.
  • The subject was co-written by Rachael Field and James Duffy and was run for the first time in semester 2 2011.
field s altc fellowship
Field’s ALTC Fellowship

Aims to

  • stimulate advancement in the legal curriculum, its pedagogy, and assessment practice to better engage, motivate and support student learning of law, focussing on the potential of non-adversarial legal practice,
  • Might even hope to suggest a possible new conceptual framework for legal education?
altc fellowship
ALTC Fellowship
  • The Fellowship’s program of activities include approaches that try to:
  • 1. Raise awareness in the legal academy of the importance of law student psychological health.
  • 2. Persuade the legal academy to accept the need for strategic change in legal education, and the efficacy of the proposed approaches for achieving that change.
  • 3. Model good curriculum and assessment practice that engages, motivates and supports students.
lwb150 lawyering and dispute resolution
LWB150 – Lawyering and Dispute Resolution
  • Positive professional identity
  • Alternative dispute resolution
  • Theories (and practice) of non-adversarial justice
lwb150 lawyering and dispute resolution1
LWB150 – Lawyering and Dispute Resolution
  • The content of the subject is delivered over 13 weeks. It is broken down into the following weekly components:
  • Week 1: Introduction to the Subject, The Diversity of Legal Practice, A Positive Professional Identity for Lawyers
  • Week 2: What Lawyers Need to Know and What Lawyers Need to be Able to Do
  • Week 3: Lawyers as Reflective Practitioners
  • Week 4 Lawyers as Managers and Resolvers of Disputes
  • Week 5: Lawyers as Advocates (Adversarial and Non- Adversarial)
lwb150 lawyering and dispute resolution2
LWB150 – Lawyering and Dispute Resolution
  • Week 6: Skills Practical Workshop - Communication Skills
  • Week 7: Lawyers as Critical Thinkers
  • Week 8: The Psychology of Legal Practice
  • Week 9: Resilience for Law Students and the Legal Profession
  • Week 10: Introduction to Positive Lawyering – Part 1: Alternative Dispute Resolution
  • Week 11: Introduction to Positive Lawyering – Part 2: Innovative Legal Practices
  • Week 12: Skills Practical Workshop – Dispute Resolution Role- plays
  • Week 13: Exam preparation.
how can a subject actually promote the psychological well being of law students
How can a subject actually promote the psychological well-being of law students?
  • Do less of what we think might be causing law student psychological distress.
  • Do more of what we think might promote law student well-being.
  • In LWB150, we draw upon the positive psychology scholarship of ‘hope’ to engage, motivate and support our students.
a framework of hope
A Framework of Hope
  • Law students need hope because research on hope has shown that it ‘predicts academic performance and psychological well-being among undergraduate students.’ (Martin and Rand, 2010)

Hope can be understood in terms of three key elements:

    • Goals
    • Pathways thinking
    • Agentic thinking

If the goal for our law school graduates is to have them become, happy, healthy and competent professionals (in law or otherwise)


  • Helping our students develop an emergent sense of professional identity and focussing on non-adversarial lawyering practices are important generators of pathways thinking and agentic thinking.
  • Law student psychological distress – if we are causing it, we must make efforts to fix it
  • We can dodge the issue, or downplay it, but that would make us wimps...a significant of students are suffering.
  • Addressing the issue through curriculum is one meaningful way in which legal academics can contribute to the solution.
psychological health of law students
Psychological Health of Law Students
  • Academics have long known and acknowledged that law school is a psychologically distressing place for students – particularly in the US (Watson, 1968; Beck & Burns, 1979, Benjamin et al, 1986, Daikoff, 1994).
  • The stressful nature of law school is evidenced by the high attrition rate for law which has hovered annually around 20% for some time.
  • In 2009, the Brain and Mind Research Institute of the University of Sydney (BMRI, 2009) empirically established that Australian law students suffer disproportionately high levels of psychological distress.
  • According to the BMRI, the results for law students indicated ‘a much higher level than expected of reported psychological distress and risk of depression on all measures used’ (2009, p. 37).
psychological health of law students1
Psychological Health of Law Students
  • Some of the current work in Australia includes:
  • The Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation – Marie Jepson
  • ANU – Kath Hall, Molly O’Brien and Stephen Tang
  • Newcastle – Colin James
  • Macquarie University – Penelope Watson
  • Wollongong University – Judith Marychurch
  • UWA – Jill Howieson
  • UNSW – Prue Vines et al.
  • Wendy Laucombe – Melbourne University
the problems begin in the first year of legal education
The Problems Begin in the First Year of Legal Education
  • The literature suggests that psychological distress is experienced as a direct result of the way the law and legal culture are taught (Britton, 2009; Stuckey et al., 2007).
  • In a study in 1986, Benjamin et al. found that symptoms of psychological distress rose significantly for students in their first year of law (compared to levels in the general population at that time), and persisted throughout the degree to post-graduation.
  • Iijima (1998) also asserts that the problems ‘begin during the first semester of law school’.
  • This has been affirmed in Australia by the work at ANU.
co curricula approaches are important to promoting the psychological health of law students
Co-Curricula Approaches areImportant to Promoting the Psychological Health of Law Students
  • For example:
  • Teaching students in first year to be resilient at law school is important. That is, teaching students to cope with “what may be harmful” about the way we teach law, and the content of law. For example, mindfulness and reflective practice skills are important.
  • Co-curricular programs for counselling and equity are also significant – for example ALSA released in 2009 a Handbook on Depression in Australian Law Schools.
  • Peer-mentoring schemes have had success in promoting student well-being.
curriculum is also critical to promoting the psychological health of law students
Curriculum is alsoCritical to Promoting the Psychological Health of Law Students
  • A focussed notion of curriculum – what we teach, how we teach it, and how we assess it (cf for example Kift’s expanded notion of curriculum).
  • Hess notes that legal academics have not capitalised on the opportunities presented by the legal curriculum to address psychological distress.
  • Consider the current core unit requirements for admission to practice. 11 areas of substantive knowledge – no skills.
  • Compare with the recent ALTC LTAS Threshold Learning Outcomes for Law – skills focussed.
an imperative for action
An Imperative for Action
  • The BMRI note that ‘mental illness and psychological distress are often portrayed in the popular media as issues relating to individuals’ (2009).
  • However, the psychological health of law students is in fact ‘a problem for communities’ (2009).
  • Action on this issue is the responsibility of the Australian legal academic community.
  • In fact, we might consider it an ethical responsibility of legal educators to work to ameliorate the distress.
  • We might also consider it to be an issue related to our duty of care to the students, or to the fact that we might be considered in a fiduciary relationship with them.
  • Kath Hall (2009) notes that the legal academy must overcome its cognitive dissonance, as well its rationalisation tendencies, on this issue.
douglas phd on legal education
Douglas’ PhD on Legal Education
  • Involved an analysis of the narratives of law teachers as to the content and pedagogies employed in teaching courses on alternative dispute resolution (ADR).
  • Through the discipline area of ADR non-adversarial practice can be promoted and skills can be developed that promote the psychological health of law students.
adr research
ADR Research
  • Fisher et al (2007) study establishes that ADR taught in first year can shift the orientation of law students to collaborative problem solving.
  • Teachers of ADR promote non-adversarial practice through teaching students to value collaborative problem solving as a first step in dealing with disputes (Douglas 2011). Howieson (2011) shows positive mental health in students who participate in experiential learning in ADR.
adr in legal education
ADR in Legal Education
  • Thus ADR can shape professional identity (Macfarlane 2008) and experiential learning can assist students mental well being (Howieson 2011).
  • But there needs to be a recognition of the positive ways that ADR can contribute to students and teachers need to engage with curriculum to build upon these benefits to students.
curriculum content delivery and assessment strategies
Curriculum Content, Delivery and Assessment Strategies
  • Curriculum content strategy – a focus on ADR knowledge and skills, and the development of a positive professional identity from the first year.
  • Curriculum delivery strategy – active learning, engaging delivery and blended approaches, a conversational framework.
  • Assessment strategy – intentional assessment design.