What To Do When Disaster Strikes In Law School
This post was written by our friends at abovethelaw.com
August 2010, I walked into my first day of law school classes and felt a weird, sharp twinge in my upper back. It hurt enough for me to notice, but passed quickly and didn’t impact the rest of my day. What I didn’t know at that time was, the twinge was actually the start of intense chronic back pain that would go undiagnosed for almost a year and a half.
The pain gradually grew over the next month until it reached the point that any movement at all moved me to tears. I went to several doctors, who couldn’t find anything wrong and performed countless “inconclusive” medical tests. All the while, I was struggling to survive my 1L year. It hurt to sit, stand, lay down, laugh, and sometimes even breath. To say I was not on top of my law school game is an understatement.
Right before Thanksgiving of my 2L year — not a minute too soon as I was truly at the end of my rope — my doctor called to say he found a lump on my spinal cord. Initially, I was elated. Finally, I knew the pain wasn’t a psychosomatic symptom created by my fear of failing out of law school, and there was something physical causing my pain. Then the words “mass on your spinal cord” set in, and I realized mass equals tumor and tumor could equal cancer.
It took them nearly six weeks (all while I was preparing for final exams) to determine and communicate that the tumor was benign. Again, I was momentarily relieved, but they followed up with “you have to have surgery or the tumor will keep growing and paralyze you.” I mean, what can possibly go wrong while removing a tumor from a spinal cord, right? Thanks to my amazing doctors, all of the procedures went smoothly. They were able to successfully remove the entire tumor, and I was able to return to my “normal” life in law school by the spring of my 2L year.
While I survived this experience, it was not easy, and later on I learned it didn’t need to be nearly as difficult as I made it for myself. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of helping many students navigate difficult life situations, from medical issues to ailing parents and homelessness.
Here is some advice based on what I learned from my own experience and the experiences of my students.
1- Ask for help
Most law students believe that they can do it all on their own, no matter what. I must confess this was my belief, as well. As a result, I suffered silently, and more than was necessary. I only told my two closest friends the extent of what I was going through. I never told anyone in the administration, and I only told my professors when I needed to miss a class for a doctor’s appointment.
Not asking for help was my biggest mistake. I later learned that there were several accommodations that could have made my situation more manageable. I could have received notes from a school-appointed note taker for the days I had to miss class. I also could have received testing accommodations, because it was very painful for me to sit upright in a hard chair for several hours at a time.
I have been blessed to attend and work at schools that are very student-focused. This means that if a student is having any issue, they can go to almost any faculty member or administrator to get the help they need. I know this isn’t the case at all law schools. If you have a problem and are not sure who contact, here are some suggestions:
Student Services: when a personal issue comes up, your first stop should be student services (or the equivalent at your school). This office is tasked with making sure that you are okay at all times. Let them know what you are going through, and they can help you devise a plan.
Academic Success: when you don’t know where to go, I always suggest academic success! Helping you succeed academically also involves advising you on how to handle non-academic situations when they arise. Academic success can help you prioritize your work during a difficult time.
Registrar: if you are feeling overwhelmed and think you want to drop a class, check with the registrar’s office. They can give you the policy and direct you to the appropriate person in charge of making the decision.
A mental health professional: I go into this in more detail below, but if your school has therapists available on campus or through a hotline, they can be an excellent resource, as well.
2- Reduce your course load
I seriously regret not reducing my course load in the fall of my 2L year. This is when my pain, anxiety, and depression were at their worst. I also took 17 credits (a course overload) that semester. Due to my packed schedule and level of pain, my grades suffered. There was a noticeable drop in my GPA from first year, and it is something I had to explain on future job applications over and over again.
It never even crossed my mind that dropping a class was an option. This is probably directly related to tip one, not asking for help! If I had sought out my student services department’s advice, they could have explained my options. Sometimes, when I advise students to drop a class, they give a lot of push back, because it doesn’t fit with their long-term course plan. If you find yourself having to make this difficult situation, I urge you to prioritize what is best for your physical and mental health today and to have faith that the rest of it will work itself out over time.
3- Pay attention to your mental health
Major, life-changing events can truly affect your mental well-being. I, for one, was a “hot mess” dealing with my back pain. I have vivid memories of coming home after class every day, dropping my school bag by the door, crawling into bed with a pint of ice cream, and watching law and order SVU marathons (thanks, USA) for hours. I didn’t do this because I was lazy or trying to avoid my work. I did this because I was absolutely terrified. Zoning out was the only thing that kept me from completely falling apart.
In retrospect, seeing a therapist may have been a more productive option. In my case, it would not have been difficult, as we had in-house counselors at the school. However, even if you don’t have the same option, your school may have a contract with outside therapists who you can see for free or at a reduced cost. I know that seeing a therapist would have helped me process my anxiety and depression over what was happening to me in a healthier way. Ultimately, that would have allowed me to spend more time focusing on school.
I truly hope you do not face any disasters during law school! However, you will be in law school for multiple years, and a lot of life will happen while you’re there. If something does come up, learn from my mistakes and take the steps necessary to minimize the impact on your academic performance and legal education.
August 30, 2017