Students’ wellbeing and giving a PHUC

Law students' wellbeing and giving a PHUC

The mental health of lawyers and law students is an ongoing concern. Law schools have begun to place a focus on law students’ mental health. But practical lessons for law students on mental health – like meditation and mindfulness – while valuable, are generic. We need to provide advice for law students that has application in the legal workplace. In my classes on professional responsibility, I talk to law students about the need to manage the physical and emotional demands of legal practice. That means talking to law students about wellbeing and giving a PHUC.


Law students working in clinics often reflect on the valuable experience of working with clients who face a diverse range of issues. Trouble with the law might be the cause or the consequence of other problems. Like the small business owner looking for family law advice. Financial difficulties with business have affected their relationship with their partner. Or the single parent facing court for driving an unregistered car. But they can’t afford to register the car unless they can drive to work. And will probably lose their job if they can’t.

The opportunity for law students to get clinical experience has demonstrable benefits – possibly even more so in pro bono settings.  But working day in and day out with vulnerable, financially insecure and demanding clients can carry some dangers.

The legal profession in the US had already started to talk about ‘lawyer burn out’ working with marginalised clients in the 1970s. But it’s not just lawyers dealing with vulnerable clients. In a column in Forbes last year, Paula Davis-Laack shared her story of going from being ‘a successful lawyer, on top of her game, closing several multimillion-dollar commercial real estate deals each month’ to complete exhaustion.

Young lawyers – like all new employees – are incredibly conscientious. They want to do the ‘right’ thing and prove their worth. Law students, in particular, are often driven by altruistic motives to join the legal profession – making a difference to family, the profession or the community.

So, what’s a PHUC?

So why talk about law students, wellbeing and giving a PHUC?

A PHUC is an acronym for Personally Held Unit of Caring.  It’s also a helpful mnemonic for talking to law students about managing the emotional labour that often comes with working with clients.

It’s not entirely original. Some of it draws on Mark Manson’s lively and insightful discussion of personal values and the need to conserve our energies for things that matter – things that we value.

But its origins are based on supporting law students to identify intrinsic motivations drawing on Daniel Pink’s books like Drive. It’s also based on the research of Martin Seligman,  with lawyers and more recent research specifically on Gen Y in the workplace.

Reflective practiceI have written about how I have used this research to support law students’ interpretation of their professional responsibilities. The objective is to encourage law students to build reflective thinking skills. And to encourage them to think about the alignment of professional decision-making and personal values.

But I found I needed to engage students in practical terms about how they can manage their wellbeing as they enter practice.

Why do you call it a ‘PHUC’?

Research into workplace satisfaction and intrinsic motivation suggests that we are more inclined to stick with a job when it has three key things:

  • Competency: This is pretty fundamental. We need to feel like we can actually do the job. Think back to the last time when you were given complete responsibility for doing something, but had no idea about how to do it. For some people that can be completely overwhelming and de-motivating.
  • Autonomy: We need to feel that we have a certain degree of freedom over how we go about doing the job. You might have had the detail-oriented boss at some point in your career. Remember how de-motivating that was? Obviously, there are always some rules about how a job is done. For example, there is no such thing (as far as I’m aware) as a ‘clothing optional’ law firm. For lawyers, we also have professional and ethical obligations. But within those parameters, creativity and innovation in problem-solving is essential.
  • Task significance – We need to be able to see how a job fits into ‘a bigger picture’. What that picture looks like depends very much on the individual. It might be how the role aligns with personal goals or how it aligns with some larger, altruistic purpose.

These three things are individual, and their perception of them is unique to the person.  They are personally held.

So where does caring come in?

According to Pink, Seligman and others, these three things are also linked to commitment and satisfaction in a job. That is, they affect the extent to which we care about the job we’re doing. This is a little cyclical. If you were interested in family law, for example, you probably wouldn’t go looking for a job in mergers and acquisitions. You wouldn’t feel competent. And your interest in family law would probably mean you couldn’t see the significance of M&A work.

But, let’s say that you take the job in M&A. You get better at it. You become competent. At the same time, you begin to see how that role might fit with, maybe, a long term career goal. Or how it serves a larger economic purpose. You see the significance in the work. And you probably stay.

Law students' wellbeing and giving a PHUC

Caring about a job can take lots of different forms. But, commonly for young lawyers, it looks like long hours in the office. That might be traditional – young lawyers do it because they believe that’s how you show commitment. Or it might be because the work is so engrossing, or so important to them, that it has to get finished.

But what research with lawyers shows us is that there is a physical and emotional limit to caring.

There are lots of suggestions about when we know we have reached that limit. For example, one study argues that there is ‘spillover’ where workplace stress affects home life and ‘crossover’ where exhaustion affects performance.   But the one we can see, or personally feel, is a sense of disengagement. Davis-Laack (who we met earlier) calls it a ‘disease of disengagement’.

That is, we stop caring.

So, my argument to law students is: We know that caring is important to us, and to our job: We know that there is a limit to what we can do: We know that when we reach that limit: So, we need to understand how to manage that to make sure we don’t exceed the limit.

The box of PHUCs

I ask law students to imagine that they begin each day with a limited number of PHUCs. Let’s say … a box of them. To do a task, and do it well, you need to spend at least one of them on that task. If you don’t, then the task either won’t get done or get done poorly.

How many are in the box depends on a lot of things. Simple things like how much sleep we got, if it was ramen again for dinner last night, illness and home life can all affect how many are in the box for that day. But, it also might be affected by the job we have. If it’s a job where we don’t feel competent, or have very little autonomy or can’t see its significance, that’s going to reduce the number in the box.

Nobody said the box had to be boring …

But, let’s assume that the job is something that you enjoy. You bounce happily into work with your box tucked under your arm and the day begins. Let’s say that throughout the day you meet client after client. All of them are in difficult positions – family breakdown, poverty, victims of crime. (Unfortunately, no one ever goes to see a lawyer because everything in their life is fantastic and they just want to tell you.)

You’re going to have to use at least one of your PHUCs on each of your clients. But, for a whole range of reasons, like the size of the issue or concern for the particular client, you’re going to need to – or want to – spend more than one.

That’s OK. But the problem is when we run out of PHUCs and start to go into deficit. Or we borrow from other things on which we should be spending them, like sleep, hobbies, family or social life. And this is when burnout becomes a risk.

What happens when you run out?

Conscientiousness or commitment are significant parts of the satisfaction equation. But running a PHUC deficit over time means that we also start each day with fewer and fewer in the box.

There is also a little, niggling interest charge on that debt. That PHUC that you borrowed from seeing friends? It might result in friends calling you less often. That PHUC you borrowed from sleep? That’s going to demand a bigger repayment.

Running out entirely produces what Davis-Laack calls that ‘disease of disengagement’. It’s much harder to engage, or much harder to care, when you don’t have any care left.

So when you start to talk to law students about wellbeing and giving a PHUC from the box, putting it into practical examples, it has a much greater immediacy.

Want to demonstrate it?

As law teachers, you can even start to build this into a short seminar activity:

  1. Get law students to create their ideal firm – the place where they would always want to work.
  2. Tell them that in their box they have a pre-determined number of PHUCs. Get them to assign some to family, friends, partners – or even watching The Batchelor. You might also want to randomly generate some events that will remove some before work. For example, some might have a cold, some might have a new baby or some get into a fender bender on the way to work.
  3. Now list their clients and ask them to assign the number of PHUCs they think is appropriate. There is also a helpful link here to substantive areas of law. Some issues are going to take time and need more care, while others could be dealt with more quickly. Triaging issues is also a professional skill that, as lawyers, they will have to exercise daily.
  4. As they run out of PHUCs to spend on clients, ask them about what they are going to do. They could ask for help, borrow from some of the budgeted ones, or go into deficit.
  5. As they make these decisions, walk them through the practical consequences.

This might sound overly simplistic – and in some ways it is. But talking about wellbeing in the abstract doesn’t always have the same opportunities to talk about practical examples or provide learning opportunities.

So when you’re thinking about ways to talk to law students about their wellbeing, giving a PHUC might provide one way of doing it.

About Andrew Henderson

I am a lecturer, lawyer and researcher in Canberra with an interest in the 'hidden' or informal curriculum of law school. I am passionate about developing engaging and authentic educational experiences for law students.

View all posts by Andrew Henderson →

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