Law school struggles may be sign of ADHD or substance abuse

Issue September 2005

Q:I am concerned about my daughter who is now in law school. She is a very bright person and did relatively well in high school and college without strenuous study. Now, she complains that she cannot keep up with the reading (doing it and absorbing the material) in law school, and thinks she is falling behind her peers. It's not depression -- she's very energetic, but doesn't sit still for long. In fact, reading between the lines, I have the impression she is very active socially and perhaps sexually. Do you know what's going on?

A:Diagnostically, there are a number of possibilities. We mention some of them here for your edification, but we do not encourage you to try to make the diagnosis yourself.

The simplest possibility would be that, because learning has always come easy, your daughter never really had to learn how to develop well-organized and prioritized study habits. Others who may be less gifted but who have acquired effective study skills may have an advantage in managing the heavier workload of law school. If this is the case, coaching or tutoring might be helpful.

It is also possible that she is manifesting some variant of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which could account for both her limited attention span for reading and her restlessness. Some intelligent students are able to get through high school and even college with untreated ADHD (or an associated learning disorder), but their strategies for doing so may fail when faced with the need to quickly assimilate a lot of factual material that builds upon earlier learning.

To complicate matters, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the restless energy of ADHD from the manic energy of bipolar disorder, the treatments for which are quite different. Treatment for ADHD might be a combination of coaching and stimulant medication, for example, while bipolar disorder would be treated with mood stabilizing medication.

In addition, your sense that she is "very active socially and perhaps sexually" may also suggest some involvement with alcohol or other drugs, calling for still other approaches to treatment. Many people have more than one of these conditions, any one of which may become more noticeable or problematic under high stress conditions.

Lastly, it could also be that your daughter is behaviorally manifesting feelings of disillusionment with, or conflict about, her law school experience and questioning her choice, and could benefit from an opportunity to sort out her thoughts and feelings with a therapist or other good sounding board.

A careful, extended professional evaluation may be needed to gradually sort out the questions involved. If she were to come to LCL for an initial assessment, we would develop some provisional conclusions, and, on the basis of those, would refer her to a clinician for ongoing attention. Each of these kinds of problems, if applicable, can be addressed productively, but the first task is to collaborate with your daughter in taking a closer look.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

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