The Education Issue

Educating Students for the Law— and for Life

By Ginny Graves
digital illustration of woman sitting at a desk and then climbing to a higher position
Fordham Law is not only preparing students to be the best lawyers possible. The big, bold goal is to give them the tools to flourish so that they succeed in their career—and are happier, healthier, and more fulfilled overall. Here’s how.
It’s no surprise that law school can be stressful, and not just during exams. “New law school students are bombarded with information, which creates confusion and can feel overwhelming,” says Linda Sugin, professor of law at Fordham Law. “Plus, the course load is challenging—no wonder they feel anxious, fearful, and disappointed. That’s why law schools need to do more to guide students to personally meaningful careers, help them develop strong connections, and equip them with the skills to thrive as lawyers in a fast-paced and demanding world.”

With these goals in mind, Professor Sugin spearheaded the creation of Fordham’s Office of Professionalism in 2017, shortly after becoming associate dean, putting the Law School at the forefront of a movement to expand the scope of professionalism education. Her goal: to fill in the gaps in traditional legal education and train students in historically neglected but essential capabilities. The Professionalism Office’s flagship programs focus on peer mentorship, student leadership, and community building.

A New Kind of Law School Culture

As soon as they arrive, incoming students begin to develop their professional identity by focusing on who they are, what they value, and the strengths they bring to law school. In addition to the rigorous roster of 1L classes, they are also schooled in self-care and stress management, with offerings that encourage a culture of well-being from day one. “Law school curriculum is focused on helping students think like a lawyer, but there’s this whole category of soft skills that are just as important,” says Sugin.
I realized that if we were going to send our students out into this demanding work world, we needed to help them develop more tools to deal with it.
Professor Linda Sugin
The school’s new professionalism curriculum—a series of programs, seminars, workshops, and for-credit classes that start during orientation and continue throughout law school—is designed to ensure that students leave Fordham Law with a solid grasp of two complementary categories of skills. The first comprises the interpersonal qualities that lawyers need to form meaningful and trusting connections with clients, judges, and colleagues, including integrity, how to keep confidentiality, and how to communicate effectively.

The second category includes a range of self-reflection and self-care tools, including how to foster a growth mindset and develop empathy; effective communication; cultural competency; self-awareness; giving and receiving feedback; and maintaining self-care. Sugin considers these skills to be the backbone of the program because they are critical for success and satisfaction in law school and as a working lawyer. “I’d always felt personally connected to many of my students, but I’d never really investigated what was in their hearts,” says Sugin. “Many were suffering from stress, anxiety, fear, disappointment, and anger. I realized that if we were going to send our students out into this demanding work world, we needed to help them develop more tools to deal with it.”

Stress Comes with the Territory

It’s not that Fordham Law School is uniquely stressful—far from it. Since the 1960s, research has shown that law students are in crisis. Many suffer from anxiety so severe it can impair their ability to study; many develop physical and emotional issues or withdraw socially. “The plight of law students is long-standing and well known,” says Jordana Confino, adjunct professor of law and senior director of professionalism, who was hired in 2019 to oversee the operations of Fordham Law’s new Professionalism Office. “But for decades, no one saw it as a problem.”

Until 2016. That year, a paper in the Journal of Legal Education, “Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns,” captured the legal community’s attention. Based on an in-depth survey of 3,300 students at 15 law schools around the country, the first-of-its-kind report revealed widespread binge drinking, drug use, and mental health challenges among law students. These problems are rampant among college and postgraduate students in general, but law students stand out. The survey found, for instance, that binge drinking and the use of marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy were more prevalent among law students than among graduate students in other fields.

students in the library
Just as concerning, while 42 percent of respondents said they could have used help for emotional problems in the prior year, only about half of them had gotten counseling. Those who didn’t said they worried about the stigma, the cost—both the money and the time—and the potential risk that seeing a mental health professional would pose a threat to their academic status, future career, or bar admission (the latter concern was more prevalent among 3Ls than 1Ls).

In 2017, the same year Sugin became associate dean, the American Bar Association published “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” a call to all members of the legal community—including law school leaders—to turn their attention to emotional health. As Confino sees it, law schools must do a better job of supporting their students. “The authors pointed out that stress and mental health issues extend beyond humanitarian concerns,” she says. “It’s impossible to do your best work if you’re burnt-out or suffering from unaddressed mental health challenges. This means lawyers and law students have a professional, as well as a personal, responsibility to take care of themselves.”

Fostering Connections and Leadership

The first major project implemented through the Office of Professionalism was the Peer Mentorship Program, launched in fall 2018.“One of the most important things I learned in sessions with students is that the beginning of the second year is a uniquely difficult time,” says Sugin. “Students have received their first-year grades, and many are disappointed. Some didn’t make Law Review. They’re choosing their own courses for the first time. It’s a moment of tremendous vulnerability.” To support those students, Fordham Law created the Peer Mentorship Program, where 3Ls and 4Ls mentor 2Ls. “The older students can provide perspective since they’ve made it through, but still identify with all those tough feelings,” says Sugin. “That can be extraordinarily helpful for students who are feeling isolated and worried.”
Kimya Zahedi headshot
I’ve seen how essential peer support is. Students have opened up to me in ways I didn’t expect and I feel privileged to be part of the experience.
Kimya Zahedi ’22
Professionalism Fellow
It’s a learning opportunity for mentors too. Noah Brecker-Redd ’21, who graduated in May, says that being a peer mentor helped him learn the value of opening up. “When you’re vulnerable yourself, it builds trust, so it allows you to develop a deeper relationship with your mentee.”

Mentors are required to take a for-credit seminar, Peer Mentoring & Leadership, which gives them the tools and training they need to support their mentees. “The class focuses on skills inherent to forming positive interpersonal relationships, like empathetic listening and overcoming failure—leadership skills intertwined with wellness,” says Confino, who co-teaches the course. Mentoring also develops students’ problem-solving skills and bolsters confidence and self-awareness, all essential for professional success. “The Peer Mentorship Program,” says Confino, “is one of the most effective things we’ve done in terms of enhancing student well-being.”

An important aspect of the Peer Mentorship Program is its collaboration with the student affinity groups. Mentors associated with those groups counsel mentees from within that group as well as from without, the goal being to support mentoring within affinity groups as well as cross-cultural interactions. This results in the creation of small, diverse cohorts that forge connections and a sense of belonging for students.

digital illustration of two people balancing a scale with a plant stem base
The Peer Mentorship Program has been so successful that many second-year students who participate go on to become mentors themselves. “That tells me it’s working,” says Sugin. “They benefited from having a mentor, so they want to pay it forward.” In 2021, for instance, there are 51 mentors and 150 mentees. “A substantial portion of the second-year class is participating.”

That’s in large part due to the efforts of Sugin and Confino—the latter of whom worked on a 2018 ABA survey of law schools to find out what steps, in the wake of the bleak findings about law students’ mental health, law schools were taking to prioritize student well-being.

“We discovered that most schools had considerable work to do,” says Confino, who published her findings in the Journal of Legal Education. “Fortunately, not long after we completed that survey, I had the opportunity to help put best practices into place when I joined Fordham. I couldn’t have dreamed up more fulfilling work than what I’m doing right now.”

Jordana Confino and Linda Sugin
Jordana Confino (left), adjunct professor of law and senior director of professionalism; and Linda Sugin, professor of law.
Photo by Chris Taggart

Making Law School Feel Welcoming

In 2019, Fordham Law launched the house system, through which all incoming students are assigned to a “house,” a smaller community of around 80 students within the school. The house system is designed to foster camaraderie and inclusion and create opportunities for students to ask questions and get the help they need. The houses have regular social activities and meetings on a broad array of topics, including an introductory program on wellness, in which Confino advises students on how to access campus mental health resources and offers a variety of strategies for cultivating resilience and well-being. Basics such as the importance of exercise and sleep are also covered, along with the benefits of practicing gratitude, reflecting on values, and maintaining strong social connections—topics Confino delves into even more deeply in her upper-year course on positive psychology.

Last semester, from October 4 through 15, during Fordham Law’s second annual wellness week, there were workshops on mindfulness, coping with anxiety, and nutrition, among others. “When you’re working, there’s this incredible pressure to put in billable hours, so you need to know how to take care of yourself before you get in that situation,” says Dianna Lam ’22, who helped develop some of the wellness curriculum. For Lam herself, well-being means building in downtime, even during the crush of exams. “I try to make sure I take a break to read a book or cook. It helps me recharge.”

To encourage more law schools to adopt robust wellness offerings, Confino, in collaboration with Yair Listokin, a professor at Yale Law School, and Laurie Santos, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Yale University, is currently developing a new class on well-being, called Foundations for Flourishing. Designed for incoming law students, it will be piloted at Fordham and Yale in the fall of 2022. The team will also assess the effectiveness of the course. “If we can show it helps students, we’re hoping it will inspire other law schools to offer the class as well,” says Confino.

The Peer Mentorship Program is one of the most effective things we’ve done in terms of enhancing student well-being.
Jordana Confino, adjunct professor of law

Collaboration Across the Board

The house system is unique in another way: It is run in large part by a handful of upper-year students in the Fordham Law Professionalism Fellows Program. During their one-year fellowship, these students organize social and community-building activities within the house system, help implement the wellness and professionalism programs, and oversee the Board of Student Advisors, a peer mentorship program for first-year students.

Like the upper-level Peer Mentorship Program, the Professionalism Fellows Program is having a major impact, not least because student leaders are supported by the Law School. Sugin and Confino collaborate closely with students to ensure that the professionalism curriculum meets their needs.“When I was a 1L I often felt alone in my struggles,” says Kimya Zahedi ’22, a Professionalism Fellow. “Now, first-year students have an opportunity to voice their concerns and issues to an upper-year student who has a better sense of what they are going through. It is our job to liaise with the administration and advocate to get students the resources they need to be successful and healthy. In this position, I’ve seen how essential peer support is. Students have opened up to me in ways I didn’t expect and I feel privileged to be part of the experience.”

Sugin, who stepped down as associate dean in May 2021 and received the Dean’s Medal of Recognition for her work, is now back to full-time teaching. She is also writing a book about how to improve the law school experience. “We can’t succeed with our academic mission if we continue to ignore half the capabilities that students need,” says Sugin. “Our hope is that professionalism, as we understand it, will become an indispensable element of all legal education.”