Jane Mitchell


Law students struggle with disproportionately high rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, and disconnection. This paper offers a novel explanation for these negative outcomes that thus far has been absent from conversations on the subject: Law schools fuel students’ sense of threat. According to psychology’s well-established cognitive appraisal model, students “appraise” stressful situations as either challenging or threatening. Educational environments appraised as threatening consistently lead to negative outcomes—lower student performance, decreased student engagement, and increased anxiety. Situations appraised as challenging lead to positive outcomes—improved academic performance, increased participation, and better overall health.

Law schools facilitate students’ threat response rather than a challenge response in four main ways: through the “culture of competition and conformity” characteristic of traditional law schools; by an overemphasis on reputation and self-image; by the nature of a curriculum that trains students to spot threats in everyday situations; and through law school’s traditional pedagogy. To address these issues, I propose a series of practical, empirically supported strategies for reducing threat response and promoting challenge responses instead. Five recommendations are offered: embracing a constructivist approach to teaching; encouraging mindfulness; providing greater curricular balance; training students in emotional intelligence; and building a culture of service, friendship, and connection.