Forging a Path to Student Well-Being
Associate Dean of Student Affairs David Jaffe '93 Leads the Charge in Ensuring Law Students Thrive
By Franki Fitterer
It’s no longer a secret: Law schools throughout the United States are now offering a more holistic approach to student health. This is especially evident through the addition of well-being initiatives. What is less well known is that American University Washington College of Law’s Associate Dean for Student Affairs David Jaffe ’93 has played an outsized role in this change. Jaffe has been at the forefront of a movement that reflects his dedication to ensuring that law students thrive.
“There is a history of depression in my family,” Jaffe shares. “Although my immediate family has not been affected, I constantly think about my relatives who suffer through this disease, as well as our own law students and those across the country.”
Jaffe acknowledges that even earlier this decade law school administrators hesitated to talk about the anxiety and related issues law students face. He wanted to effect real change, but knew that others might be skeptical of the severity of the situation. Together with Professor Jerry Organ of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota, he developed a law student survey that launched in the spring of 2014.
“We knew from having counseled hundreds, if not thousands, of students that issues were afoot, but we needed the numbers to back it up,” Jaffe said. The survey, published in the Journal of Legal Education in 2016, showed that law students were drinking, using prescription drugs, and experiencing anxiety and depression at significant rates, typically higher than other graduate students and individuals in the general public. Several results stood out: 53% of respondents reported drinking enough to get drunk in the last 30 days; 43% binge drank in the prior two weeks; 14% used a prescription drug without a prescription; 17% screened positive for depression; and 37% screened positive for anxiety.
Jaffe, now in his 27th year of service to AUWCL, used this information to strengthen AUWCL wellness programming already in existence and to develop new initiatives. Today, a contract clinician provides 25 hours per week at the law school, with plans in place to hire a full-time professional in the near future. Free yoga and mindfulness meditation sessions are offered to students weekly. And the law school now has a dedicated, specially designed 600-square-foot wellness space.
The Office of Student Affairs schedules events throughout each semester that promote relaxation, friendship, and community— reminding students that there is more to life than law school. On any given day, you may find a pop-up popcorn stand, do-it-yourself aromatherapy kits, gratitude walls, or coloring books occupying The Commons or another student space. “Some of the events are ‘cheesy’ to some students,” Jaffe admits, “but the message is always ‘remember to take care of yourself.’” The most popular wellness event—puppy day—brings foster or sheltered puppies to the law school during reading period, giving students a much-needed break from studying for finals.
Jaffe notes that change has required more than occasional programming. “Now conversations about anxiety, wellness, and stress management start at orientation and continue with supportive faculty, administrators, and upper-level students. We make every effort to be proactive, to educate students that some anxiety is natural, but that elevated levels should be met with assistance and resources.”
Dean Camille Nelson makes a point to stress the fact that wellness matters as she addresses the incoming class at orientation. “Do what you need to do to keep yourself healthy, whole and sane, with some levity and laughter in your life—all work and no play is simply not a good idea,” she told the group last August. “I encourage you to find your happy place and go there—sports, art, music, cooking, or whatever your hobby may be. I think the hardest part of law school is finding some balance, so it is also your job to integrate wellness.”
In addition to situational counseling provided by Student Affairs staff and others throughout the law school, Jaffe will also refer students to the D.C. Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), which offers free assistance. “We want to meet the students where they are, and get them back on track as quickly as possible.”
“We would do everything we could for a friend with cancer; why shouldn’t it be the same for a disease like substance use or for mental health difficulties?”Associate Dean for Student Affairs David Jaffe ’93
Over the past decade, the LAP has seen a consistent trend of law students increasingly seeking help for mental health issues, particularly stress and anxiety. The increase in law students seeking mental health services from the LAP corresponds with the recent well-being movement within the legal field.
LAP counselors have the challenge of helping students handle their problems and succeed in law school simultaneously. “Being a law student doesn’t shield someone from the mental and emotional challenges that are part of the human experience,” D.C. Bar LAP Directors told The Advocate. “The way to navigate law school while experiencing human challenges is to develop tools and coping skills to effectively manage stress and our emotional responses. When we learn how to manage those in our life, we have more bandwidth to manage the demands we encounter in law school.”
Wellness programming at AUWCL is mirrored at law schools around the country.
“Law student well-being is a critical issue now in the legal profession,” said Janet Stearns, dean of students and lecturer, University of Miami School of Law. “Our students enter law school with higher expectations of student services to address anxiety, depression, and a variety of related issues, and we as student service professionals need to be creative in proactively addressing these concerns.”
Stearns noted that Jaffe’s scholarship and advocacy on these issues have been vital to the law student well-being movement. “David has been a mentor to me, and I am honored to work closely with him on these issues through our work with the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the National Associate of Law Student Affairs Professionals.”
At approximately the same time as Jaffe and Organ’s 2016 survey was released, the American Bar Association and the Hazelton Betty Ford Foundation conducted a parallel survey of the legal profession. The ABA survey partially dispelled the traditionally held notion that lawyers exhibited substance use and mental health challenges as they aged; it turns out that lawyers are experiencing these issues during their first 10 years of practice. When results of the two surveys sparked media attention and further discussion, a National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being was created to ensure that momentum ensued. Among its projects was the “Path to Lawyer Well-Being,” a report that makes recommendations for every stakeholder in the legal profession. Jaffe was the lead author for the section on law schools.
“It is easy to be passionate about these issues, not wanting to see students fall prey to challenges typically not within their control,” Jaffe says. “We would do everything we could for a friend with cancer; why shouldn’t it be the same for a disease like substance use or for mental health difficulties?”
Jaffe, who has been honored for his work with law students with awards from the AALS and ABA, is hopeful about the impact of his latest publication, an article co-authored with Stearns and published in January by the ABA titled “Conduct Yourselves Accordingly: Amending Bar Character and Fitness Questions to Promote Lawyer Well-Being.” The article calls for states with invasive bar examination character and fitness questions around mental health and substance use to stop using them. “Everyone involved knows that stigma and fear of not getting admitted to the bar are two of the most critical barriers to law students seeking help,” Jaffe says. “The moment a student can see a clearer path to bar admission is the moment he or she will give way to seeking help when needed, and not when it is too late.” In February, the state of New York announced they would be removing mental health questions from the character and fitness portion of their bar exam, citing Jaffe’s 2014 study in the process.
Jaffe says his next goal is to bring together international law school experts to work through the cultural differences and toward the common goal of healthier students. He recently traveled to Spain to present to a dedicated group of faculty and deans at the University of Girona Faculty of Law.
“I am so excited to see improvements in law school wellness at the international level, and hope that I can continue to make contributions,” he said.
Alumni interested in learning more or becoming involved in law student well-being are encouraged to reach Dean Jaffe at firstname.lastname@example.org.