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VOL. 10 | NO. 42 | Saturday, October 14, 2017

Memphis Law School Wellness Program Defending Work-Life Balance

By Don Wade

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It’s not that Richard Vaughan wasn’t busy before, because he was. He carried a full load as an undergrad at the University of South Carolina and also was a cheerleader there.

Hallie Goodman Flanagan, president of the Student Bar Association at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, says wellness initiatives and outings help students take a break from the hard work of law school. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

“I was spread pretty thin as undergraduate, and that sort of prepared me for law school,” said Vaughan, in his second year at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. “But you don’t realize what you’re getting into until you get here.

“Learning the law is kind of like learning a new language, and it takes a lot of time.”

In any language, it can add a lot of stress. That’s why last year, then-Student Bar Association president Sydney Trujillo introduced “Wellness Wednesday” with a goal of raising students’ self-awareness of their physical, mental and emotional well-being.

She was inspired by research showing that law students tended to have higher rates of stress and thus might be more susceptible to depression, anxiety, alcoholism and even drug abuse.

The current SBA president, Hallie Goodman Flanagan, served as chair of last year’s Wellness Committee; Vaughan, who also is the director of communications for SBA, holds that position now.

What Flanagan has noticed is that preparing for a law career can mimic having a law career: Hard work is required, expected and a deep part of the culture. So is the necessity of being involved in social activities after class (where alcohol usually is served) and developing networking abilities. In fact, those expectations only increase the farther a student goes in law school.

Thus, she said, it’s not unusual to see professionals and students alike “burning the candle at both ends.”

As Kaitlyn Cornett, who supervises the “Couch to 5K” program at the Downtown campus, said: “When studying for an exam, I’ve literally spent the night in the basement of the law school before.”

Last year, Trujillo brought in guest speakers to talk about stress management, mindfulness and eating more healthfully. Through the Wellness Program, students were given everything from stress balls and adult coloring books to green tea.

Yoga classes also were offered and have continued. Vaughan, who played high school football, is taking yoga. Although as Flanagan says, “Yoga’s not for everyone.”

There have been outings to Grizzlies games, too, full evenings when students can give themselves permission to set the books aside for a few hours and have fun.

“Take a break,” Flanagan said.

About two-thirds of the law school's 350 students have had some level of interaction with the Wellness Program, she added.

The running program provides another kind of break and Cornett is helping some students get on a schedule to run in the upcoming St. Jude Marathon or Half-Marathon. Others recently ran with the group and covered 4 miles for the first time in their lives.

“It makes you feel accomplished in a different way than school work,” Cornett said. “A healthy work-life balance, I guess.”

After all, an 8-to-5 day in class does not mean the day is done. Cornett says it’s nothing go home, cook herself a meal, and also have to wade through 60 pages of reading before going to bed.

Vaughan believes he handles stress pretty well. But he says he also figured out early that he could not approach law school halfway.

“You have to immerse yourself in it and wrestle with the material all the time,” he said.

The Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program lends some help, and Flanagan adds that the Memphis Bar Association does a good job of providing lawyers with resources. Local attorney Christy Washington, who is a yoga instructor, serves as chairperson of the Wellness Committee for the Memphis Bar.

Another important aspect has been getting a counselor to be available at the Downtown campus; many students not only attend classes there but work Downtown, so traveling to the main U of M campus is not convenient.

Trujillo’s aim, from the start, was for the Wellness Program to meet students where they are.

Or as she told the Memphis Law Magazine, “I wanted to show the student body that while depression, anxiety, alcoholism and drug abuse are real and scary, we can deal with those issues in healthy ways. If some people are struggling, there is no shame in that, and they should know that they are not alone in it.”

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