COUNSELING FOR DISTRESSED STUDENTS
By Alexandra Duran
Perspectives on Career Services,
National Association for Law Placement, Inc. (NALP),
Law school, for many students, requires complete
attention. They may find it rigorous, demanding, and all consuming.
But running an effective job search campaign will require students
to pull themselves away from those demands and concentrate on finding
a job. Law school career service counselors can provide balance
and perspective for students who may feel distressed and overwhelmed
as their law school education nears its end.
Students experience distress for any number of reasons. In a tight
job market, even those at the top of the class are concerned that
their hopes of securing a fabulous offer may not be met. In stronger
economic times, the expectation, and therefore the pressure, can
increase since everyone is expected to secure a position with bragging
rights. A student who has not landed such work in an up economy
may feel that he or she has failed miserably.
Law school can be highly competitive and demanding, bringing out
the best, and the worst, in even the calmest student. The highs
are wonderful and the lows often paralyzing. Students may feel depressed,
anxious, angry, guilty, or nervous; they may have difficulty in
concentrating, remembering things, and in making decisions. They
often arrive on the doorstep of the career services office just
before a critical deadline, full of urgency, and with poorly defined
Counseling relationships, by their nature, create and engender feelings
of safety and trust. One by-product of that closeness is that all
or some of these symptoms of distress may be brought into the career
counseling relationship -- intentionally or otherwise. It takes
a well-grounded counselor to stay centered and focused with students
and help them manage their distress. The goal? To solve the current
problem brought to you as well as to teach some stress management
skills along the way.
The Career Counseling
Make the Environment Speak for You
It all begins with the first thing students see -- the physical
space. The office environment is one critical indicator of what
you stand for: consistency and professionalism. The career services
office should be decorated in a cheerful, gender-neutral, professional
manner -- neat and clean without extraneous personal items. You
want the very first message to be: Welcome! We are knowledgeable,
experienced, business professionals who are in control of the process
and we are here to partner with you to achieve your career goals.
Be a Model of Good Behavior
When a student arrives in the career services office, your demeanor
should be inviting, optimistic, confident, and pragmatic. Perhaps
the most influential tools you have at your disposal are your nonjudgmental
tone and attitude, and your desire to be on the student's side.
You have the skill to see the world from his or her perspective
without buying into any negativity. Another valuable tool is your
ability to avoid taking any of the student's symptoms of distress
personally. Instead, recognize them for what they are and assist
students in effectively managing their distress so it does not inhibit
their academic or professional success. Deal directly with issues,
stay calm, use humor where appropriate, and remember: you can say
almost anything to anyone as long as you say it with kindness and
You and the student both bring enormous expertise to this process
-- use each other in building the relationship. Your role is twofold:
counselor as well as expert. Your knowledge about the market and
how to secure a good position is fundamental to students’
success. Students are experts as well -- about themselves, their
skills, interests, talents, and passions.
An expert counselor provides realistic facts
and advice about the job market and opportunities. The key is to
deliver all this information and help students find a good fit without
dampening their enthusiasm for their job search campaigns. Helping
students remain grounded in what is possible, what is available,
and the effort required to make it happen, is instrumental in ensuring
success and managing their stress. In other words, addressing reality
is your job!
How to Do It within the Counseling
Student distress is often the result of feeling out of control,
helpless, powerless, and generally overwhelmed. As the career counselor,
the more you assist the student in regaining a feeling of control,
the more you may ensure a successful job search campaign.
What is the best and simplest way to achieve this? Begin the counseling
relationship by creating a contract at the very beginning. Identify
the student's expectations, clarify his or her goals and agree upon
how to mutually reach them. Then make a plan -- and then do everything
you can to make the process transparent and predictable. Explain
the job search process to the student, outlining the following steps
the student should take as part of that process:
short-term and intermediary goals in light of long-term
personal skills, interests, and talents
an extensive study of the market
the intersection of personal assessments and the market
Research selected organizations
that represent the best match of market need and personal profile
Research targeted individuals who
can either hire or have influence over hiring decisions
Create a resume targeted to previously
identified organizations and individuals
Write a targeted cover letter that
includes a template with key information
Prepare for interviewing, including
honing oral and non-verbal communication skills
Write detailed follow-up letters to everyone with whom the student
specific appointments and explain that you expect the student to
be prompt, and always finish the session on time. Each appointment
should end with the assignment of specific, limited, and detailed
tasks to keep the process moving and provide small successes each
week. Too often, law school courses provide no feedback until the
final exam or posted grade. Appointments with a career counselor
should be wonderfully different -- lots of small milestones achieved,
regular and consistent feedback, and affirming, supportive conversation.
Reframing issues in their most positive light does so much to guarantee
further work, greater commitment, faster progress, and ultimate
Be a generous source of knowledge and assistance. When you ask a
student to do something, such as conduct research on Martindale-Hubbell,
give him or her examples that illustrate exactly how it's done.
Remember, if the student is in distress, he or she will be anxious,
unfocused, and unable to remember simple things. You can help by
providing solutions that facilitate taking control and being successful
Always remember to assume nothing. Concentrate on listening intently
and clarify whatever you don't fully understand. Be comfortable
in asking questions -- sometimes the student will be relieved simply
by thinking out loud as he or she responds. Being heard, appreciated,
and understood eases feelings of isolation -- another common symptom,
if not cause, of distress.
Encourage the Student to Do It without
The greatest resistance you may encounter will be the students'
protests that they don't have enough time to conduct an effective
job search. The unfortunate reality is that this may be true. Compounding
that is the exhaustion that usually accompanies depression. Physical
activity can often lighten situational depression; so recommend
regular exercise, especially aerobic, at every opportunity.
Relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation, and regular massages,
are also well-accepted stress reduction techniques. Some may find
these approaches too touchy-feely, and that's fine. You can only
suggest that students investigate these and do whatever works best
for them. Your goal is to be perceived as business-like, creative,
and in control of a valuable substantive area of knowledge. In fact,
your objective is to be perceived this way because that is exactly
what you are.
Another excellent recommendation is an interactive job search support
group. It may be one you personally run at your career services
office -- a great idea as it keeps students connected to your office.
It also provides an opportunity for you to gain greater insight
into each student and his or her goals -- invaluable information
in helping you help students find a good fit.
There is a place for each of us in this world, and with your guidance,
each student can find his or her rightful place within the legal
community. Strive to be a career counselor who understands students
and in whom every student can confide, providing pragmatic ideas
and realistic goals. There is no one else who has played that role
for students in law school and they look to career services professionals
for that level and kind of support. A law student's career counselor
is the knowledgeable professional, guide, partner, and cheerleader
in his or her professional life and, very likely, someone he or
she will never, ever, forget.
Duran, a former general counsel of Fashion Institute of Technology,
began her legal career at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, LLP.
Founder and principal of Career Transitioning, she coaches attorneys
in advancing their careers.
Return to Media & Publications