When students start law school, they have to adapt to a new form of learning, grading, studying, networking — everything. Rigorous demands combined with students’ high expectations for themselves often lead students to put their own health and well-being on the backburner. The habit could lead not only to serious setbacks in the program or the profession but to long-term health issues.
FIU Law is tackling the problem. In 2020, the college launched Well-being at FIU Law to provide strategies that help students engage with the various dimensions of well-being, including the intellectual, physical, spiritual, social and emotional dimensions. The budding program has quickly made strides in helping students and has already developed a strong group of student advocates who feel indebted to the program for helping them stay in law school and setting up habits that will help them thrive in a profession riddled with stress and high-pressure situations.
For these efforts, the American Bar Association in August of 2021 honored FIU Law's well-being program with its 2021 E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Award. The award recognizes the nation’s exemplary, innovative and ongoing professionalism programs established by law schools, bar associations and other legal organizations that help ensure the maintenance of integrity and dedication to the legal profession. The recognition comes with a $3,500 award, which will be added to the hardship fund at FIU Law, in support of students in need.
“I am very proud of this initiative, led by Professor [Rosario] Lozada and Dean [Angelique] Ortega, to promote student health and well-being,” says Antony Page, dean of FIU Law. “Law school, like the practice of law, can be very stressful, and learning skills that can help our students manage that stress is critically important to their academic and professional success. I am delighted that the [American Bar Association] has chosen to recognize FIU Law’s work in this area.”
Rosario Lozada, director of the well-being program and a professor of legal skills and values, says the college's efforts have been welcomed by student organizations and leaders.
“Although Well-Being at FIU Law was conceived just twenty months ago, we are already hearing upper level-students counsel their first-year counterparts with two critical messages,” Lozada says. “First, that well-being practices are not a luxury, but a responsibility. And second, that asking for help is a sign of courage and strength, not a sign of weakness.”
For Cody Curabba, a second-year law student, the program played a pivotal role in giving him the motivation to stay in his journey toward law.
“I was completely burned out after my first year,” Curabba says.
Considering that lawyers in the profession account for a disproportionate number of suicides and substance abuse rates nationally, Curabba began to ask himself a nagging question: “Is this all worth it in the end? What do I really have to look forward to if I’m going into a profession that has high suicide rates and low job satisfaction rates?”
He was about to drop out of law school. But, fate intervened. He received a job offer from a defense law firm he’d been interning at, and, he enrolled in FIU Law’s ethics and well-being course. Through the course, students explore science-based, well-being practices and professional identity formation. They delve into issues of implicit bias and cultural humility, discover their individual character strengths, and engage with guest speakers who discuss strategies to manage stress and remain focused on one’s values.
“The class really gave me a lot of hope that there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” Curabba says. “It helped me realize I don’t have to just roll with the punches. I can learn to adapt better. I can master more than the legal profession. I can develop skills that benefit me personally and professionally.”
He says FIU’s commitment to well-being among law students is helping turn the tide for the profession.
“The way I see it, this is creating a new generation of law students and lawyers,” he says. “I want to applaud FIU for recognizing the individual problems that lawyers struggle with. It’s good to see that FIU Law, as a literal source of lawyers, is taking action.”
After graduating from FIU, Curabba plans to accept the job at Hightower, Stratton, Novigrod & Kantor, which received a regional ranking from the 2021 U.S. News - Best Lawyers® "Best Law Firms" rankings.
Fellow law student Amber Green had a similar experience. Taking the ethics and well-being class was a reminder of the kind of person she wanted to become.
“I had lost sight of that during my first year in law school,” Green says. “I feel like there’s this narrative that you have to be a bulldog litigator, be involved, do everything under the sun and get good grades.”
When Green — a first-generation law student originally from the Bronx — started thinking about law school, she had this idea of becoming “a criminal lawyer and changing the world,” specifically regarding racial inequality. But when she started the program, she had a realization: “In the long-term, it would be too draining and taxing for me,” she says.
“But as a Black woman, I need to do something,” she says. “How can I still create change? This class helped me realize there are ways I can do that without being a bulldog litigator.”
For example, right before beginning the course, Green did some pro bono work with local public schools. Many of the schools she visited serve low-income communities and many Black and Hispanic students.
“I taught them about how law and race intersected,” Green recalls. “That was very fulfilling for me. I was able to explain Brown v. Board of Education and Supreme Court cases that led to equality. The students were so interested and receptive. I felt happy for them to see someone like them there.”
Thanks to the FIU course and well-being program, Green realized that those seemingly “small” moments can be the most valuable – just like taking care of yourself can seem like something small, but can have the greatest impact.