The Legal Beat
Law Schools Empowering Student Recovery
Posted on Friday February 17, 2017
I thought it would be nice to every now and then, feature a law school taking proactive steps to make sure the student body is empowered to seek help for problematic drinking, drug use and other mental health issues. The first school is the Southern Illinois University School of Law (SIU Law).
I reached out to Dean and Professor of Law, Cynthia Fountaine with some questions. If you would like your school to be profiled, feel free to reach out to me with the proper contact information.
BC: What steps does SIU Law take to empower students who may be struggling with alcohol, substance use and other mental health issues to come forward and get help?
CF: SIU Law has taken many steps to ensure that students feel supported and empowered to get the help they need. As a first line of contact, students are encouraged to speak with whomever they feel most comfortable speaking to—whether that is the Dean of Students, the Associate Dean, a faculty member, or me. My door and the doors of my faculty and staff are always open to students.
We also have a program with the Illinois Lawyers Assistance Program(LAP) in which a LAP representative comes to the law school several times each semester and is available to meet with any student in a private space so that none of the faculty or administration of the law school know. Between visits, we have easily accessible information available about LAP so that students can obtain information without having to tell anyone that they are seeking help if they don’t want to.
Also, several of our students are active with LAP and have formed a student organization to encourage openness and opportunity for anyone to get information or assistance when they need it. This has contributed to creating a culture within the student body in which students can feel supported and in which there are a variety of ways they can reach out for help.
Usually once or twice a semester, we have speakers come to the law school to make presentations to the students about issues related to mental health and alcohol and substance use. During these sessions, we make a point of letting the students know about the LAP services available to them, the counseling services offered by the university, and about our open door policies. We want students struggling with any of these problems to know that we encourage them to do what is comfortable in order to get the help they need or, if necessary, to step out of their comfort zone to move toward recovery.
BC: If a student comes to you and says, “I think I have mental health issue and I am afraid if I seek help — I will have to drop out and will never make it back.” What do you tell her/him?
CF: I would tell him or her that the important thing at that moment is to do what is best for the student’s recovery. Our law school policies provide a period of time during which the student can return to school with no questions asked. Thus, from the law school’s perspective, the student would be free to return. I would also encourage the student to remember the reasons he or she entered law school to begin with and to try to focus on the goals he or she had set. Those goals will become within reach once the student seeks and receives the help he or she needs.
Of course, sometimes students aren’t really sure they want to be in law school and that can exacerbate the stress of being a student. If a student who is experiencing substance use issues isn’t sure if law school is the right path for the student, I would encourage him or her to carefully consider whether he or she really wants to come back before making that decision.
So, the bottom line is that I take a very individualized approach with each individual student, taking into account each student’s unique issues, problems, goals, and dreams. I try to help each of them achieve their goals and dreams by overcoming the particular obstacles they encounter along the way. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this.
BC: What would be the top 3 things you tell either an incoming law student or a more advanced student who is looking to find a more solid recovery support structure in a high stress environment?
CF: I would tell any student that my goal, as a law school dean, is to provide a supportive environment for all students. That includes providing support for their mind, body, and spirit. Even though law school is mainly focused on development of their minds, we can’t ignore the body and spirit or they can’t achieve their full academic potential.
So, the number one thing I would tell a students is that we — the members of the law school administration — are here to offer a supportive environment and help them however we can. Despite the structure inherent in legal education, there are a couple of clear ways we can help. First, we can try to make the student’s legal education path one that is accommodating to their needs. Law school is, of course, a very demanding educational program, and there is only so much flexibility in the actual curriculum and classes. But, we can help students by encouraging them to take a leave of absence if they need to or by encouraging them to become part time students for a time. Second, we can help by referring them to external resources where they can get help, such as LAP, the university counseling center, medical treatment facilities, etc.
The second thing I would tell them is that they need a plan and they need to stick with the plan. We can help them develop the plan, but it has to be the student’s plan and the student needs to take ownership of and responsibility for the plan.
The third thing I would tell them is that since we are a relatively small school in a small town, our law school community is really close knit. The faculty, staff, and administration really care about our students and will watch out for them. We will not only provide the up-front support whenever we can, but we will be a safety net to help catch them when they might be having problems staying on plan. One of the best things about being a small institution is that I can get to know many of our students very well. I think it’s good for someone who needs a solid recovery support structure to be in a place where people know them and care about them — where we can see if something is wrong and can reach out and help. That’s the environment I seek to cultivate at my law school.
BC: There is a perception that there is a drinking culture ingrained in the law school experience. In your anecdotal observations as dean, do you agree with this? And if so, how can we change it and if not, why do you think there is this perception?
CF: This is a really tough issue! Yes, I agree with it. It is very difficult to change it, but I think it takes a concerted effort by the law school, the legal profession, and the students themselves to change it. I think the dean has to set the tone to encourage a culture where drinking isn’t celebrated. I think it is important that alcohol not be stressed at social events sponsored by the law school and, if alcohol is served, as it is at many law school events, that it be secondary to the event itself rather than primary.
I also think that part of the administration’s responsibility is to provide a culture of support so that students can learn to cope with the stresses and other issues they have in law school that sometimes perpetuate the drinking culture. Students not only face the extreme pressures associated with a rigorous educational program, but they don’t check their personal lives at the law school door. Things happen to students while they are in law school—sometimes they suffer tragic loss, terrifying medical problems, and so many other things. These issues are compounded by the intense pressure to perform well in law school, which includes intense pressure to compartmentalize and internalize issues related to their personal lives. So, the more help we can give students in developing strong coping skills and ways to manage stress, the better we can combat the drinking culture that develops as a surrogate way of coping.
I think Illinois LAP has done a fantastic job of trying to tackle this on a state-wide basis by working not just with the law schools’ administrations, but also within the student body to empower the students themselves to develop a culture that de-emphasizes drinking and that emphasizes support and help for those who need it.
BC: One of the observations I have heard from some student’s is the fear of going to professors with issues. How do we deal with the perception that law professors may not care whether a student is struggling with mental health issues? How do we get professors more involved in empowering recovery?
CF: I think this fear stems from a couple of things. One is what you mention: the perception that the professors don’t care. The other is the student’s desire not to “look bad” to the professor and not diminish the professor’s esteem for the student. I think both of these are incorrect for the most part. I think every law school has at least some—and many law schools have many—professors who really care about their students’ well being and would be very supportive of the student who confides in them.
At my school, we have a faculty mentoring program in which each incoming student is assigned to a faculty mentor. While these mentors are mainly aimed at providing academic support throughout law school, the faculty members usually also develop strong connections with students that enable students to discuss these issues with them.
I think it is also important to provide training for faculty about how to identify issues that students might be having and how to help the students seek the help they need.
Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.