The stress of looming exams at George Mason University School of Law lifted for a couple of hours Thursday, thanks to the arrival of 15 homeless and adoptable puppies with velvety ears, soul-searching eyes and names like Doughboy, Sugar and Sue.
“Especially this time of the year, law school seems to ruin your life,” said Allison Tisdale, 24, a third-year from Texas who didn’t go home for Thanksgiving because she had to study. Holding a squirming puppy, she said, “you get to be human again.”
After the Yale Law Library added a “therapy dog” named Monty to its collection in the spring, a number of other law schools have used the gentle yapping of puppies to break the stifling pressure that blankets their campuses. Thursday was the second time Mason’s law school, in Arlington County, partnered with a Chantilly-based rescue group for “Puppy Day.”
Law school is designed to be stressful and competitive — professors are preparing students to work long hours for demanding bosses at large firms. The economic doldrums and scarcity of jobs after graduation have only added to the pressure.
Studies have found that the legal profession has higher-than-average rates of depression and problems with substance abuse. Many law schools now teach students how to balance the stress of late-night legal research, tort outlines and case summaries with healthy habits: running marathons, volunteering or hanging out with a pet.
“If people don’t learn how to balance their lives in law school, and then, if they go to a big firm, chances are they won’t balance their lives there, either,” said James E. Leffler, executive director of Lawyers Helping Lawyers, a Virginia nonprofit organization that offers assistance with substance abuse and mental-health issues. “They need to learn to take care of themselves and to also look out for their colleagues.”
At the University of Maryland School of Law, members of each incoming class meet in small groups with Dawna Cobb, the assistant dean for student affairs, who practiced law for 22 years while raising a family.
Some of Cobb’s messages: It’s okay to cry, but not for hours each day. Sleep is important. Eat healthy. Monitor your drinking. Find an outlet for stress, such as exercise, singing or knitting. And her door is open if you need to talk.
“Part of being a professional is knowing when you need to ask for help,” Cobb said she tells her students.
Many law schools offer in-house counseling centers and stress-management seminars. Finals season brings a flurry of activities to ease pressure: Georgetown University Law Center will serve up a carb-heavy “Night Owl Breakfast” next week. At the College of William and Mary Law School, a student group is organizing yoga classes, massages and meditation sessions.
Over the past three years, the Washington and Lee University School of Law transformed its third-year curriculum from a traditional hit-the-books regimen to hands-on experiences similar to practicing in the real world. In addition to making students more marketable, school officials hope it teaches them how to structure their lives after graduation.
“Law school is becoming more like life,” said Washington and Lee law professor James E. Moliterno. “I’m not a psychologist, but my take on life is that if you have experience with the things that can stress you out, the better prepared you are to handle those things.”
For high-strung law students, dogs and other animals can also provide a soothing presence. That’s a lesson researchers have learned from others in stressful environments, including soldiers in war zones and patients in rehabilitation centers.
At George Mason’s law school, which has more than 700 students, dozens took a break Thursday from their immersion in contracts, torts, criminal law and the like and gathered for more than two hours in the school’s atrium to play with the puppies. The animals had been saved recently from euthanasia in West Virginia shelters by A Forever-Home Rescue Foundation. The four litters of puppies are living with four foster moms until they are adopted. They are a mix of breeds, but many of them look like beagles or Labrador retrievers.
“There’s nothing like a puppy to make someone smile,” said Debbie Marson, a volunteer with the foundation. “It’s great for the students, and it’s great socialization for the dogs.”
When the puppies arrived, many seemed nervous around the mob of strangers. But as the students stroked their silky coats, they chilled out. Several fell asleep in the arms of future lawyers.
“I think they are sensing our stress,” said Tashina Harris, 23, a second-year student from Manassas who cuddled Summer, a white puppy with brown spots. “They’re reminding us we need to take breaks.”