Leading in the Present

Guest Post Bridget M. Fuselier
Professor of Law, Baylor University School of Law

Leading by example.  We often use that phrase, but what does it mean?  In my experience, we most often think if we model practices and traits we want to see in our students or young lawyers we mentor, then we can lead them to adopt those behaviors.  When it comes to professionalism, civility, ethics, and hard work, most of us do a good job of leading by example.  But what about when it comes to mental health? 

In February 2016, The Journal of Addiction Medicine published a study conducted by Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.  The study reported that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualified as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggled with some level of depression, and 19 percent demonstrated symptoms of anxiety. The study found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibited the highest incidence of these problems.  

In a 2018 Legal Trends Report prepared by Clio, 75% of lawyers reported frequently or always working outside of regular business hours, and that 39% of lawyers say these long hours negatively affected their personal lives.  Additionally, according to the Dave Nee Foundation, new law school students exhibit rates of depression around 8-9%—but after three years in law school, 40% of students are depressed. 

During the past 18 months plus, we have all had a lot of time with our thoughts, both positive and negative.  The isolation, anxiety, confusion, and fear has left us all mentally exhausted.  It has also helped us to refocus on our own physical and mental health and the importance of self-care.  As we have been gradually going back to “normal,” are we leading by example?  Taking time for our mental health is just as important as our physical health.  And our mental health does actually impact physical health. According to one article, “mental health plays a huge role in your general well-being. Being in a good mental state can keep you healthy and help prevent serious health conditions. A study found that positive psychological well-being can reduce the risks of heart attacks and strokes.  On the other hand, poor mental health can lead to poor physical health or harmful behaviors.”  Depression has been linked to diabetes, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis. Mental health conditions also contribute to sleep disorders like insomnia. 

As leaders, we have to model good habits of self-care and prioritizing mental health.  If we are open to talking about mental health, it will open up a dialogue for those who look to us as examples.  I have found that when I open up about my own challenges, others feel more comfortable about taking care of themselves and seeking the care they need.  However, if you are not comfortable sharing your own experiences, there are still ways to meaningfully connect and engage.  Here are some examples that I have used and received positive feedback from students:

  1. Sharing relevant articles regarding mental health can provide information to students and open the door for conversation.  The ABA often has great articles like the one found at this link, https://www.lawpracticetoday.org/article/managing-depression/, that can be used as a resource.   
  1. On Mondays, start class with a “Motivation Monday” power point slide.  I find a funny meme or inspirational quote to get the week started.  It is a fun way to not only show a human side but to maybe brighten someone’s day that isn’t going so well.
  1. At final exam time, share prayers, scriptures, inspirational quotes, or words of encouragement to let students know they are not alone, and we understand the stress. 
  1. Communicate with students that you are a safe person to turn to if they need to talk about mental health challenges and get help finding resources.

If we want to be good leaders today, and cultivate good leaders for tomorrow, let’s prioritize mental health and end the stigma. 

– Bridget Fuselier


Handling emotional triggers: preparing our students for the practice of law?

By Liz Fraley

In one of my earliest days teaching, I was in the courtroom grading students as they gave their first-ever opening statement.  Nerves are common in this setting, and so we give feedback on both the structural and performance aspects of the exercise.  The last pair of students took their spots at counsel table, and I instructed the plaintiff’s attorney to proceed with her opening statement.  She stood in the center of the courtroom, spoke three words, and completely broke down.  These were not leaky tears; these were body-wracking sobs.  I confess to being caught unprepared for this.  I could not imagine what about this exercise had her emotionally distraught.  I did know, however, that I could not let her stop; I believed that would irreparably damage her confidence that she could complete the exercise.  I told her to get a drink of water (always a good move) and to continue.  She would get a few lines out and then cry again.  I kept prompting her with statements like “and then what happened” until she completed the exercise. 

After all the other students left the courtroom, she asked to talk to me about what had happened.  I readily agreed since I was mystified. She shared that when she was a first year student, she had attempted suicide.  Thankfully, she had gotten help and was much better.  However, the case packet used for opening statement by the students prior to her exercise involved an insurance dispute over death benefits: had the decedent died accidentally or by suicide? Hearing the previous students give opening statements in a case discussing suicide triggered the emotional response in this student.  I had not dealt with a “trigger” event like this before.  She assured me that having her continue and using calm, measured tones had been the right response for her.  She successfully completed my class and the bar, and happily seems to enjoy a good career.

Triggers present a lawyer-leader challenge, both in law school and in practice.  As fiduciaries, our own personal triggers cannot prevent our putting a client’s interests ahead of our own issues.  We cannot realistically expect a law firm to change its business to adapt to our triggers.  In other words, we cannot be fragile in this profession.  We have a job to do, and we must do it to the best of our abilities.  This certainly puts the onus on us as professionals either to seek the mental health help we need to manage our triggers or to be intentional about the type of practice setting we seek.  A lawyer like my young student probably does not need to work in a field where she would be likely to encounter suicide issues as part of her work.

In the law school setting, training lawyer leaders may require us to provide support and guidance to student who have unresolved trauma.  We do not serve students well by suggesting the world will adapt to their triggers, but we can help them understand both their professional obligations and how their own experiences can actually make them a more empathetic and wiser counselor.  In many settings, client have significant emotional responses to their legal issues:  sadness, anger, despair over the events and their lack of control over difficult and upsetting situations.  Transforming negatives into a positive enhancement for emotional intelligence makes a better lawyer. This type of work in law school also reinforces the internal locus of control skills that are needed for good leaders. 


Identify a situation like mine when a student reacted in an unexpected manner to the discussion.

If you did not engage the student to discuss the situation, consider what possible reasons might have existed.

How might you handle similar situations in the future?

I would also love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Do you agree or disagree with my take on triggers?