For Stressed Out Law Students: Put Down the Phone. And Breathe. (An interview with

Judith Gordon spends her days counseling lawyers on how to avoid burnout and how to be strong leaders—one of a growing number of attorneys focusing on mental health and wellness in the profession.

And since 2011, she has also taught a professional development course at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law that aims to help students remain engaged and fulfilled in their careers. Which is to say that she had a unique vantage point on the many stresses and anxieties that today’s law students and lawyers deal with. caught up with Gordon this week to discuss mental wellness on law campuses, how students can better manage their anxieties, and whether the way law is taught should evolve. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Do today’s law students seem more or less stressed out than, say, a decade ago? I guess another way to put it is: Is the situation getting better or worse? 

JUDITH: That’s tough because it’s subjective. I’ll say that I’ve seen more instances of severe distress in recent years. But this could also be the result of heightened awareness, coupled with more willingness by students to be open about it and get the help they need even though there is still stigma associated with it.

I think the stressors are greater. I think technology is having a serious impact. Students need to be educated about the healthy use of technology. Technology addiction is real, and it increases anxiety and it has a negative impact on performance and well-being because the brain is always in a distracted state. Students don’t have that opportunity to just disconnect and process in the way the brain is designed to process. We’re not designed to be actively mentally engaged 24/7. The moment students have a break, they pick up their phones. They don’t give their brains the opportunity to decompress.

What are the biggest stress factors that you see among the law students you teach? 

JUDITH: That’s essentially two questions in one. According to research, the factors that contribute to the stress and anxiety are the emphasis on analysis and linear thinking, with a loss of connection with the individual’s personal opinions, values and morals. In law school, we focus on the application of rules to facts. It doesn’t matter what I think about a case. That’s fine. It’s essential for legal analysis. But when we start to apply what we call, “Thinking like a lawyer,” to life, then we run into problems. Analytical thinking is a cognitive skill, not a life skill. When we apply this type of thinking to our relationships, it can actually lead to psychological fallout.

Another factor—and this is more of an evolutionary factor—is that we are now interpreting evaluative situations like exams or being called on in class as acute emergencies and activating a physiological stress response. That stress response is designed to activate in true emergencies: You are being chased by a lion or there is a fire in your building. Those are appropriate experience in which we should activate a stress response. But what we’re doing is activating this physiological stress response—which floods our system with cortisol—when we’re called on in class or when we’re in exams.

Can law students manage that stress response? Getting cold-called isn’t as bad as getting chased by a lion, even if it might feel that way in the moment. 

JUDITH: We’re only really captive to stress when we don’t understand its role and the triggers that activate it. In modern times, we’re able to trigger a stress response simply by thinking about it. If you’re watching a thriller, for example, and you’re holding your breath and you’re riveted, then you’re experiencing all those stress responses that you would actually experience in that situation. But you’re not. You’re sitting safely at home on your sofa.

Once we know that, “Oh, my physiology thinks I’m experiencing a dangerous situation,” breathing actually regulates our stress response. It’s the on/off switch. When our breathing is shallow, it sends a message to the brain to activate a stress response. When we’re breathing more deeply, it keeps oxygen flowing and releases a cascade of calming compounds into the body and tells our brain we’re OK. Breathing is literally like the thermostat of our nervous system. We can turn it on, we can turn it off. If I suddenly realize that I’m holding my breath and feeling stressed, if I start to breathe deeply, slowly and rhythmically I can reverse that response.

So if I’m sitting in Con Law and feeling nervous, if I start to breathe deeply, will that make a difference? 

JUDITH: Yes it will, if you start to breathe through your nose into the lower lobes of the lungs, where most of our oxygen receptors are.

Do we need to rethink how we teach law? Or do we just need to give students better tools to cope with stress? 

JUDITH: Both. I’ll answer the second part first. I think we need to give students better ways to cope with stress, because it’s not just law school: It’s in law firms and life, in general. Anxiety in the general population has gone up. We’re more stressed because things happen at a much faster pace and we have constant communication because of our devices. We’re in a state of information overload. Coping mechanisms are essential.

I do believe we need to bring legal education into the 21st century. We in the legal field are very traditional. We hold on to the way things were. But when legal education was first established in this country, we didn’t have the knowledge we have today about the interaction between our physiology, our psychology, and our performance and how we learn. The way we’re teaching is not how humans are designed to learn. Humans are designed to learn through experience, engagement, fun and storytelling. There are some ways in which law schools get this right.

But the Socratic Method creates a situation where students are overly stressed. I see the impact of that in the 2Ls and 3Ls I teach. They’re much more reticent to speak up in class because they’re afraid of the repercussions. If we’re going to continue that method, we should find a way to do it so it’s not damaging.