‘Admissible’ Episode 6: Mental Health and Resilience in Law School and Legal Practice

Sarah Davies
November 22, 2022

UVA Law Dean of Students Sarah Davies offers advice on how law students can prioritize their mental health while in school, and explains why the trait of resilience is critical for future lawyers to possess. In addition to detailing the various mental health and wellness resources available at UVA Law, Dean Davies recounts stories from her own journey to law school, legal practice, and higher education.


NATALIE BLAZER: I invited UVA Law Dean of students Sarah Davies to join me on admissible because I wanted her to share how important it is to take care of your physical and mental well-being, not only in law school, but also during the admissions process and in your legal career. We recorded this episode before the tragic loss of 3 UVA students last week. In the wake of this tragedy, I find Dean Davey's message about resilience and her dedication to the being of our students, especially relevant.

I am particularly grateful to Dean Davies for all she and her team have done for our community as we all continue to process our grief. All right, here's the episode. This is Admissible I'm Natalie Blazer, Dean of admissions at UVA Law. Thanksgiving holiday is coming up this week in the US, and because of that, I wanted to take a small break from talking about the law school application process itself.

I hope that any listeners who have been hard at work on their applications will also take a break for a few days this week. Instead today, we're going to focus on wellness and student life at UVA Law. Particularly focusing on why wellness is so important to a successful law school experience and legal career. So I'm excited to welcome today's guest to the show, our very own Dean of students Sarah Davies. Dean Davies is a UVA Law alumna herself.

In fact, she's a double who having attended UVA undergrad as well. And she came back to the law school in 2014 to serve as Dean of students. We are so lucky to have Dean Davies on today to hear about UVA Law from an applicant's perspective, a student's perspective, and a dean's perspective. Welcome to Admissible Dean Davies.

SARAH DAVIES: Thank you. It's fun to be here.

NATALIE BLAZER: And I like to start each show with a fun fact about our guests. So if you are applying to law school today, and you wanted the admissions committee to get to you better through your application materials, what's one thing you would share about yourself with them.

SARAH DAVIES: So I think I would probably talk something about resilience, because I think resilience is a really important characteristic of lawyers, and also law students. A few years ago, I had a horse, a lovely horse. And I fell off of my lovely horse, and really, really hurt myself. I broke 10 bones in one day. And had a big concussion. And a collapsed lung. I mean it, was really pretty severe. And I was out of work for seven weeks.

And one of the things that I learned through that experience was first just how hard it is when your body isn't working the way you need it to and when things are broken, and things not working. And then secondly, just how strong I actually am. That my body healed, and I got better. And I was able to persevere. And I think that skill of being able to get yourself back up again when something really awful happened, is really important.

NATALIE BLAZER: I could not agree more. You have to get back on the horse.

SARAH DAVIES: Of course you would use that.

NATALIE BLAZER: I'm sure you've heard that before, but I couldn't help myself. And also, I love that you shared that, because a question about resilience is actually a new question on the UVA Law application this year. And I've been reading a lot of really great responses. And I couldn't agree with you more. It's a very important quality to have for everyone, but especially, I think, future lawyers. And law students who are going to face a lot of setbacks and obstacles. So as I alluded to, I would love to hear about your own application process, 22-year-old Sarah Davies. What do you remember about that process?

SARAH DAVIES: Well, first of all, I was a hot mess. Hot mess. I was in my fourth year at UVA, and I was a history major. I had no idea what I wanted to do. And so in the fall of my fourth year, I took the LSAT one weekend, the next weekend I took the GMAT for business school, and the weekend after that I took the GRE. And I didn't study for any of them. I just went in and took them.

And did the best on the LSAT, but I didn't if I wanted to go to law school. So I puttered around, and finally on the day that my law school application was due, my boyfriend came to pick me up in his Camaro because it was 1986. And he drove me to the law school where I ran into the building and took my paper application, because it was all in paper back then. And put it in the admissions box.

They had like a giant box outside their door, literally at 450 in the afternoon. So I was a hot mess. Really, really bad.

NATALIE BLAZER: But it worked out for you.

SARAH DAVIES: But it worked out.


SARAH DAVIES: And I got admitted. And on the same day that I got my letter, I also got a job offer in Washington DC, and so I called the law school and asked if I could defer, and they let me defer for two years. And it did not take long in my career for me to realize that I should have gone to law school, but I'm still grateful that I had the time in between law school and college. I think it was actually good for me. But yeah, I totally didn't have a clue what I wanted.

NATALIE BLAZER: Wow, well, as I said, it did work out for you. Given that you took two years before, do you feel that helped better set you up for success in law school?

SARAH DAVIES: So I think for me, it was really important. I hadn't had a lot of setbacks in my academic career, I had done honors programs. And all of those things. And so academics always came really easily for me. So I think that working for me, nobody cares where you went to school. And nobody cares that your grade point average was whatever. And you get negative feedback, because you mess things up because you don't what you're doing.

And it's helpful to get negative feedback, and learn how to take that and address that, and make it positive. And make it a growth experience. And I think that experience was really helpful for me when I came in to law school, and my very first day of torts, the very first class, the professor said Ms Davies, can you recite the facts of the case rather. And I was the very first person in my class to get called on.

And I didn't feel like I did a great job with it. But I also, I had already done hard things. And so that was not the worst thing in the world.

NATALIE BLAZER: I absolutely agree with that. If you have never experienced a grade other than an A, or anything other than the highest praise, law school is going to be a very, very, very tough battle for you. You are going to have a bad cold call, a bad grade. And you can't let that impact your forward motion and how you see yourself. And that doesn't necessarily mean that everybody needs to work before law school.

I think a lot of people, myself, I came straight through. But I think every single person has to decide for themselves at what point are they going to embrace that growth mindset.

SARAH DAVIES: Yeah, and I really do think that it's an important lesson, and it's important for us as lawyers too. Because that's what happens. You go to court, and you think that you're going to be able to get a document in, and you argue it, and the judge rules against you. And you have to regroup, and you have to think. And unexpected things happen all the time as a lawyer.

NATALIE BLAZER: I couldn't agree more, law school is not the hard part.


NATALIE BLAZER: So tell our listeners who may not know what the Dean of Students at a law school does. What are your day to day responsibilities? What is your role within the greater law school community, tell us about that?

SARAH DAVIES: So student affairs is interesting because we start you out in orientation, and we take you all the way through graduation, because we plan both orientation and graduation, which is actually-- there are two of the most fun things that we get to do. Our office, generally, does student support. And it can be a variety of different kinds of support. So it can be someone has a personal issue that's come up, someone's struggling academically.

Someone isn't struggling academically but has a lot of questions or a lot of anxiety or worry about academics. We would talk to all of those people. We manage all of the disability accommodations. And all of those are not made public to the professors, so we keep all of that information confidential. But we manage all of the accommodations. We also do all fun, pop up events. We might arrange for a therapy dog to come. We do something around winter break, we call it a jingle cart.

And we fill up a cart, and we decorate it for the holidays. And we put candy and cookies, and hot chocolate, and we drive it around the law school. And the first time we did it, everybody looked at us like we were a little bit crazy, which maybe we were. But it was really fun. Several times a month we do a different pop up. The other fun pop up we've been doing is we're preparing for the final four, like the NCAA, final four basketball tournament.

But we're doing it with snacks, because we are often called the snack office. We pick a snack, and the students vote on it. And they pick between two different snacks. And then we'll have a final four competition at the end of March. It's really fun, and last year Oreos won. So we'll see what happens.

NATALIE BLAZER: I've been following the snacks bracket. And so far both of the snacks that I would pick have advanced. Cool Ranch Doritos, I don't how.

SARAH DAVIES: Cool Ranch Doritos.

NATALIE BLAZER: You can argue with those. What I love about your office is whenever I stop by there, there's always students there. And they're hanging out, there talking to you all. And your office just has such a warm and welcoming vibe. It's always decorated in some fun way. I really think it makes it so inviting to students. And I think for those who might be struggling, easier to come in. But also, just for people who want to stop by, and get a granola bar or whatever it is.

SARAH DAVIES: Right, and we also-- different people in the office do different things. Our front desk person Lisa, and she's phenomenal. She's like the nicest person in the world. And she is the Dean of snacks, actually. She's been dubbed that by the students.

We have someone who works really closely with all of the student organizations and helps give them some support and also manages all of our events. And then we have a director who does a lot of the academic support. I do a lot of the academic support. And then we do leadership training. And we sponsor larger events as well. It's just really fun.

NATALIE BLAZER: It is. It looks like a fun job. And I think the students really appreciate it. What resources are available to UVA Law students to help them thrive while in law school in their legal careers? I mean, we talked about how your office is there for them, but are there any other mental health resources, things like that?

SARAH DAVIES: Sure, we do a lot of counseling. And a lot of support for students. And some of those are programs, some of those are just individual meetings. We also have a therapist at the law school, she is actually a JD, and I think she practiced for 8 years. And she's a psychologist as well, and she works for caps, our counseling and psychological services. Part of student health. And she is on site.

I think it's 40 or 35 hours a week, which is pretty terrific. Law students can also access the rest of caps if they want to. And we have-- caps has a remote on demand counseling service as well that students can do. And you get 12 free sessions or something for the year. So we have a lot of those mental health supports for direct counseling. And there's a lot of it in the community as well.

In addition to the caps resources, at the law school we have some mindfulness resources. And we do a mindfulness practice. Not all the time, but on occasion we'll do a mindfulness practice. We have a meditation and prayer room. It's a nice calming space. It was actually it was a whole lot of fun to put it together. And we put it together because some students are community Fellows asked us. And that's wonderful.

And then there's things like the local gym, North grounds rec center is right there with us, and just basically getting outside in Charlottesville, I mean, so gorgeous. And so important for your mood. It's so important for just the way you feel.

NATALIE BLAZER: Definitely. That is a lot of work. I'm just going to say, orientation and graduation alone, I mean, I see your office. With the planning and execution of those events. And it's a lot of work. Obviously, rewarding. But I'm curious, what would you say is the hardest part of your job. Is it things like that? Is it big scale events? Or it's the day to day?

SARAH DAVIES: Yeah, so the big scale events. It's just busy. I don't think it's harder than doing a trial, for instance, which is what I did in practice. I think the harder thing is when a student is struggling, and has maybe not been very responsive to our outreach, and has gotten themselves really in too deep. And doesn't have a lot of options. And when you have to tell someone something that they don't want to hear, like you're going to be withdrawn from the class, because you didn't go enough or whatever.

It's really hard. And it just breaks your heart, because it's not that the student is bad, or anything like that. It's just that things, events overtook the student. And giving that bad news is really hard. I hate it, because my heart breaks for them.

NATALIE BLAZER: Yeah. And no matter how hard you and your colleagues work. I mean, there's always going to be moments like that.

SARAH DAVIES: Right, always. Because at the end of the day, our students are adults. And I would say 99.9% of them just go right through. And then if somebody really, really falls off, that's the hard one. And what do you think is the best part of your job? So one of the best things that I have experienced that I just love is when you have that student who's really, really struggling, on graduation day, and that student is in the cap and gown. And parents-- and they bring their parents in.

And we talk. And the student is just so happy. And you know that student worked really hard for it. And that student really overcame a lot of things to get there. And it's just it's just fantastic. I love that. I just love that.

NATALIE BLAZER: Oh, I love that too. So rewarding at the end of the day to see them succeed. It's nice to see anyone succeed, but especially those who really, really maybe hit some obstacles early. But then figured it out. What's one thing that you wish our current law students did more of, or did less of?

SARAH DAVIES: So start with less of. So I can end with more of. So I think the thing that I wish students did less of was social media. I'm like addicted to my phone. I totally get it. But using social media in place of face to face conversations, just is not the way to deal with conflict, or deal with issues that you have. And there's so much anonymity with social media that people sometimes say things that they really would never say to a person face to face.

So I would like people to kind of get off social media a little bit. The thing that I wish that they did more of, is actually remembering that the way that your brain works best is if it gets enough sleep, it eats, you have to eat well, sleep well, exercise, and de-stress. Because it's like a marathon, right. And it's different from undergrad where you have three weeks and then you have a test. And then three weeks and then you have another test. And then you have a paper.

And this is a whole semester, and then you have an exam. And you need to pace yourself. And you need to be kind to yourself, and to take time to relax. And take time to spend with your friends. And take time just so you don't burn out. And I think sometimes students just feel like they can't do anything. They have to only work. And that's just not sustainable. So I wish they did more of taking care of themselves. And now I sound like my mother.

NATALIE BLAZER: It happens to all of us. Just thinking back on your application experience, and just what you about the admissions process now, what advice would you give someone?

SARAH DAVIES: Be methodical about how you put things together. Have a checklist, and check it off, right. So that everything is in there. I mean, I'm a huge proponent of managing time, and being methodical about doing tasks. And I think a lot of that is from my legal experience. Get used to it now. I mean, I was not methodical about my law school application, right. And I mean, it was an anxiety producing experience. If you take the time, ahead of time. It doesn't have to be a stressful experience.

NATALIE BLAZER: Agreed, yes. So let's end on a high note. I would love to hear, Dean Davies, your favorite memory. Either from your time as a student or from your time here as Dean of students.

SARAH DAVIES: I'll give you two.


SARAH DAVIES: I'll give you one from being a student. And then I'll give you one from being here. So one from being a student is we had a group of us, we were all in the same section, all women. And we all of our third year, and part of our second year, we would get together on a weekly basis and we'd just do a potluck at somebody's house. And it was just like five women hanging out, talking, we didn't talk about law that much.

We just talked about what was going on in our lives. And it was just this real sense of community. And I always knew that those women had my back, and I had their back. And it that was great. I really loved that. One of my favorite memories about my time in this role in student affairs is I had a student who came in to speak with me, I think in the fall of his first year.

And he was struggling with some imposter stuff. And he was struggling with how he fit. And if he was going to do OK in law school. And we started meeting weekly, and we met weekly until his graduation. And it was fantastic. I mean, the first year I was giving him a lot of advice, and answering questions, and we were figuring out schedules and stuff like that. By the time he was the third year, he would just come in and we would talk for a half an hour. And it was great.

I mean, he was just a great friend. And I just really loved that we had that relationship. And I'm watching him as he goes through his career. And I'm so proud of him. And all the places he's come. And I'm sure he doesn't have imposter syndrome anymore.

NATALIE BLAZER: Oh, my gosh. I could just tear up right now hearing that. Oh, that is so relatable. I have had students sometimes come to me and question what they're doing here. First of all, we work extremely hard in admissions to make sure that you can do the work once you get here. But I love that you sort of walked him through it and saw the progress. That's amazing. Dean Davies, thank you so much for being here. This has been so much fun.

SARAH DAVIES: Thank you, Dean Blazer.

NATALIE BLAZER: This has been Admissible, with me, Dean Natalie Blazer, at the University of Virginia School of Law. My guest today was Dean of students at UVA Law alumna, Sarah Davies. For more information about wellness at UVA Law and the resources provided by student affairs, please visit law.virginia.edu. The next episode of admissible will be out soon. And in the meantime, you can follow the show on Instagram at @admissible podcast. Thanks so much for listening, and please remember to rate the show wherever you listen to podcasts.