COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | KATHRYN FEHRMAN

Strength, weakness and battle strategy

There is a new study out from Yale Law School that reports widespread mental health issues among Yale’s law students. More than 30 percent reported depression and other mental health issues, but the author suspects that well over 70 percent actually suffer from mental health problems.

My own experience — as 31 years a member of the bar, litigator, deal maker, Naval officer, professor and the daughter of a judge — makes it clear that this is not a Yale-only concern.

Attorney and writer Joe Patrice writes about the Yale study:

"Despite the widespread incidence of mental health issues, the report reveals that, unsurprisingly, no one seeks help, fearing the stigma attached to admitting they need help (and the problem is worse for men than women, straight people than LGBT people, students of color than whites, and poor students than rich students).

“Seeking help is thought to be admitting a weakness, or demonstrating unworthiness to the professors who can guide your future career. ... Nothing can dissuade someone from getting help more than the fear that they’ll never get a job if they speak up."

The study is stunning and important. We simply ought to recognize this aspect of our humanity.

Not only law students across the board, but lawyers (and maybe law professors as well), business and financial people, and other professionals in our society don't seek help or admit they are struggling because they think it is a sign of weakness.

We are subject to attack if our Achilles’ heel shows. Few of us have lived without having experienced at least one of those attacks, so we learned.

Everyone faces battles at various points in life — even the strongest and most centered of us. But the professional and merchant levels of our society do not admit fallibility or weakness.

Lawyers are in a profession where being wrong or weak at some time is inevitable, but absolutely unacceptable. But don’t start bemoaning “the poor lawyers,” all right? This is nothing unique or new. Societies have always required certain members to take that path.

The hip thing lawyers did back in the 1970s and ’80s was to study “The Art of War,” a treatise attributed to Sun Tzu from around 500 B.C. Lawyers in the ’70s and ’80s piled on the bandwagon and used it to learn fighting tactics.

We, as a young society, continue to debate what sort of society we wish to be. In the meantime, perhaps rather than focusing on the illness, we ought to focus again on teaching battle strategy to those who must battle for a living. Give them strengths to draw on while they address their weaknesses. Teach our warriors many ways to fight for us.

After all, we are much like knights, Spartans and samurai. The best of us are Yoda.


Fehrman is a professor of legal skills at California Western School of Law. This article is the author’s own opinion, and does not represent the opinion of California Western School of Law.

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