Dealing with illness in Law School

[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

It would be nice if all of the difficult parts of life paused for the three years of law school, but obviously, that is not how it works. During my first semester of law school, I developed worsening neurological symptoms, extreme fatigue, and debilitating brain fog. I was limping to doctors and specialist appointments between classes and trying to fit in class readings while I was sitting in waiting rooms.

So what do you do when life circumstances, specifically illness, impede your ability to succeed in law school?

Look into accommodations

The process for applying for accommodations can be daunting, but definitely worthwhile. Typically you will need documentation from your treating physician that describes your situation and what accommodations you might need. If you become unexpectedly ill in the middle of the semester you will likely be able to get emergency accommodations that will be in place just through the remainder of the semester.

Get in touch with your school’s Office of Academic Engagement (or whatever the equivalent is) as soon as you think there might be an issue. They can help you figure out the next steps and point you to the resources that are available.

Find Someone you can talk to

Find someone to talk to

Mental health is a challenge in law school even without any other difficulties, but dealing with law school and then having illness or life circumstances on top can be crushing. If you can, find a counselor or therapist who specializes in the area of need. Chances are your university has a counseling department where you can either see a counselor or get a referral to an outside counselor.

Your doctor’s office may also have social workers or counselors who can help you navigate the complicated web of doctor visits, medical bills, illness, etc. Often these resources are not readily apparent, but if you know to ask, they are generally available.

Know when to walk away

When I got sick, I clung to finishing the semester as if my life depended on it. The stress of trying to finish, while experiencing worsening symptoms, ultimately just made me sicker. After two months of doctor’s appointments with no real answers as to why my health was declining so rapidly, I was finally forced to deal with the reality that there was no plausible way I could finish. (I was eventually diagnosed with Lyme Disease and after treatment am obviously back to school!)

Because I had been talking with our Office of Academic Engagement about accommodations and updating them on the progress of my situation, they were not surprised when I decided to withdraw. The process was still multi-step, though. You will likely need documentation from your physician, a written statement describing your situation, and some sort of official form submitted to the university. Be aware of the differences at your university between withdrawing and taking incompletes. There are sometimes financial considerations involved there in addition to the academic considerations.

Coming Back

Hopefully, you will never find yourself in a situation where you have to unexpectedly withdraw from law school. If you do, hopefully, your life circumstances will resolve and you will be able to come back, should you so choose.

Coming back is not without its own complications. If you were in school long enough to have made friends with any of your peers, it may be difficult to start over socially while all of your pals are taking seminars together and moving forward into their career paths.

Law School is a pressure cooker. If you withdrew because of illness, you may have residual or lingering symptoms or a chronic condition that is exacerbated by stress. You may have to say no to extracurriculars and social events that you would like to be involved in, for the sake of maintaining your health.

I know from experience that this is very difficult. There is a long list of things I would like to be involved in, but if I overdo it even a little bit or get less than 8 hours of sleep for just one night, my knees start hurting, my hands start trembling, and my brain just shuts down.

If you have a chronic illness, law school may be an isolating time for you. Everyone is tired and stressed, and the additional fatigue and stress you may feel because of your chronic illness may make you feel weak, incapable, or like you made the wrong decision in returning. Build up your support community – doctors, counselors, understanding friends, family – who can affirm that you are very capable. There are also some great resources and discussions on Reddit, through the NIH, and across the internet.

If you have withdrawn from Law School and returned, I’d love to hear from you. Or if you are trucking through law school with a chronic illness, I’d also love to hear from you (and offer all sorts of accolades and support)! If you have a story you’d like to share, resources that you’ve found helpful, or resources that you think need to exist but do not reach out on Twitter and Instagram @the1lLife! I’d love to hear from you.

Note: Mental illness and other difficult life circumstances may have similar impacts, and this post is about chronic illness because that is my experience.