Most books about “doing well” in law school focus on study tips and how to take exams. The Law Student’s Guide to Doing Well and Being Well (Carolina Academic Press, 2021) is a breath of fresh air in this genre. The author, Shailini Jandial George, is a Professor of Legal Writing at Suffolk University Law School with 17 years of teaching experience. Professor George is also the co-author of Mindful Lawyering: The Key to Creative Problem Solving and law review articles on distraction and the cognitive science of learning and why law students need mindfulness training.
George’s title cleverly reveals her approach: rooted in brain science, the book focuses on healthy and productive habits for your brain and body while explicitly drawing the connection between well-being and doing well in law school. This dual focus on “doing well” by maximizing the brain’s potential and “being well” in the process aims to help students increase their overall wellness during their law school years and beyond. Cultivating lifelong habits will ultimately allow current students to be better prepared for thriving in practice; these habits impact their professional formation in a way that lasts long after law school ends.
Written for law students, Doing Well and Being Wellopens with a chapter on the well-being crisis in the legal profession. George takes this heavy subject and strikes a tone and level of detail appropriate for law students. To students who think, “well, that won’t be me,” George points out that, “while the vast majority of lawyers and law students do not have a mental health or substance use disorder, that does not mean they are thriving. ” In this way, she engages even more skeptical (or optimistic?) readers in recognizing that some of the foundations of our profession — “thinking like a lawyer” and the adversarial system, for example — are inherently negative, pessimistic, and depersonalizing. After acknowledging these challenges, George outlines a holistic approach to wellness framed by the six dimensions of well-being identified in the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being Report (and the ABA Well-Being Pledge, which I would have liked to see explicitly mentioned): emotional, intellectual, occupational, physical, spiritual, and social.
These six dimensions (and the related, but distinct, six cornerstones of cognitive wellness she lays out) overlap with each other. George repeats this critical point and draws attention to the intersections throughout the book. Although the book is not strictly structured after either set of well-being dimensions, it covers a lot of ground. She tackles cognitive wellness, or “brain health” first, with a discussion of cultivating focus, followed by chapters on managing stress, cultivating resilience, exercise, sleep, and nutrition. Each topic discussed emphasizes that each of the dimensions depends on and reinforces the others. To truly thrive, we must have positive well-being in all dimensions. Here are a few highlights:
Cultivating Focus in the 24/7 Digital Age
As George acknowledges, when she and I went to law school, we walked uphill in the snow for miles — seriously, though, we had far fewer distractions. The connectedness of the modern world is both exhilarating and extremely distracting with many competing demands on the increasingly scarce resource of human attention. Because your attention “is the commodity for which clients are paying,” part of learning to be a lawyer is learning to cultivate focus and concentration. George incorporates current research on “deep work” by Cal Newport and multitasking as well as new challenges arising in the pandemic like Zoom fatigue, remote working, and virtual learning.
As someone who spent 14 years in law schools as a faculty member and administrator, I was deeply saddened but not shocked by research George cited that “law students’ mental health is similar to that of other graduate students upon entering school, but law-school induced stress seems to lead them to higher rates of depression and overall demoralization.” While George does n’t shy away from this and other wellness statistics of our profession — she includes essential information about substance use and alcohol — her real focus is offering proactive ideas to help overcome those statistics on an individual level. She adds to the discussion of well-known recommendations like exercise and meditation by normalizing imposter syndrome and providing strategies to mitigate it. The simplicity of some of the other stress reduction techniques suggested, like music, laughter, gratitude, does not diminish their effectiveness. In fact, they remind us that we have many low-cost to no-cost tools readily available at a moment’s notice. We just need to make use of them.
George effectively presents resilience as a set of skills one can grow rather than a disposition. She identifies concrete ways to build personal resilience, including making social connections, finding purpose, raising self-awareness, expanding self-compassion, and fostering a growth mindset. Even if students have been exposed to some of these concepts before, they serve as important reminders in the law school context.
At first, I was surprised by the absence of reference to the resilience needed for law school job searches. George, however, did not spend much time discussing other law school stressors like grades or exams in detail either, likely because they are known issues. Those seeking a deeper treatment about specific triggers, trauma, or linking of diversity, equity, and inclusion topics to well-being will need to explore other sources.
I wish I had known someone like Professor George in law school. Reading her book by her is a bit like listening to a mentor — one who really gets it. She is encouraging but firm, smart yet humble, and above all she is human (she likes donuts too!). I hope students take her up on the invitation to make connections and get to know faculty outside of the classroom. The conversational tone makes the book accessible and easy to read, even when describing brain science.
This book could be used in orientation programs, professional development and professional identity formation classes, academic support, wellness programming, or other preparing for practice courses. NALP member and vice-chair of the NALP Well-being Circles, Kendra Brodin of EsquireWell, uses this book in the well-being course she co-teaches with Jerry Organ, Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Brodin shared, “We chose The Law Student’s Guide to Doing Well and Being Well as one of the materials for our course because it was both accessible and comprehensive. The conversational writing style made the material engaging, and we hope that students will continue to use this book throughout their law school careers and beyond.”
To make the lessons stick, George encourages readers to take time to reflect and consciously begin implementing healthy habits into their lives. One of my favorite features of the book is how each chapter ends with a self-reflection. Several chapters have other exercises embedded in them as well. The book includes a helpful appendix with tools including a mindful studying process, additional meditations, productivity logs, and a weekly wellness tracker. Though the intended audience is law students, I walked away with a few new habits to create the conditions for my brain to perform at its best.
Originally published by NALP Bulletin July-August 2022 Melissa Berry book review
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