Dean Erin Keyes, J.D. Episode Summary

law school dean

JDHD | A Podcast for Lawyers with ADHD

"No one can know about this." Erin Keyes, J.D.—Dean of Students and ADHD Panic Monster Slayer
Dean Erin Keyes, J.D. Episode Summary

Erin Keyes is a lawyer and the Dean of Students at the University of Minnesota Law School.

In this first episode since before the world shut down, I talk with Dean Keyes about what it means for law students and lawyers with ADHD to keep themselves healthy.

We talk about how to “do” law school as a law student with ADHD. We talk about why ADHD can make law school harder, how law schools can support ADHD law students and the well-known pattern of law students with ADHD falling behind and struggling to get caught back up.

Dean Keyes shares how ADHD looks different in women, the so-called “panic monster” and negative feedback loops, and her genuine excitement about how law students are helping each other with ADHD and other mental wellness issues.

And we talk about how to slay the panic monster as a law student with ADHD.

Just start. Just start the process of figuring out a way to figure out a way.

Dean Erin Keyes, J.D. Episode Notes

Learn More about Dean Erin Keyes, J.D.

Erin Keyes graduated from Carleton College and the University of Minnesota Law School.

She has served on the Board of Directors of the Loan Repayment Assistance Program (“LRAP”), which helps lawyers help the disadvantaged by helping reduce the burden of law school loan repayment.

Dean Keyes practiced law at Central Minnesota Legal Services helping low-income clients in family, housing, and government benefits better their lives through compassionate legal representation.

Two Quotes from Erin Keyes

“Some students struggle with how to build meaning over the course of a semester and give themselves lots of opportunities to test their understanding of information. Because you can’t cram in law school.”

“There is so much shame around the manifestation of ADHD in terms of the things that are left undone. The things that were started but not finished. There’s a good reason why ADHD is so highly correlated with anxiety and depression. It is not just a function issue. It’s also an emotional issue.”

Erin Keyes Show Links
Time Stamps
1:06Shame-sharing, a mea culpa, and a grand “Welcome Back!”
10:10What law students with undiagnosed ADHD look like.
15:16The negative feedback loop for law students with ADHD
21:57The shame around how ADHD shows up in law students
24:13How is the legal profession doing with law student wellbeing and lawyer wellbeing?
29:35One example of the mental wellness conundrum in law students with ADHD
34:54How law students are helping each other with mental health and wellness
40:45What's out there? What help even exists for law students with ADHD?
44:23Women with ADHD and law school.
48:35What is the Student Affairs department, and what does a Dean of Students do?
52:16Learning outcomes in law school and how they punish law students with ADHD.
56:07“Just start the process of figuring out a way to figure out a way.”
57:36The Two Questions (and Dean Keyes' answers).
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Dean of Students Erin Keyes, J.D. Edited Interview Transcript

“Attention deficit” is such a bad description of ADHD.

What I have seen in a lot of law students with ADHD is a real openness to learning and a curiosity about how things work. The reality is that once someone’s curiosity is piqued, they can hyperfocus and dive into a topic or a project and do incredible work.

That sense of curiosity and wonder and interest can be really infectious if it’s channeled in a helpful way.”

Dean Erin Keyes, J.D.

Marshall Lichty (00:01:06):

Hey there, friends. It is Marshall, and this is JDHD, a podcast for lawyers with ADHD.

Did you miss me? I missed you. I missed you a lot.

And it’s hard for me right now because I have a therapist for this, but I also feel like I need to share. I don’t know a lot about what’s been going on because, like I said, I’ve missed you. It’s been a long time.

I take that really seriously and I’ve carried around a lot of it and it’s heavy for me. So I feel ashamed and I feel embarrassed. I feel lazy. I feel like I haven’t kept promises to my people, to my wife, to my listeners, clients, to my friends, and to a bunch of people I’ve met through JDHD and elsewhere.

And I’ve really struggled.

I think part of it is because my routines are completely shot. Habits that I had worked for months or even years to cultivate and develop are destroyed, listeners, and email contacts that I worked for months to engage and listen to and support have heard nothing from me.

That would be bad enough as it is. But, even worse, this is when they need support probably more than they ever have.

I’ve also found that restarting something after I’ve stopped it—meditation, editing podcasts, checking emails, responding to texts, the whole mess of things—is really, really hard. When I stop, it feels like everything collapses.

Plus, we’ve got COVID-19, we’ve got quarantine, we’ve got Minneapolis as a hotbed—and, for a time, a hellscape—of awfulness when it comes to our history of policing and race and injustice.

And I always had thought about this idea of “podfade.”

In the podcasting industry, they talk about “podfade,” which is the idea that you start with a bang, and then it fades out over time, never to be heard from again.

And I knew that that wasn’t me. It’s not what I wanted. This is such a passion for me that I knew I couldn’t stop doing it. And yet it felt like all I could do was stop doing it.

And I just wanted to share that because I know that there are a lot of people out there struggling. It isn’t just me. Frankly, it’s not even just people with ADHD. There are people everywhere struggling, and I think it’s acute for us.

And I wish I had been here differently. And so I am here now, and I hope to have some rejuvenated energy because I still feel this great promise and potential.

There is an incredible need for a place for people with ADHD to come to learn about it, to talk about what it means to have it, and to think about ways to make its presence a positive impact in our lives and in our businesses.

And so I’m as excited as ever about it.

I was writing a chapter for a book in California for solo and small firm lawyers, and I was looking at the data about lawyers with ADHD with fresh eyes. I have a new appreciation for those numbers.

By my math—and the best data we have about ADHD in law students and lawyers—there are about 170,000 lawyers in the country with ADHD.

That’s squishy, and the science is weird and the polling is interesting and I’m not convinced that’s the right number.

But if we use the best data, we’ve got 170,000 lawyers with ADHD.

Here’s the thing that walloped me: that’s almost exactly the number of lawyers who are actively practicing law in the state of California.

That is an astronomical number. And as I read through emails that people have written with care and passion and pain about how important it is to be a part of JDHD and to be with me here and with all of you, I knew that I needed to kick myself in the ass.

And so I’m reinvigorated and I have a new sense of obligation and optimism.

I take responsibility for you and where we all are in this journey, in our professions, and in our lives. I’ve heard from so many people for whom becoming a JDHD is a critical part of their identity and how they’re going to get through it all going forward.

So, I’m glad you’re here.

This is a huge introduction, but it felt really important because it’s been laying on my chest for a long time.

There are definitely things that I’m bad at. I’m bad at finances. I’m bad at communicating when I haven’t completely formed the thing that I want to say. I’m bad at editing podcasts. I’m bad at keeping a cadence and asking people for help, at asking people for money, and for implementing all of the ideas in my head, particularly without help.

But there are things that I’m good and passionate about, and, just like you, I want to make those primary. I’m good at teaching and engaging and supporting and evangelizing. I’m good at opening eyes. I’m good at making difficult things easy to understand. I’m great at generating ideas for great interviews and ideas about how to support people.

If you have an idea about what JDHD can do for you, please reach out to me.

I have big plans. I have not implemented all of them.

And that brings me a bunch of shame and a bunch of embarrassment and a whole bunch of “itty bitty shitty committee” things that I want to kill with fire, but they’re me and they’re JDHD.

I hope you’ll be with me anyway.

So, with all of that said, I hope you’re all well, I hope you’re surviving COVID-19. I hope you are taking care of yourselves and your mental health and the people around you and your families.

My Interview with Dean Erin Keyes, J.D.:

And, most importantly, I hope you have time to listen to this great episode. I recorded it a long time ago. Last year. It was 2019. And it’s with a woman who is the Dean of Students at a top 20-ish law school.

I have such respect for her and the way that she thinks about what it means for law students and lawyers to be healthy. Ee had a great conversation about that. We talked a lot about how law schools and our profession can be resources for people who are struggling with ADHD.

We talked about how the “panic monster” can grip adults with ADHD when you’re in law school. And if you miss a thing or if your brain doesn’t quite get it, if it doesn’t quite understand how to “do” law school with ADHD (whether you know you have it or not), there are ways we can find support and resources to help strengthen our resolve and get through law school.

A lot of times it comes from peers, but it comes from elsewhere too. And so we talk about deans of students and what their jobs are. We talk about the Hazelden Betty Ford study from 2016. We talk about a whole bunch of interesting stuff, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride because this interview is with Erin Keyes, the Dean of Students at the University of Minnesota Law School, a friend of mine, and someone who brings light to the wellness of people all around her.

And I’m deeply thankful. I hope you listen and enjoy it.

Marshall Lichty (00:08:56):
Well, welcome to the JDHD podcast! I am overjoyed that Dean Erin Keyes is here with us and she’s been an ever-present force in my life for probably the last 20 years.

We went to law school near each other in terms of years and went to the same law school. And she now works for that law school. And so I’ve had a chance to talk with her a bunch of times since then, but it is really my pleasure to welcome Erin Keyes.

Erin, thanks so much for being on JDHD.

Erin Keyes (00:09:27):
Thanks so much, Marshall. It’s a real pleasure to join this conversation.

When you approached me with the topic, I knew it was something that was filling a void. That’s based on my experience with a lot of people living with ADHD as lawyers and law students. It’s a really important topic. So thank you so much for giving us this venue to explore some of the issues and opportunities.

Marshall Lichty (00:10:00):
Well, I’m glad to have you on.

And since you mentioned law students and ADHD, I want to jump right in. What does a law student with undiagnosed ADHD look like?

Erin Keyes (00:10:10):
Oh boy, I don’t think there’s one way that anyone looks.

Part of that is just the reality of law school. It’s a totally different way of learning for most students, no matter how successful they’ve been in other contexts. It’s just a different way of understanding information and grappling with tough problems.

Part of the challenge is that in most law schools, rather than simply reading what the laws are and figuring out what the right answer is, you have to use a lot of deductive reasoning. You have to dig into really dense texts and make meaning out of decisions that were written a hundred years ago.

And then you need to sort through what’s important.

What are the priorities in a given case? How about between cases that you’ve read on a particular topic in a class? And how do law students bring arguments and analogic reasoning together to solve a new problem presented on a test?

Plus, those tests are usually at the end of the semester. So the challenge is that, over a span of three months of reading cases, students are trying to make sense of things and (potentially) outlining or otherwise synthesizing information.

And of that work in law school then runs up to a big exam at the semester’s end, and these students need to go back to what they learned—on the first day, the 15th day, in the 47th case they read—and figure out that helps solve whatever problem shows up on the exam.

Marshall Lichty (00:11:48):
So I assume that we know—”we” collectively, that is—that there are best practices for how to succeed in law school? Starting on day one and ending up on test day, there must be a solid plan for how to succeed within the law school system effectively?

What I think you’re hinting at is that students with ADHD—diagnosed or otherwise—may struggle in law school?

Erin Keyes (00:12:12):
Yes.

I think that for people who are self-motivated and are good at organizing their time in long- and short-term activities, there is a “good way” to do law school.

Typically, that means law students are doing the reading, attending class regularly, taking notes with some semblance of order and meaning, and compiling information over the course of that semester.

That way, when it comes to the week before exams, students aren’t going back to what they studied in the first month and trying to sort it out.

Students with diagnosed or undiagnosed ADHD may be used to performing in a different way. For many of them, they’ll take in tons of information in a ton of different ways. But they may not be great at “executive function.” Law students with ADHD may struggle to put all of that information together in an organized way.

Marshall Lichty (00:13:09):
And holding it in their working memory for an extended period of time?

Erin Keyes (00:13:14):
Exactly, exactly.

So, a law student with ADHD might be super engaged in a class discussion and really understand what’s going on on that day.

But it might be gone as soon as they leave the classroom.

And if that student doesn’t return to that information until the eve of the all-or-nothing exam, it’s like starting from scratch.

So, one of the things ADHD law students can struggle with is how to build meaning over the course of a semester and take lots of opportunities to test their understanding. Because you can’t cram in law school.

Plenty of ADHD law students were, as college students, able to write a pretty darn good paper the night before it was due. Or they were able to cram for exams that played more to their intelligence, skills, or strengths.

Law school doesn’t work that way. Doing things at the last minute and not putting in the time in over the course of a semester can really backfire for all law students—and particularly ADHD law students—when it comes to exam time.

Marshall Lichty (00:14:20):
I think a lot about the idea of “margin” and building space in our lives for mistakes and for things to not go quite the way we planned.

In law school, there isn’t much margin. And when there is margin, it’s often filled with sleep or drinking or socializing or whatever.

I’m really curious about is what happens when law students fill their margin (which is a healthy thing) with unhealthy things (particularly in the case of drinking).

My question is about what happens when law students with ADHD run out of margin. I can guess when it happens.

My guess is that these students run out of margin as they approach these all-or-nothing exams and it becomes clear they don’t have the scaffolding in place to succeed.

Tell me a story about a student coming to you and what it looks like for that freak out to happen. What happens when a law student realizes she has not built the margin she needs or that he has not been studying in a way that is ultimately going to lead to success?

Erin Keyes (00:15:16):
I have dozens of potential stories.

What I will say, though, is that there is a pattern. Some students, particularly students with ADHD, fall into a negative feedback loop.

That is, at some point in the semester they hit the wall. They’ll fear they don’t understand the case law or the materials. Maybe they aren’t managing information very well. Maybe they haven’t started their outlines.

And that sets loose the “panic monster.”

And the panic monster starts a cascade of other bad things.

The student hasn’t been able to do intermediary work. When they realize it is only a couple of weeks before finals, their ADHD brains realize they’re really behind the curve. They’re in a pickle.

What a “logical” brain might do is pause and come up with a plan. And that plan might include spending every waking moment to catch up on past reading, talking with professors about challenging legal concepts, working to build an outline or synthesis, and then doing lots of practice to make sure it all makes sense.

Marshall Lichty (00:16:43):
There’s a “but” coming…

Erin Keyes (00:16:44):
Yeah.

The “but” is this:

One of the really challenging things about ADHD for students (and lawyers) is that it impairs your executive function and executive decision making.

Perhaps f you were one of these “perfectly logical” human beings, you would make a plan. You would implement your plan. You would put structures in place to make your plan becomes your reality.

But in real life, we get pulled off track.

And for law students with ADHD, life throws you lots of opportunities to see something as “important.” And what was important yesterday may not feel as important today for someone with ADHD. Their challenges with executive decision making can complicate deciding what should be “important” today or for the next few weeks.

Is it really important that I iron all of the accumulated laundry in the basement? Or is it important that I do my outline?

Is it important that I organize my recipes? Or is it important that I go back to that reading that I missed?

Different people have different distractions, and different things send them into that loop. They don’t do what they need to do, so they feel crappy about it.

And something makes you feel crappy, your mind wants to say, “Run away from the crappy thing!”

And these ADHD law students keep falling further and further into the hole.

Marshall Lichty (00:18:27):
I feel a fair amount of shame about this, but I have to come clean.

Professor Fred Morrison is a very well known professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. I think he just celebrated his 50th year if I’m not mistaken.

Erin Keyes (00:18:43):
He did, he did.

And he remembers his first year like the back of his hand. It’s crazy.

Marshall Lichty (00:18:48):
That is crazy.

And I hope he doesn’t remember this.

Professor Morrison was my Con Law professor.

During that semester, I was commuting up from a suburb of Minneapolis and it was winter and it often took a long time.

And I had been staying up late for a lot of reasons. Very few of them were related to studying. Most of them were related to social endeavors. I actually started a magazine called “The Bar Review Weekly,” which had nothing to do with reviewing for the bar exam everything to do with organizing the law student body to go out to the bar.

Erin Keyes (00:19:22):
Oh, I remember it quite clearly. That’s a side conversation!

Marshall Lichty (00:19:26):
I would stay up late and write this thing.

It was a full-on publication with graphics and everything. I would go to Kinkos to get it printed and I had no margin at all.

So I remember Con Law in the first couple of weeks was brutal. I would go into Professor Morrison’s classroom. And he’s a brilliant, brilliant man with a brilliant mind

He also has this voice that tends to lean toward the… monotone. And I was dying.

I fell asleep 84 times in a row in the class.

And on this day in particular, I was resting my head on my chin and I fell asleep and my head fell out of my hand and it literally hit the desk.

BOOM!

I remember looking up, and no one was even looking at me.

And I thought, “Gave I fallen asleep so many times that they’ve all stopped paying attention?”

And that was funny.

And so I laughed. And now everyone was looking at me.

My rational mind said, of course, that “this is literally the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to me. And I need to feel a very deep shame about it.”

So I got up, packed up my things, and left.

And I didn’t come back until the final.

Erin Keyes (00:20:33):
And you didn’t come back until when?

Marshall Lichty (00:20:37):
The final examination.

That all-or-nothing, end-of-semester, you-gotta-nail-it-or-you’re-dead thing… Yeah, I did that.

Erin Keyes (00:20:44):
And you passed the class!?

Marshall Lichty (00:20:45):
That’s one way of looking at it? That is a positive lens that people who don’t have shame and embarrassment and the Itty Bitty Shitty Committee in their heads all the time.

For me, it’s just embarrassing and mortifying. The idea of having a little bit of grace, figuring out a way, being rational, and getting it sorted out? That’s a great concept.

But instead, I had a very emotional and ultimately quite detrimental reaction. To this day, I look back on it and maybe I’m mildly amused.

But I think about that all the time. Like that is a thing that I carry around with me every day. And that is part of my ADHD. It’s part of the shame I feel.

You touched on the idea that law students with ADHD may not have built all the scaffolding they need around them.

It isn’t just that, though.

Sure, they haven’t taken the steps that an ideal law student would have taken to master an examination at the end of their first semester.

But it is also that when they don’t and when they realize that they haven’t it. Then it isn’t just a matter of being rational and making the next right choice.

It is, “How do I pull myself out of this shame spiral that will lead to a bunch of other really bad decisions?”

That, for me, really resonated.

Erin Keyes (00:21:57):
There is so much shame around the manifestation of ADHD in law students. It’s the things that are left than done. The things they started but didn’t finish.

There’s a good reason why ADHD is so highly correlated with anxiety and depression. ADHD isn’t just a functional issue. It’s also an emotional issue. It’s critical to understand that, and ADHD students need to address all of those pieces.

Marshall Lichty (00:22:30):
I was literally talking about that concept with my ADHD coach this morning.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) (the “DSM”), ADHD’s diagnostic criteria for ADHD are strictly about the executive functions. It’s a functional diagnosis.

“Do you do this well? Do you do this well? Do you do this well? If you don’t, you probably have ADHD, and here’s how we make the diagnosis.” Boom.

And when they treat law students with ADHD, that treatment is often focused on the functional diagnosis of ADHD. Treatment focuses on building scaffolding by externalizing executive functions or outsourcing the executive functions.

The thing that we often don’t talk about—perhaps because it in the DSM at all as a diagnostic criterion—-is the emotional dysregulation of ADHD. It is that internal self talk. It’s the shame, the embarrassment, the rejection sensitivity (or “RSD”), and the imposter syndrome on steroids.

I love that you’re talking about building scaffolding for lawyers and law students with ADHD.

But there is also a mental health and wellness part, even though RSD and emotional dysregulation isn’t part of a formal ADHD diagnosis.

By the way, my ADHD coach thinks the DSM is just outdated. We now know that emotional dysregulation is a very real and very diagnostic criterion of ADHD.

He expects that emotional dysregulation and RSD will become part of the diagnosis in the next round of edits to the DSM.

Anyway, all of that is a tangent to say that building the scaffolding is part of treating ADHD in law students and lawyers, but it isn’t the whole thing.

Wellness for Law Students with ADHD

Maybe that’s a good time to talk about wellness.

You have a history of helping.

You have a really interesting background of having dedicated a career to helping people and making the world better.

And it now seems at the law school that you’re doing that for law students.

My impression is that you care very much about law students. But it might even be bigger than that, right?

If law students can be well and take good care of themselves, then they can “put on their oxygen masks” and help their clients well.

I want to talk about wellness in law school.

How are we doing at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere on lawyer wellbeing and law student wellness?

Erin Keyes (00:25:00):
Yeah.

For way too many decades, the answer has been “really badly.”

There are a lot of things in the legal profession that put a premium on how you look and how you come across to other people. If you want to get new clients, they need a sense of your abilities and competence.

We think clients will want to know what your “record” is, how many awards you have, how many verdicts you’ve won, or how successful you are in negotiations.

We tell ourselves those things are really important to show our clients and prospective clients.

The other side of that coin, though, is that lawyers and law students come to believe that the legal profession and individual lawyers can’t appear “weak.” They think they’ll look like they don’t know what they’re doing.

They don’t want to say, “I don’t know.”

And that perpetuates our problems with lawyer and law student wellbeing. “If you address underlying mental health challenges or issues, and you do so openly, it will mean you are a kind of failure.”

We’re all looking at what’s going on outside, and we’re not paying enough attention to what’s going on inside. And too often, what’s going on inside is people have real underlying struggles with ADHD or depression or anxiety or other mental health issues.

And rather than having space to say it is real, and that appropriate support can improve it, we say, “No one can know about this.”

And, historically, that’s been the way in the legal profession.

Marshall Lichty (00:26:48):
Why do we say that?

Why is that a thing for law students and lawyers?

I want part of this to be a discussion about emotions, but there are practical implications, too. (Or at least the impression that there are).

Erin Keyes (00:27:04):
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for law students getting help—whether it’s alcoholism or some other mental health issue—is the perception that help-seeking will hurt their employment prospects or even their ability to get a law license in the first place.

We know this because of the fantastic study about law student wellbeing that David Jaffe and Jerry Oregon (from St. Thomas School of Law) released several years ago.

That study was a really important complement to the lawyer wellbeing study released by Hazelden Betty Ford.

Marshall Lichty (00:27:43):
You’re talking about the law student wellbeing study?

Erin Keyes (00:27:45):
Exactly.

One important thing they measured for the first time was how we—as a legal community and as law schools in particular—are incentivizing, encouraging, supporting, and rewarding students to get help and deal with underlying mental health challenges.

That is, of course, opposed to what we’ve done historically, which is to attach a stigma to mental health. If someone has sought mental health care, maybe they shouldn’t have a license to practice law.

Marshall Lichty (00:28:19):
And that is actually institutionalized in a lot of state bar associations, right? There are bar associations around the country that actually ask specific questions about mental wellness and mental fitness on the licensing applications. Regardless of whether answering “yes” to those questions would actually prohibit you from getting a law license, law students and lawyers certainly have that perception.

This is all perpetuated by the regulatory agencies.

Erin Keyes (00:28:43):
I have a great example of some generational shifts that we’re in.

They say the legal profession is a decade or two behind other professions in lots of areas. But we’re catching up.

For example, we now know that rolling up your sleeves and doing things and experiential learning is a powerful part of becoming a competent lawyer. Now law schools are taking learning out of the classroom and the case books and focusing on real-life work. We’re developing a new understanding of experiential learning and its importance to learning and expertise.

Thankfully, we’re also trying to better understand barriers to entry to the legal profession for people from underrepresented backgrounds, like race, gender, and sexual orientation or identity.

So we’re trying to address all these things in the legal profession.

And now I’m excited that we are finally catching up when it comes to mental health issues.

I remember working with a fantastic student. This student was really outstanding, doing well in classes and extracurriculars and showing up as a campus leader in a lot of ways.

This student was going through a rough time. I can’t remember if it was a family situation or a breakup, but I remember talking to the student about their difficulties.

I thought it would be a good idea to talk with someone in our counseling center or their own private therapist. And they seemed open to the idea at first.

But when I followed up a couple months later, I learned that this student had also expressed these struggles to a supervising attorney in their job.

Marshall Lichty (00:30:50):
Oh boy.

Erin Keyes (00:30:50):
The supervising attorney said, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You absolutely cannot go talk to somebody. Why don’t you wait until after you apply for the bar and take the bar exam?”

Marshall Lichty (00:31:03):
…after flushing your mental health down the toilet for as long as you possibly can…

Erin Keyes (00:31:10):
Right?

That’s just one anecdote, but it represents what we’ve struggled with generationally.

There is this idea that lawyers are infallible (and that they should be).

And, even if lawyers and law students are not infallible, they certainly shouldn’t show weakness by saying, “Hey, I have a mental health disorder. “

That generational schism is really powerful.

And so that former student—who is out there doing fantastic things in the legal profession—didn’t get the help they needed. Not because they didn’t seek it out.

But someone in a position of authority said “that’s not a good idea.” Worse, they actively dissuaded the person. “No, you should not go do that.”

The message that lawyers and law students are picking up—whether explicit or implicit—is really powerful.

And it endures despite the best efforts of a lot of folks in the legal profession and in law schools to address mental health issues more openly.

Marshall Lichty (00:32:06):
Yes.

The Jaffe study says that 42 percent—almost half of all law students—need help for poor mental health.

Only a fraction seek it out.

Twenty-five percent are at risk for problem drinking. And only 4 percent have sought alcohol or drug abuse counseling.

You touched on something that’s really important:

This is not just that a person needs to “buck up” or become vulnerable or go get help or understand that there isn’t actually a stigma. In a lot of ways, there really is a stigma. And that’s why we need to be talking about this.

Early on in my legal career, there was at a time I was riding my bike a lot.

And riding your bike during the winter in Minnesota can get a bit cold. So I would grow a beard to keep my face warm on those cold mornings.

Anyway, I had become very close to this client, and he trusted me. He said, “there is a time when I would have never hired you with facial hair because my father told me that it is not professional to have facial hair.”

End of story.

ADHD and mental health are different than facial hair, of course.

But in many ways, some people in the “old guard” perpetuate all kinds of harmful myths. Like myths about getting support—for ADHD or depression or anxiety or substance abuse or alcohol abuse or relationship difficulties or any number of learning disabilities like dyslexia—will lead to challenges with bar admission, academic status, or their job.

They say there will be a stigma. There will be privacy concerns.

Having a mustache is not the kind of stigma that I worry about. But I definitely worry about the kind of stigma that leads people to live and suffer silently with a thing like ADHD that we know leads to anxiety, depression, inefficiency, exhaustion, shame, and so on.

And that is why I’m glad you’re talking about it.

Mental Health in Law Schools

So, the law school started a mental health committee.

You have a “wellness room.” You’ve actively engaged in the National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing. You even have the Theater for the Relatively Talentless (T.O.R.T.).

Tell me how law schools are supporting mental health and encouraging students in things other than figuring out who can log the most hours in the stacks.

Erin Keyes (00:34:54):
One of the most important things we are doing is talking about mental health and wellness a lot, and we’re talking about it in many venues.

I’m grateful that so much of the learning and guidance and mentoring happening in the law school is student-to-student. It’s peer mentoring.

We see that from legal writing instructors, academic support, student instructors, orientation leaders, journal editors, moot court directors… There are so many different ways that our more experienced students influence newer students to take care of themselves and to value wellness.

We know—and these students know—that wellness is as important to their professional development as the ability to cross-examine a client.

So for the past five years, we have used peer leader training in the fall semester to thank our students in peer mentorship roles. We also provide them with updated information and resources.

The law school administration provides some of the information, of course, but so much of the learning and the culture shift is happening because it’s important to students and students are driving the change.

For me, that’s the most important thing to recognize as having changed in the last decade. I love hearing about students coaching other students to figure out where student counseling services are on campus. I love hearing them talk openly with other students about what they need: “Oh, I can’t do that this afternoon because I have a therapy appointment, but let’s try for next week.”

These law students are working self-care, mental health care, and other healthy activities into day-to-day law school life in a way we haven’t seen before.

I bore myself sometimes with all the stuff I have to talk to people about. It’s great for law students with ADHD to hear from me. But it’s just different hearing another law student say, “Hey, have you checked out the law school’s resources page? It has lots of great information. And what you’re talking about sounds like something I got help for at X office or Y office.”

That kind of messaging is far more important than me or anyone else in an authority position saying “Thou shalt do this or that.”

It’s important because it’s taking the shame away from it. It’s regularizing. It is normalizing it. It puts value on it in a way that is a 180-degree shift from that older practitioner who told my former student to explicitly not seek out help.

Now we have a lot of students telling other students, “Hey, you know what, there’s lots of help for that, and here’s how you can find it.”

That peer-to-peer atmosphere is really powerful. And it makes me really optimistic and excited about how the profession is going to continue to do a better job in the future in dealing with the day to day needs of people who might need a little extra support here and there.

That includes lawyers and law students with ADHD.

You know, maybe some people are calendaring life in a way that might look a little odd to other practitioners or students, but they’re using tools that they know are going to help them maintain order and organization and execute on their clients’ needs.

It’s a culture change. And it has to happen on both the front lines and from the top down.

Marshall Lichty (00:39:12):
I love that.

Speaking of “top-down,” in August of 2017, about two years ago now, the National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing issued its now-famous lawyer well-being report (“The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change“).

That report summed up research from 2016 about abuse and pathology in the legal profession and really started a movement toward bringing mental health and wellness into the open and at a much higher level.

One of the very explicit recommendations for law schools is to create ways to empower students and to help fellow law students in need.

It sounds like you’re taking that to heart and that you’ve built an infrastructure for that.

And there are many other recommendations in there for law schools, regulators, and for a whole bunch of other places, including within law firms in particular.

I love the idea of talking about lawyer wellbeing and law student wellness in a much more open way.

We need to create places where people can find help if they need it. We also can’t dictate that everyone do it one particular way. We can’t dictate, “This is the way that you have to do it. You must go to a Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers meeting, or you must go to a private counselor, private therapist to get resources for this.”

It turns out you can go to a student, you can go to a professor, and you can go to a support group. I love that you’re working on systems to make that more real and a bigger part of the conversation.

Erin Keyes (00:40:45):
The other piece of this is: what help is available out there for students with ADHD and other mental health issues?

Sometimes that can be difficult to nail down, and especially in the context of ADHD.

Not every counselor or therapist has expertise in the many different ways that ADHD can manifest in law students. And so I try to coach students that when they’re looking for a counselor or a therapist, it is absolutely okay—likely, even—that they might meet with multiple therapists before finding the right fit.

It’s saddening when I have a student who may have barriers about seeking help in the first place (maybe they don’t have a context for that from their family history or maybe they’ve just taken the stigma messages to heart), and when they finally screw up the courage to walk across campus for an initial therapeutic meeting and it doesn’t feel like a good fit. And maybe it doesn’t help in the ways that they wanted it to on the first try.

Marshall Lichty (00:41:53):
There’s an even worse outcome, right?

There’s one outcome, that it didn’t feel right or felt gross, or felt uncomfortable. So they don’t want to go back.

But my experience—and the experience of many people like me, particularly for lawyers and people with high IQs (which is a big cohort within the legal industry—is that they might go to a therapist or a psychologist or a treater or diagnoser and say “here’s my social background.”

This was my experience. I sat down with a psychologist. I was referred to her. She claimed to have expertise in ADHD. I’d been suffering from anxiety. I went into “Roberta’s” office.

She sat down, we did my social history. And then she said, “Hold on, let me get this right… You graduated from college? You went to law school? You graduated from law school? You took the bar exam? You passed the bar exam? You practiced as a lawyer?

“Yeah.

“Well, you don’t have ADHD.”

And then “Roberta” proceeded to hold her nose as we did a bit more work.

Inevitably of course, what came back was a diagnosis of anxiety.

But I’d been treating for anxiety. I had medication for anxiety and it wasn’t doing a thing. Not one thing. And that experience with “Roberta” set me back six months at a minimum.

It wasn’t until my son was diagnosed that his doctor looked at me in my eye and said, “One of the biggest challenges we have with treating young boys with ADHD is that a lot of times it’s the blind leading the blind. We know it’s highly hereditary, and that one parent probably has some of this and that if he or she has it, and it’s undiagnosed, they’re gonna have a very hard time being useful to a son or daughter who has ADHD.”

And he was looking at me and said, “Does any of this resonate for anybody in your family?”

And then looked at my wife and said, “I know YOU don’t have ADHD!”

Roberta was an active disincentivizer for me. It was not just a benign “this didn’t feel right.” It was an actively destructive experience in my journey. I remember walking out of there thinking, “Well, my anxiety treatment isn’t working and I don’t have ADHD. I am out of choices. I don’t know what this is.”

Erin Keyes (00:44:03):
Then it starts to feel like it’s your fault.

Marshall Lichty (00:44:05):
Yup.

So your point is very well taken. We need to encourage students with ADHD to not stop after the first visit. And figure out a way to do that so it doesn’t feel shameful or like drug-seeking or whatever (which I’m sure is a thing that happens in law schools with people who just want Adderall to study better).

Erin Keyes (00:44:23):
Right.

And there’s another thing that I’ve seen over and over again. I’ll say it is “often” the case. It isn’t exclusively for women (because you went through the same challenge).

But the way ADHD manifests in people looks very different from person to person and from group to group.

For example, stereotypical hyperactivity may be more common in young boys. It often shows up there in ways that teachers or parents notice (and try to do something about). That’s why there are higher rates of diagnosis in boys than in girls, even though girls are similarly impacted by the inattentive type and they have the same challenges in terms of executing things the world and society tell them they need to do.

You made the point that people in the legal profession are a pretty smart group. We are often people who’ve been gifted with the kind of intelligence that tends to be rewarded in many contexts, including most of the US educational system.

Maybe we’re good at reviewing for a test at the last minute and doing really well anyway. Maybe we pull it off by dint of innate intelligence.

But for people with executive function struggles, like law students and lawyers with ADHD, their challenges are often muted or hidden altogether. Maybe they bend over backward to get things done. Maybe their intelligence allows them to solve problems in a way that lets them blend in.

Either way, they can pass.

I’ve had students who were not diagnosed with ADHD until after they started law school.

I think that’s a really important thing for them to do. They need to understand what treatments are available, medications that may help, and how ADHD can affect the remainder of their professional and personal existence.

Lawyers, law students, and others in (or entering) the legal profession do not all have the same view or approach or expertise in ADHD.

We have had students who were able to mute the impact of undiagnosed ADHD in their lives before law school. But once they set foot on campus, the strange new learning environment and the different pressures that gurgle up here make it impossible to mask the impact of ADHD, and they have to get help.

But then when it comes to seeking accommodations for the bar exam (as just one example), we have some professionals who say, “Prove it.”

There are lots of people in our profession who remain very skeptical about whether someone who was diagnosed with ADHD in law school really has ADHD or really needs accommodations for it.

They’re stuck there in the mythology of it. “Well, you’ve been successful in all these different capacities!”

Perhaps. But at what cost? At what cost has that success come?

Marshall Lichty (00:47:58):
“What is the delta between my potential and my performance? How dramatic is that difference? How much more could I deliver? How much better could I be doing things??

I want to do a couple of things before we wrap up. They’re important to me. I love this conversation though. And I can’t say enough about the work that you’re doing, that the law school is doing, and really that the profession is starting to do around lawyers and law students with ADHD.

I don’t think we’re anywhere near “peak ADHD awareness” or mental health awareness. But it’s starting. And people like you are a really critical part of that.

What is “Student Affairs,” and what does the Dean of Students do?

What is a Dean of Students?

What do Deans of Students do?

What are Student Affairs?

When I was in law school, I had an ambient awareness of who these people were. I actually liked one of them personally as a friend but had no idea what her job was.

I had no idea why I would go there.

Tell me, and tell the law students who might be listening, what is the student affairs department? What does the Dean of Students do? And if you are struggling in any way, shape, or form—or if you have a particular set of awesomeness that isn’t being met somewhere—what can you do?

Erin Keyes (00:49:13):
Student affairs looks a little different at every institution.

My view is really based on my 15 years of experience at the University of Minnesota Law School.

But in our iteration of student affairs, we (myself and my fantastic team members) break our work into three different areas. One is registration and records. You’ve got to get registered for classes. Somebody has got to enter those grades and calculate GPAs and figure out honors and how to protect student records. That’s law school registration and records.

Another really important area—-and this goes back to peer leadership and the cultural aspects of law school—is student community and leadership development.

We have our senior coordinator for diversity and student programs who runs orientation and works with student leaders to implement fantastic activities on campus.

Our student organizations make the law school hallways an ongoing marketplace of ideas in a really positive way. That’s the real community-building aspect of student affairs.

Erin Keyes (00:50:40):
I spend a lot of my time in the third area: support and standards.

Probably not surprisingly, people coming to law school find entirely new sets of standards and expectations for the things that they need to know, do, and value as future professionals.

Marshall Lichty (00:51:03):
Sure. You came in as this. You’re green. And when you get to the end of the law school road, we will know you succeeded if you have accomplished or learned or learn to develop or deploy these things.

Erin Keyes (00:51:11):
Right.

All law schools have their own version of this, but every law school has a set of learning outcomes.

What does a student need to know and be able to do when they graduate?

At Minnesota Law, our student affairs office and our support and standards role help students learn about—and meet—those learning outcomes.

I have always loved the idea from a speaker named Werten Bellamy that if we want to have a more open and accessible and welcoming law school learning environment, we have to give everyone “sightlines.”

And they need sightlines from the moment they step into law school. How do we help them see the steps along the way?

We don’t want an environment where some law students have had access to all this information—maybe they have lawyers in their family?—and others don’t.

We need that information accessible to every law student from the beginning. That’s what learning outcomes do.

Marshall Lichty (00:52:16):
Can I interrupt for a second?

I want to flag some of these learning outcomes.

I can tell you, there are a lot of reasons I would fail out of law school these days. One of them is that everyone who goes to law school is way smarter than me.

Believe me, all of my classmates were really brilliant, but now, even the brightest of the bright probably wouldn’t get in because it’s amazing what’s happening at the law schools with their levels of talent.

But as you know, there are some very ADHD-relevant learning outcomes at the University of Minnesota Law School:

  • Communicate directly with organization, focus, purpose, and clarity.
  • Listen to and engage with clients to identify client objective objectives and interests.
  • Manage complex workflow diligently, reliably, and within deadlines.
  • Respond effectively to criticism and other feedback.
  • Seek and use resources where necessary to address personal challenges.

There are others.

But these are the foundational building blocks of legal education.

And law students with ADHD are challenged in their very neocortexes to do those things effectively.

If you are a person who struggles with those things like I am…

Erin Keyes (00:53:34):
Whether or not you’re diagnosed with anything…

Marshall Lichty (00:53:40):
Totally. Totally!

Regardless of whether you’re diagnosed with ADHD—and particularly if you’re not diagnosed—you take your ass down to the student affairs office and you take your ass into the Dean of Students and you say, “I need help.”

The things a robust law school curriculum demands on law students can lead to mighty struggles. It’s okay to say, “I am struggling mightily, and I need your help.”

That is what the Office of Student Affairs does.

Erin Keyes (00:54:03):
There is one important clarification though.

As the Dean of Students, I am not the person—and no one on my team is the person—who can tell a student how to address particular challenges. I don’t have the right letters after my name. I don’t have that expertise.

What I can do, though, is help students evaluate the many different options that are available to them on campus, through the broader university, or offsite through specialty clinics, (very popular podcasts), or Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, which has an ongoing support group.

Going back to that whole cultural piece, being able to sit in a room with other really smart people who’ve struggled with ADHD and its manifestations—diagnosed or undiagnosed— to sit with people who’ve had similar challenges can be really empowering.

I’ve had great feedback from people who have participated in that LCL ADHD Support Group.

You don’t have to show up with a diagnosis to participate. Just show up and join the conversation. Again, that sense of empowerment can really help to us feel more effective, even when we don’t feel like we have power or autonomy, where we struggle to make and execute on good decisions.

If we get a sense of support from our peers, from faculty, from student affairs, or from other people on campus, it helps encourage people to make good on and implement good ideas, like getting yourself into work with a therapist or get a diagnosis or get evaluated and recognize that there are a ton of options out there.

Marshall Lichty (00:56:07):
The encouragement that I have, and that I hear you echo, is really…

Just start.

If things we’ve talked about are obvious in your career as a lawyer or your burgeoning career as a law student… if it becomes obvious there are outcomes that you are struggling with… Just start.

Just start the process of figuring out a way to figure out a way.

Go to the Dean. Go to the Dean of Students. Go to the Office of Student Affairs. Sure… go to a therapist.

The scaffolding I have built around me since my diagnosis involves an ADHD coach, a therapist, a couples and parenting counselor, and an ADHD entrepreneur mastermind group. I go to the LCL ADHD support group. I have a productivity nerdery that I engage in…

All of which is designed very specifically to help me with the tactics of becoming better with some biological impediments to executive function that I have.

None of those things is The Answer. But they can all be part of the answer.

If you are in law school, part of finding your own answer is to start somewhere.

Certainly someone like Erin Keyes or someone in student affairs, but also you know, anyone peer-to-peer or, therapy or coach or whatever.

Just start.

Erin Keyes (00:57:34):
Yes, absolutely.

Marshall Lichty (00:57:36):
I want to wrap up.

Thank you. Thank you for the work you’re doing. Thank you for bringing your voice to the conversation. I know that you have such a long history of helping people. And what’s super meta about it is you actually have a history of helping people who help people.

You do that with your work on the Lawyers’ Repayment Assistance Program, which helps people who want to do low bono and less profitable professions actually do them in a way that they can afford without being burdened by law school loans.

And also, of course, helping at the law school and elsewhere. Tell me: if you could wave a magic wand, what part of ADHD do you wish that everybody on the planet had?

Erin Keyes (00:58:28):
Curiosity.

“Attention deficit” is such a bad description of ADHD.

What I have seen in a lot of lawyers and law students with ADHD is a real openness to learning and a curiosity about how things work.

The reality is that once someone’s curiosity is piqued, they can hyperfocus and really dive into a topic or a project and do incredible work.

That sense of curiosity and wonder and interest can be really infectious if it’s channeled in a helpful way.

Marshall Lichty (00:59:12):
And it is something that our profession desperately needs.

Erin Keyes (00:59:16):
Absolutely.

Marshall Lichty (00:59:18):
And I guess the converse—and I’m not going to end on a down note because I’m then going to tell people how to find you and your awesomeness—but the quasi-downside is:

If you could wave the same magic wand across the whole wide world and you could make one part of ADHD disappear forever, what part would that be?

Erin Keyes (00:59:37):
Analysis paralysis.

Analysis paralysis is the trap of sorting through all of your options without landing on something to execute.

A lot of law students with ADHD—and a lot of us in life—struggle with that sometimes…

We worry about all of the possible outcomes. We’re taught to do this in law. But sometimes that leads to paralysis and getting stuck.

If I could wave a wand, I would help people get rid of analysis paralysis so they could just “get ‘er done,” so to speak.

Marshall Lichty (01:00:21):
Just start.

It’s the perfectionism, it’s the feeling that “I can craft a perfect solution if I just work harder, write longer, research more, find one case, spend a bit more time, research one more solution for my law firm’s technology solution…”

Erin Keyes (01:00:43):
Right. “But have I found the perfect case? Have I found the perfect case?” Yep.

Marshall Lichty (01:00:50):
Yep, and until I do, I’m completely locked up and I can’t move.

I love that idea.

It’s weird. People with ADHD are accused of having impulsiveness. They’re accused of making choices really quickly, and yet the way that it manifests itself oftentimes is “I can’t start” or “I can’t finish.”

I love that advice.

Well, Dean Erin Keyes…

You are a soldier in this fight.

I appreciate the work that you are doing so much.

I know that you have a lot to add to this conversation and a lot to offer the students who are graced with a University of Minnesota Law School education.

I encourage people to track Dean Keyes down on Twitter, where she’s medium involved. You can find her @Dean_Keyes.

The best way to find her is by email at keye0019@umn.edu.

Erin, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Keep up the wonderful work, please keep talking about this, and we will see you along the path.

Erin Keyes (01:02:02):
All right, thanks so much, Marshall, and thanks for keeping this important conversation going. I’m happy to take part and, and as always, I’m always learning as well.

Marshall Lichty (01:02:11):
So, listen, that’s Erin Keyes. And that’s law school with ADHD.

I’m so thankful that she joined me to talk about this stuff. We are just at the beginning of making this easier and making this better.

I gave a speech not terribly long ago to a room full of people at a major law firm in Minneapolis.

As we were getting set up, I had to get my slides set up and the host was there helping me work it out.

A senior partner from that law firm walked by, poked his head in the door, and asked what we were going to be talking about.

They said, “we’re going to talk about legal professionals with ADHD.”

And that guy rolled his eyes and said, “I guess?”

And he walked away in a very dismissive way.

He is just one person. And I can’t lay on all of the senior partners in all of the law firms responsibility for hearing the voices of people with ADHD in our profession.

But there is a hill to climb and a hurdle to overcome.

It is a fact that there are many people in our profession who don’t understand what ADHD is, how prevalent it is, and what the ramifications of ADHD—diagnosed or undiagnosed—really are for people like us.

I want to encourage that law firm partner, of course, but also all of you.

If you have any sense at all that you or someone around you has ADHD (diagnosed or otherwise), let’s be talking about it.

Let’s listen to Dean Keyes and think about ways we can make this better in our profession. Let’s not just eliminate the bad stuff, but think about what it looks like for us to maximize the good stuff.

I want to encourage you to go the website, to reach out to me, to join the mailing list, to talk to your law schools, talk to your law firms about ADHD and JDHD.

I would love to work together and I would love to help make ADHD easier. Law is hard enough.

Thank you so much for staying with me, I’ll see you around the way.

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Practicing law is hard. There’s a lot to get right. We must—first and foremost—help our clients in the best way possible. The medical profession has its Hippocratic Oath (“First, do no harm.”)

 

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