Our sixteenth #ConnectingLegalEd session was a bumper edition focused on wellness in the legal community. First up, we had the introduction to a new UK network, Advancing Wellness in Law: created by Dr. Emma Jones, Caroline Strevens, Lydia Bleasdale and Richard Collier, the Network will officially launch in August – but this was a sneak preview of its aims and plans.
Why is the Advancing Wellness in Law Network needed?
We know there are numerous issues with wellbeing as far as Law students and those working within the legal profession are concerned, and there is an increasing amount of research into wellness within legal education, legal academia and the legal professions. The Advancing Wellness in Law Network will be a hub for anyone with an interest in those areas: this will be a friendly and supportive community which will bring people with these common interests together, both virtually and – hopefully, in the future – in person through conferences, workshops and other events, so that research can be shared and built upon.
For now, the Network will highlight new and existing work in this area, including through a regular blog and newsletter and through a series of digital conversations with the community of researchers active in this area. The first of these will take place at the official launch on 27th August 2020, 1100-1200 (BST), and will include a presentation by Richard Collier on his more recent legal professions work. The hope is that the Network and its members will be able to bring about positive change within legal education, legal academia, and the legal professions.
Some potential collaborative research areas suggested during the session were the impact of COVID-19 on emotional and mental wellbeing in law schools and the legal profession; how legal academics understand and manage their own wellbeing; connecting wellbeing and equality, diversity and inclusion agendas in the legal community (potentially with a particular focus upon generational change and gender); the impact of new technologies on wellbeing in the law (e.g. the 24/7 lawyer, and the increasingly 24/7 academic); and how we might connect wellness in legal practice and legal education. All of these are, of course incredibly topical in view of the ongoing pandemic, and the effect of this upon legal education and the professions as we move towards the latter half of 2020: how will an online / hybrid learning and teaching environment impact upon the wellbeing of all – staff and students – within legal education? Will the legal professions – which some research has shown to be resistant to working from home for at least some colleagues – be more flexible with working from home policies in the future? How will working from home, whether in legal education or the legal professions, impact upon the work-life balance of individuals, and upon their careers, particularly when combined with ongoing concerns around childcare provision post-lockdown?
Network contact details
This was just a starting point for the discussion: anyone with interests in these, or other areas related to wellness within Law, is encouraged to contact the Network via email, via the website, or via Twitter.
Using Mentimeter to engage first year law students in wellbeing awareness
Our next guest was Dr. Stella Coyle, who had been due to present at the ALT’s annual conference in April. Stella gave us a fascinating overview of a panel session which she developed in response to research suggesting Law students might particularly struggle to maintain positive wellbeing, to feel autonomous in their decision-making, to act on the basis of intrinsic motivation, and to feel socially connected with a sense of belonging to the legal academic community.
Stella described herself as being galvanised to do something by this research, so she developed a compulsory session for first year Law students, delivered in week 6 of term (when they would typically begin to experience difficulties with academic life). The intended outcomes of the session were threefold:
- To raise awareness that studying Law can be psychologically and emotionally challenging for everyone;
- To remove stigma attached to experiencing difficulties with mental health or wellbeing; and
- To show students how they can look after themselves, and see the Law School as a supportive community
To that end, Stella carefully curated a panel of lecturers, the Law School’s learning support specialist, and a PhD student who had previously been a Keele undergraduate. Realising that Law students in particular tend to be prone to only attending sessions where there is a clear link to their studies (whether through being assessed, or through helping them to perform better within assessments), the potential benefits of attending the session for their learning were emphasised.
Creating a community
The students were asked to respond to six questions via Mentimeter, which was deliberately chosen as an anonymous way of them sharing their experiences. The questions were partly developed in response to research in this area:
- Since you started at Keele, has your mental health stayed the same; got better; got worse?
- What are the top 3 things affecting your mental health since coming to Keele?
- How do you feel when things go wrong? Try to sum it up in one word.
- How do you know when you’re not OK? Give up to 3 examples.
- How do you look after yourself when you’re not OK?
- What one thing will you take away from this session?
Responses would come up ‘live’ in the form of a wordcloud, which allowed the most popular ones to be easily seen by the panel and by the audience. The panel members were invited to reflect upon the responses, and in particular any similarities with their own experiences of being an undergraduate, or indeed an academic, and how they had overcome similar challenges. This meant the session was student-led in a novel way: it was the students’ responses which drove the discussion, which necessarily required the panel members to be willing to be open and honest about their experiences, as well as to respond sensitively. For example, in response to the question ‘How do you feel when things go wrong?’ common words were ‘frustrated’, ‘low’ and ‘suicidal’: panel members then shared their own experiences of particularly low ebbs and how they got through them, whilst also signposting students to support services.
Benefits and challenges
The session was beneficial in creating a community, reminding students of available support services, highlighting the common experiences of students and staff, and destigmatising discussions of mental health (something which colleagues in the School suggested was a continued effect of the event throughout the year), but there are still some challenges to be overcome when delivering this kind of session.
Some students responded with immature comments through Mentimeter (which Stella, having looked at the research in this area, suggested could be a sign of embarrassment); not everyone seemed to feel comfortable with using Mentimeter (despite its anonymity, students were still sitting next to each other and therefore their responses were potentially visible to others); and engagement wasn’t as high as they would have liked. The latter could be attributed to being at the mercy of timetabling (Friday mornings are never a popular choice!); to students insisting that they were already ‘ok’; and to it not being directly linked with assessment.
In the coming year, the session will no longer be a standalone session, but will instead be part of a stream of activities called “Being Law”, which will encourage students to self-reflect and consider who they are and what they want throughout their Law School journey. Stella is happy to continue sharing these plans with members of the #ConnectingLegalEd community.
Final #ConnectingLegalED before summer break!
Next week, on 28th July at 1100, we will welcome Dr. Foluke Adebisi to talk about decolonising the curriculum in online teaching. After that, we will be taking a break in August to re-charge (and to prepare for the new term!): we will return on 1st September (same time, same place) and will then be having fortnightly sessions.