Spotlight on Sections: Balance in Legal Education

By Alyssa Greenstein

The Section on Balance in Legal Education seeks to investigate, discover, and inspire those practices that support the well-being of law students, lawyers, and judges. The section encourages research into the conditions that allow students and practitioners to thrive, both personally and professionally, and informs the membership of the Association of American Law Schools about the results of that research. Among other things, section activities explore the importance of health, compassion, integrity, and ethics to the effective study and practice of law. The section promotes continual re-examination of pedagogical practices, program content, and institutional priorities to promote the long-term best interests of law students and the constituencies they will serve.

Chair: Jarrod F. Reich, University of Miami School of Law
Chair-Elect: Rosario Lozada, Florida International University College of Law

 Jarrod F. Reich
Jarrod F. Reich, University of Miami School of Law

 Rosario Lozada
Rosario Lozada, Florida International University College of Law

What made you get involved with the Section on Balance of Legal Education? Why did you decide to join the leadership of the section?

Jarrod F. Reich: I decided to join the section for one of the same reasons that I joined the academy. While I was an adjunct professor, I lost a student. It was devastating for his classmates, for the entire community, and for me. When I went into teaching full-time, I promised myself that I would do everything I could to ensure that students don’t reach that level of despair, that they know they have the resources within and beyond themselves to thrive and get the help that they need, and that they will have a professor who will be a nonjudgmental supporter and advocate. When I started teaching full-time, I became aware of the section and its mission to promote well-being and balance in the law school setting. I was introduced to the section by Larry Krieger, a wonderful colleague of mine at Florida State and one of the founders of the section, as well as then-section chair Julie Sandine, who was my Dean of Students when I was a law student at Vanderbilt. Those personal connections and my connection to the mission really spoke to me, and I’ve been involved with the section since I began teaching. I joined the leadership because I wanted to do as much as I could to give back to the section and AALS, which has given me so much in helping me to develop my teaching, my service, and my scholarship.

Rosario Lozada: I often participate in first-year student orientation and I see the excitement and enthusiasm of incoming law students. Then, a few months after orientation, that passion often fades away. It is replaced by a lack of self-confidence, a fear of failure, angst, and a sense of loss of what students are working towards. Reflecting on this pattern, I realized that our students needed tools to help them manage stress, remember their purpose, and re-gain confidence in their abilities. When I became aware of the work of the Balance section, I realized that its leaders and members were committed to giving students these tools. I got involved.

What is the section’s leadership structure?

JR: The section has four officers—chair, chair-elect, immediate past chair, and secretary—and an executive committee of up to 16 people. Additionally, and this is one of the wonderful things about our section, we have a very active group of past chairs who are ex-officio executive committee members. These past chairs, all luminaries in the area of law student and lawyer well-being teaching and scholarship, attend every one of our board meetings and are involved in committees, which shows the commitment and passion of the section’s members.

How do your members interact throughout the year in addition to the Annual Meeting?

JR: The Executive Committee has monthly or bi-monthly calls where we check in and update all of the work that the committees are doing. We have several committees, including our Annual Meeting Program Committee, as well our Other Programming Committee, which focuses on programming that we do throughout the year. For instance, that committee arranged several topic calls throughout the last two years where we invited speakers from a variety of disciplines to present to our members via Zoom. We also have our Scholarship Committee, which catalogs and promotes the wide range of scholarship that our members do. We have an Outreach Committee, which improves the reach of our section, recruits new members, and periodically publishes a newsletter. We also encourage our members to post any announcement start any discussion on our discussion lists.

This year, we increased our normal activities and section-wide work in two significant ways. First, we developed an ad hoc committee called the Committee on Conscious Living and Lawyering in the Age of Coronavirus. Among other things, this committee is putting together a workshop series intended to help AALS members, faculty, and administrators foster and support their own well-being. People who have attended have said that these sessions have been very influential.

Second, we decided to take a strong stance against systemic racism and police brutality, particularly in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. The section released a statement that was signed by our board, which is available on our AALS page. We also hosted a 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge, which was a program of 21 days of selected readings, podcasts, and videos that deal with things related to systemic racism, privilege, and racial injustice. We had over 160 people sign up from 55 schools, and I understand many of those shared the challenge with their colleagues. At the end of the challenge, we held a check-in session where people had an opportunity to express their reactions to this course.

RL: The two initiatives that Jarrod described—the Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge and the Conscious Living and Lawyering Committee—demonstrate the section membership’s willingness to respond to challenges and opportunities of the times. I appreciated how many people were willing to engage in the work of the challenge and the committee. The willingness to collaborate with and learn from one another is a significant part of the section’s ethos.

JR: I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Rosi was the one who brought the Habit-Building Challenge to the section, and also led our first Conscious Practice workshop on the language of well-being in law school. Additionally, throughout this year, we have seen as a section that there is no bigger need for self-care and well-being for ourselves and for others. This year we saw the need for balance is greater than ever. I’m very proud of the section for stepping up in the ways that we did, given the dystopian hellscape of 2020.

What kind of scholarship work do your members conduct?

JR: The section members have produced a wide-range of scholarship to advance issues related to well-being in a more academic and scholarly way. We have an online bibliography that shows the breadth and depth of our members’ scholarship. Our members produce articles published in law reviews and academic journals. Some of our members have written books. Members also have written articles or other pieces in professional publications, such as bar journals. We also have several members involved in state bar task forces dedicated to well-being, not to mention the groundbreaking 2017 report by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. There are at least five different state bars where our members are involved in either working with their task force or helping to write their task force report. For example, I’m working with the New York State Bar Association’s task force to help with their report. That’s a long way of saying the section produces a lot of groundbreaking scholarship in a lot of different media.

RL: Our section newsletter highlights recent scholarship by our members, including articles on listening and relational lawyering; the role of compassion, courage, and community in legal education; and an article that makes the business case for law firms to promote and prioritize lawyer well-being, which Jarrod recently published.

What is the section planning for the Annual Meeting?

RL: We had an outstanding program planning committee, with Leah Terranova as co-chair. Our program is “The Growth Mindset: A New Vision for Legal Education and Resiliency in the Legal Profession.” It’s grounded in the work of Carol Dweck, who wrote Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The concept is to envision how legal education can incorporate a growth mindset lens. So, if you have a fixed mindset to your learning, you tend to think that your skills and intelligence are static, and that any challenges or setbacks you encounter confirm your fixed abilities. Students with a growth mindset, on the other hand, tend to see their skills and intelligence as evolving. For them, when concepts are particularly difficult and they encounter setbacks, they know they are engaged in serious learning. They want feedback so they can grow and get better. Your mindset going into law school affects your ability to learn, as well as the choices you make. The beauty of it is that you can shift your mindset. We want to bring awareness of mindset theory to legal education and re-envision ways in which we could add the lens of a growth mindset to curricular offerings. Our speakers are going to give us insights on how to do that.

What is the best way for interested faculty to get involved with your section?

JR: Reaching out is one of the easiest ways to get involved, whether it’s sending one of our officers an email or signing up through the AALS discussion lists. We have grown quite substantially over the years, and we hope to continue to grow.

RL: And if you are nervous about nominating yourself, don’t let that nervousness or hesitation stop you. In this section, you will meet creative people who want to collaborate with you and who are interested in your ideas. Get involved. The section will welcome you with open arms.

How do you promote the well-being of students and faculty at your own schools?

RL: At FIU Law, we’ve been trying to incorporate many of the best practices for legal education from the Report of the National Task Force for Lawyer Well-Being. The Office of Student Services, for example, has hosted workshops from counseling and psychological services via Zoom to give law students specific strategies for resilience during this time. We’ve also worked to empower student peer mentors with well-being tools that they can share with their 1L mentees. Through a newsletter from our Dean of Students, students get weekly well-being tools and tips with mini-videos on issues ranging from sleep and exercise to mental health, imposter syndrome, and gratitude. In addition, one of our upper-level course offerings explores dimensions of well-being in the context of ethics and professionalism.

We have also partnered with the FIU College of Medicine to sponsor a “step” challenge and a meditation challenge for medical and law students. And early next spring, we plan to offer a financial well-being workshop, as well as a workshop on nutrition.

The staff at every school has also experienced their own challenges during this time. People are at home working as they look after kids who are Zooming into school and care for older parents who are vulnerable. Many staff members have lost loved ones. The FIU Office of Employee Assistance recently offered our staff a workshop entitled “Help Within Reach.” Through the workshop, staff learned about university support services available remotely. The workshop also normalized some of the feelings of isolation, overwhelm, and grief that staff members are working through. Early in 2021, we are planning a resilience workshop for faculty.

JR: This is my first year at the University of Miami School of Law, and one of the reasons I joined the faculty is its steadfast commitment to law student well-being. For example, we have a Mindfulness in the Law Program, which is a series of courses and extracurricular activities led by Professor Scott Rogers. Additionally, Dean of Students Janet Stearns and her staff do phenomenal work promoting student well-being at UM Law. In early October, we had a whole week of activities for Mental Health Week, and I was able to participate in these roundtable discussions with another professor and a partner at a law firm in Miami, where we had a frank discussion about mental health and the profession.

As far as my personal work to promote student well-being, I can categorize what I do into two buckets. The first is educational. I teach a first year legal writing class. I take a class period to talk to them about mental illness and addiction issues, as well as mental distress and unhappiness in law school and the legal profession. I share some of my own research and research from others in an attempt to normalize it and introduce them to some self-care techniques they can use. My students have told me how meaningful this class is for them because it helps them feel validated and like they are not alone. While I was at Georgetown, I was a faculty facilitator of our Lawyers in Balance program, which was an extracurricular program initially designed by the medical school that provided a series of different self-care techniques to small groups of students for either one or two hours a week.

The second bucket is informal mentoring and advising. I tell my students repeatedly that it is common to feel out of place, to feel like you’re not smart enough, to feel like everyone is smarter than you, to feel like you should not be in law school. I validate those feelings and let them know that every single one of them has felt it or will feel those same things at some point in their first year of law school and that I had those feelings in my first semester of law school. I remind them of their talents throughout the semester and try to instill the growth mindset, including by focusing on their learning process and effort rather than their work product. Additionally, as a general matter, I let them know that I am always available to talk to them and provide advice in any way I can. When I was a student, I would have liked to have had somebody who went through the challenges of law school in my corner. That is what I try to provide for my students.

How has remote and hybrid education affected the ability of law schools to balance the well-being of their students with educational requirements? Has distance learning made it harder to identify and support students’ needs?

RL: Remote education is challenging. Students cannot have the conversations with classmates and professors that might spontaneously occur after or before class and in the hallways. Often, conversations with upper-level students helped normalize temporary feelings of inadequacy that first-year students typically encounter. Everyone in legal education is affected by the isolation. Human beings recalibrate and co-regulate with each other through encounters that seem to be unremarkable, but are actually life-affirming and full of meaning. When we were physically in a building together, our casual interactions throughout the day reaffirmed how connected we are in our humanity and in our sense of mission and purpose. It is hard to get that when you’re sitting in front of a computer all day.

On the positive side, most if not all law schools are having more conversations about student well-being than they’ve had in the past. I think everyone is trying to reach students in different ways. Many administrators have connected with students through town-hall meetings, as well as one-on-one appointments and extended office hours on Zoom. In many classes, professors open their Zoom rooms early, so students can chat and connect before class the way they might if they were all in the physical classroom. Also, many professors linger after class on Zoom to answer any questions or concerns that students may have. From time to time, many faculty members acknowledge their own challenges and setbacks. This vulnerability fosters significant connections and promotes a sense of community with students.

JR: We are fortunate that the President of the University of Miami is an epidemiologist and doctor by training, He has managed a number of pandemics, so the university has developed a very robust plan in place that has allowed for hybrid instruction. Within the law school itself, we have one section of 1Ls that’s completely online and the rest are hybrid. My students have been following the hybrid model, with classes alternating between being held on campus and online. I have heard anecdotally that many students in our online-only section have reported feeling a lot of loneliness, isolation, and disconnection. By contrast, the other first-year students have some of their classes in person, and they are able to get at least some version of that campus experience and (masked) face time with their colleagues and their professors. When we’re on campus, everyone has to wear masks, students have to sit six feet apart, and lectern area is separated from the students by plexiglass. So even though they are on campus, many still feel isolated and disconnected in certain ways.

As a school, we have taken several steps to create a sense of community, increase connectedness, and promote student well-being more generally. The Dean of Students’ office holds many events and provides the students with many resources regarding well-being. Our faculty teaching this semester have thoughtfully designed their courses in ways to maximize student engagement and interaction while online. And a group of faculty has tried to help build camaraderie and help students get to know campus through a team-building exercise. We designed what we call a “treasure hunt,” which is a series of questions about the law school, its history, and specific faculty members that teams of four first-year students will work together to answer. We hope that it is a helpful team-building exercise that gives students the opportunity to form a close-knit group of colleagues.

Additionally, I personally have tried to increase my availability to students over Zoom. I follow an online version of an open door policy making clear to students that my Zoom room is open, even outside office hours, if folks would like to talk or check in as individuals or as a group. Last spring, I held weekly check-ins where I provided all of my then-current and former students a space one hour each week to come together and talk about how they’re feeling, what they’re experiencing, and the like. I think that that was very cathartic for students to have a safe space with their colleagues to talk about what they’re going through. I also think it is helpful to acknowledge that what we are going through is not ideal, but that we are all in this together. I admire my students’ hard work, resilience, and tenacity because it is extremely difficult to do law school, especially the first year, under these conditions. That is important to acknowledge.

How have section members talked about/addressed this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement and widespread protests? How has this impacted student well-being?

JR: I think more people are talking about this, but I don’t think enough people are. Our section members and my colleagues agree that it is very important to acknowledge the systemic racism police brutality, and other injustices that invalidate or otherwise delegitimize or dehumanize groups of people. I have heard specifically from students of color or other marginalized groups how devastated they feel from everything that has happened over the summer. They have also discussed with me the ways they have been made to feel marginalized in law school. One thing that I’ve heard as a common refrain from different underrepresented students is whenever something in class relates to whatever group they belong to, they were looked to as the person to provide the “Black perspective,” the “LGBTQIA+ perspective,” the “Asian perspective,” the “Jewish perspective,” the “female perspective,” etc. I think it is important as an academy to acknowledge and be mindful of that type of other-ism or tokenism. More generally, it’s important for us to be sensitive to and acknowledge the privilege we have, the different levels of privilege (or lack thereof) that our students have, and the impact our words and actions can have—both positive and negative. It is important to have conversations about these issues with our colleagues and with our students, no matter how difficult, with open minds, open hearts, and without judgment. That is one of the reasons why we did the 21-Day Challenge—not just to educate ourselves, but to be better equipped to be able to have these conversations with our colleagues, our students, and communities.

RL: I agree 100%. The impact on students and faculty of color is brutal, of course. And then, unfortunately, many are asked to serve on committees to do the repair work. This should be everybody’s work. That was the spirit in which our section participated in the 21-Day Challenge.