Journal of Leadership and the Law

Spotlight on Babak Zarin L'14:
Capstone Project on Preventative and Professional Wellness Programming in Law Schools

Babak Zarin, Elon Law Class of 2014By Morgan Furman L’16

>> Babak Zarin L'14

Originating in eastern philosophy, the wellness movement cultivated an initial following in the United States during the counter-culture movement in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet it has only recently gained traction and popularity with the recent increase in wellness initiatives and programs in educational institutions.  In the past fifteen to twenty years, researchers have begun to investigate why law is one of the unhappier professions and how certain factors in law school may breed attorneys who are destined to continue the cycle of personal and professional dissatisfaction, Krieger, Lawrence S. and Sheldon, Kennon M., What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes with Data from 6200 Lawyers (2014).  Babak Zarin, a 2014 graduate of Elon University School of Law, completed a capstone project on the demand for wellness programming at the law school level to prevent unhappy and unhealthy attorneys.

Zarin has always been concerned with wellness, as he comes from a line of teachers and has a natural capacity for counseling others. Zarin explained that his “… interest in wellness began back in high school, where [he] was given the chance to complete a capstone-style project called a ‘senior exhibit.’ As someone who is drawn to helping people, [he] chose to learn about addressing issues of wellness among teenagers. [He] learned a great deal, and [his] interest has grown ever since.”  During his undergraduate studies at St. John’s College, Zarin took seminar-style courses that emphasized dialogue and group engagement, an emphasis on being involved in community that appealed to his outlook on wellness.  During his first year at Elon Law, Zarin set a goal for himself to create a capstone project that would address the issue of wellness in the legal profession and in law schools, and his research on the topic seeks to inform Elon Law and other law schools of the benefit and necessity of instilling wellness as a value at the law school level.  Zarin explained that his passion for connecting with others and contributing to his community were motivation for engaging in a capstone project. “When the chance to do a Capstone emerged in my 3L year, I took the opportunity as a way of giving back to the Elon Law community,” he stated.

Zarin saw need for wellness programming at Elon Law and took it upon himself to create awareness amongst faculty, students, and administration about the value of maintaining wellness, particularly within the confines of a tense and demanding academic environment such as law school.  Wellness is defined in many ways, and Zarin chose to model his approach to wellness in a broad fashion, drawing on Yale Law School’s model, an eight pronged ven diagram (see chart).  This approach to wellness encompasses eight specific, yet flexible facets of an individual’s daily life and asserts that each factor in combination with the others create an individual wellness chain.  This chain varies in degrees of balance depending on the attention given to and needed in each arena.  Emotional, financial, social, spiritual, occupational, physical, intellectual, and environmental factors interact in this approach, and wellness programming would address the interplay or lack thereof and how to best balance the eight facets of one’s life.

wellness graphic
^ Image courtesy of  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

From his research and exploration into the pressing need for institutionalizing wellness in law schools, Zarin determined the best way to frame wellness in the legal profession is two-pronged: professionalism and prevention.  The fact that for potential attorneys to successfully pass the bar, they have to satisfy character, fitness, and wellness requirements in addition to the written examination is an indication of the role wellness plays in the professional arena.  Even if focusing on personal wellness is not an individual preference, the field now requires it of attorneys.  There have traditionally been significant issues of substance abuse and stress management throughout the legal profession, and taking proactive steps to maintain wellness is vital to effectively serving the community and one’s clients.  Krieger, Lawrence S. and Sheldon, Kennon M., What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes with Data from 6200 Lawyers (2014).  In order to prepare law students to lead careers as well-adjusted and thriving attorneys and individuals, building wellness as a value must take place during law school.

Zarin first studied literature on the topic, conducted many informal interviews of peers and faculty, and then crafted and dispatched a survey to students at Elon Law asking questions, ranging from their individual knowledge of and experiences with wellness to their awareness of the expansive resources available to them at Elon Law to their and others’ outlooks on the topic of wellness programming.  The overarching theme of the survey results showed that Elon Law offers a plentiful breadth of wellness resources, but students lack awareness of and access to these resources.  Zarin’s research showed that Elon Law collaborates with BarCARES and North Carolina Lawyer Assistance programming, offers referral lists to counselors, and has a wealth of literature in the law library.  The law school also has a partnership with the downtown YMCA and access to Elon Main Campus’ health center.  Students at Elon Law benefit from individual mentoring opportunities such as the preceptor program and smaller class size, which inevitably correlates to occasion for closer relationships between faculty and students.  Zarin noted that Elon’s wealth of resources is quite progressive, as many law schools do not have nearly the amount of resources and programming available to students.  Many law schools’ primary, if not sole, resources are their undergraduate health centers and some literature; these schools may view wellness as a facet of one’s personal life, whereas the reality is that wellness is an integral part of the legal education and profession.  

Because Elon Law is a young school, where flexibility reigns in the world of creating new programs and editing the existing systems, Zarin notes that there is a wealth of opportunity for growth in wellness programming.  A poor wellness environment can lead to poor academic performance, and the issues continue to compound, ultimately leading to professionals who do not go on to become successful or happy in their careers and personal lives. Zarin believes “that by raising awareness of wellness issues activities, building and reinforcing positive relationships between students and the Elon Law community, and taking proactive measures to abate and manage stress, Elon can help students both in fostering a positive and supportive environment in the law school and in learning how to cope with the pressures of practice, pressures that when left unchecked can result in high levels of distress and even trauma.”  Notably, since Zarin’s graduation, Elon Law has already adapted its wellness programming with the introduction of on-site counseling services available to students.  Through his leadership in this arena, Zarin was able to jumpstart the adaptation and growth of wellness programming at Elon Law.

Rhonda V. Magee, Professor of Law at University of San Francisco, asserts that the legal profession needs “new kinds of lawyers and community leaders—civic-committed professionals with a greatly enhanced set of skills, capable of more effectively responding to the twenty-first century’s most pressing needs—a holistic (vertical and horizontal) integration of the best knowledge of our interconnected economic, environmental, and social crisis.” Rhonda V. Magee, Educating Lawyers to Meditate?, Vol. 79:3, UMKC L. Rev. (2010).  Babak Zarin is the type of new lawyer and leader that the profession seeks.  He detected an issue in his community and sought a remedy.  The legal profession has not traditionally been one to embrace the concept of wellness and the need for preventative care of oneself within the industry.  Id.  Accepting and promoting wellness at the law school level is the first step to creating a new generation of attorneys who are better able to manage and embrace the inevitable stresses the industry throws at them.  If and when more law schools integrate preventative and professional wellness programs as a priority in their curriculums, the result will surely be more positive, balanced, thriving young attorneys, and ultimately a legal culture and environment to match them.