Stanford law professor creates new way to help students deal with the stress of it all

Law school and anxiety seem to go together for many students, but Stanford law Professor Joe Bankman wants to help students dial down the pressure using techniques he has learned while studying for another degree – in clinical psychology.

Joe Bankman

Stanford Law School Professor Joe Bankman has launched a pilot project on emotional health among law students based on his studies in behavioral psychology at the Stanford School of Medicine. (Image credit: Linly Harris)

Six years ago, Joe Bankman, a professor at Stanford Law School, wanted to broaden his legal scholarship.  So in his spare time, he went back to school to train as a clinical psychologist.

“I never intended to quit my day job,” he said.  “But my scholarship and policy work were venturing into behavioral psychology and the law, and I wanted to understand more about human behavior.”

Bankman decided to enroll in the Palo Alto University/Stanford School of Medicine joint PsyD (doctor of psychology) program, for which he is currently completing an internship in his fifth and final year.   

But while Bankman went into the program with scholarship and policy projects in mind, he came out of it with another goal as well.

“I have all these brilliant students whom I can help by giving them some useful knowledge and improving their analytical skills.  But, as I came to realize over the years, if they crash and burn it will not be because they lack these necessary skills.  It will be because they lack emotional resilience to cope with the stresses and challenges of a demanding professional career.  Like millions of others, they need help with anxiety and, for some, depression,” he said.

So Bankman launched a pilot project on emotional health among law students.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

He knew that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been successfully used to treat anxiety, and that simply providing information on emotional issues and treatments is often helpful.   He collaborated with Barbara Fried, the William W. and Gertrude H. Saunders Professor in Law at Stanford and Ian Ayres, a professor of law at Yale, to design a two-hour course for first-year law students.  The course presents anxiety from a CBT perspective and describes some CBT techniques for reducing anxiety.

In the first hour, the professor asks students to think of a situation that might raise their anxiety. 

“The classic scenario is being cold-called and flubbing the answer,” said Bankman.  “So, Barbara or Ian might say to the students, ‘Imagine that I call on you and you blow it.’ “

Once the anxiety-inducing situation has been recreated, the professor asks the students to immediately record and report their negative thoughts and the counterproductive behaviors that might follow as a result.

“For instance,” Bankman said, “a student might think, ‘I don’t belong in law school,’ or ‘Everyone is going to think I’m an idiot.’  The behavioral response, in turn, might be, ‘I’m not going to speak again unless forced to,’ or ‘I’m going to go out and get drunk.’ “

The professor then assigns the students 10 pages of reading about anxiety and depression focused on dealing with negative thoughts and counterproductive behavior.  A week later, during the second hour, the professor gives the students an anonymized typed list of the thoughts and behaviors that the students reported in the first class, and the group discusses techniques for combating them. 

“Hearing that other people experience similar thoughts in the same situation helps normalize the feelings of anxiety,” Bankman said.  “And hearing the ‘wisdom of the herd’ is invaluable in encouraging more positive behavioral responses.”

Finally, the professor challenges the students to use one of the cognitive or behavioral coping techniques before the end of the quarter.  Students then report whether they have done so and whether they experienced any diminution in their anxiety levels.

Fried and Ayres have offered the program on a voluntary basis twice over the last two years – Fried to her students in first-year Contracts and Ayres to Yale’s first-year class of approximately 200 students. The student response has been overwhelmingly positive. As one student put it, “More than anything, I loved the opportunity to see that everyone else is feeling the same thing and to talk openly about something I’ve thought about a ton but never discussed with anyone.”

Useful in daily life

One hundred percent of Fried’s 27 students who evaluated the program in 2013 agreed that it should be offered again.  And when Fried followed up with her students a year and a half later, they reported using the techniques not only in law school but also in their daily lives. 

This was exactly the result that Bankman had hoped for.

“If we can expose students to useful anxiety-reducing techniques when they enter law school, they’ll have a much greater chance of avoiding the debilitating effects of chronic anxiety and depression both in school and in practice,” he said.

Bankman, the Ralph M. Parsons Professor of Law and Business, sees a new focus on the emotional health of students, citing some recent efforts by others at the law school. Ronald Tyler, associate professor of law and director of the Criminal Defense Clinic, has introduced students to stress-relieving practices that center on mindfulness.  And a workshop on mindfulness meditation was offered to law students during the winter quarter, taught by Stanford Deputy General Counsel Tom Fenner, JD ’76 (BA ’73), in conjunction with recently launched wellness outreach efforts through the Office of the Dean of Students.

Bankman acknowledged that CBT is not the only way to address the challenges students may face with anxiety, but noted that he is encouraged by the positive results of the CBT pilot project.

 “I think a lot of faculty members are interested in doing something like this,” Bankman said.  “My fantasy is that the fairly simple and straightforward methodology of this course will resonate broadly with law faculty and that law schools throughout the country will be inspired to adopt it.”

As for Bankman’s day job, he has managed to teach a full course load while pursuing his degree and he has no plans to cut back on his law school commitments once he completes his doctoral studies. Moreover, as anticipated, his understanding of psychology is filtering into his scholarship, too. He recently wrote a paper, Using the ‘Smart Return’ to Reduce Tax Evasion.

This article originally appeared in Stanford Lawyer magazine.

Media Contacts

Terry Nagel, Law School, (650)-678-7082, (650) (723-2232 (cell),
Dan Stober, Stanford News Service, (650) 721-6965,