Resilient lawyers: Teaching well-being in law school

One thing Madisson Heinze hopes to learn in law school — besides statutes and legal theory — is how to have a satisfying career in the law.


Madisson Heinze

Even before she started her legal education, Heinze knew she had chosen a demanding profession. “You hear a lot of stories of lawyers getting 10 or 15 years into their careers, finding themselves unhappy, and deciding to try something else,” says the second-year UW Law student. “I hope to learn how lawyers are finding balance, rather than burning out on their career path early.”

So last summer, when the Law School offered a workshop for faculty and students on resilience building, Heinze leapt at the chance. The workshop grew out of discussions among some of the Law School’s clinical professors, who felt a duty to help clinic students handle the unique pressures they face. It was led by expert Paula Davis-Laack, an attorney who defines resilience as “the ability to bounce back and grow and thrive during stress, challenge and change.”

According to Professor Sarah Davis, one of the organizers, most UW Law clinics have one thing in common: they serve clients facing loss.

“And pretty significant loss, right? In the Remington Center, our clients face loss of freedom, in the Economic Justice Institute, loss of housing or income, and in my clinic, the Center for Patient Partnerships, even loss of life,” she says. “The same severe circumstances that are hard on our clients are hard on our students, too.”

Heinze knows this first-hand. She found the stresses of law school mounting in her second year, when she joined the Neighborhood Law Clinic. Not only was she practicing law for the first time, but she had clients with tough legal problems, often complicated by poverty.

“Working in a clinic is different than getting behind on your reading for a class,” she says. “You need to bring your ‘A game,’ and you need to get everything done. You can’t push things off. You’re in a real, professional work environment, and there’s so much at stake.”

Heinze says the workshop stressed self-care strategies, like getting exercise and fresh air. She learned, for example, that disengagement is one sure sign of burnout. Better to seek out connection with friends and family than to follow up a stressful day with several hours of television, according to Davis-Laack.

More importantly, though, participants completed strength assessments to help them figure out what makes them uniquely happy in a job, what motivates them and how they function best.

“I found it helpful to learn that I’m very idea-focused. When I’m meeting with clients who have complex needs, to be able to sit down with them and offer an array of options and guide them toward creative solutions, that’s where I really thrive,” says Heinze.

She plans to bring tools introduced in the training into her future practice, whatever form that takes, and she looks forward to more opportunities for building resiliency skills while in law school.

That’s exactly what Davis and her colleagues hoped for when they arranged the workshop, that students — as future lawyers — would learn important strategies for taking care of themselves. After all, she says, resilient lawyers are best equipped to respond to their clients’ needs, and best prepared to guide clients through trying times.

Along with Professor Mitch of the Neighborhood Law Clinic, Davis is planning a series of brown bags on lawyer resiliency for the spring, open to all UW Law students.

“Now that we know that resiliency is a teachable skill, that people can take concrete steps to build their own resilience, we want to make a difference for others in the Law School community,” she says.

“And ultimately, we want to bring about culture change that moves toward a better, healthier legal profession.”

Submitted by Tammy Kempfert on December 9, 2014

This article appears in the categories: Features

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