By: L.O. Natt Gantt, II,* Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, High Point University Kenneth F. Kahn School of Law
In July 2023, I was pleased to moderate a discussion group titled “Professional Identity as a Search for Spiritual Well-Being—Helping Students Care for their Souls” at the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) Conference. Having spent time reflecting on this session since last summer, I have been contemplating the depth and complexity of our task of helping students develop their professional identity. This task goes beyond encouraging students to engage in certain professional behaviors or even adopt specified professional values; it should involve helping them find purpose and meaning as they develop as a professional.
The session featured nine esteemed discussants: Professor Lisa Avalos from Louisiana State University; Paul M. Hebert Law Center; Professor Timothy Floyd from Mercer University School of Law; Professor Max Hare from Regent University School of Law; Professor Kendall Kerew from Georgia State University College of Law; Professor Kellyn McGee from Widener University Commonwealth Law School; Associate Dean David Miller from Liberty University School of Law; Professor Jerry Organ from the University of St. Thomas School of Law; Professor Lucas Osborn from Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law; and Carwina Weng, Senior Specialist in Professional Identity Formation at LSAC. My former colleague from Regent University School of Law, Professor Ben Madison, developed the idea for the session and asked me to moderate.
During the two-and-a-half hour session, we had a rich discussion that focused on: (1) why the topic of law student spiritual well-being is important to discuss; (2) how to define the term “spiritual well-being”; (3) what practices and strategies can help law students cultivate their spiritual well-being; and (4) what are the challenges to improving students’ spiritual well-being and what are positive ways to overcome those challenges.
I was enthused about participating in the group because my work in law student and lawyer well-being has underscored to me how exploring the topic of spiritual well-being is a key component to the well-being crisis we face in legal education and the legal profession. The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s groundbreaking 2017 report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, raised this issue nearly seven years ago. In masterfully outlining an expansive definition of well-being, the Report defined well-being as “a continuous process in which lawyers strive for thriving in each dimension of their lives” and identified six dimensions of well-being: “emotional health, occupational pursuits, creative or intellectual endeavors, sense of spirituality or greater purpose in life, physical health, and social connections with others.” More specifically, the Report defined spiritual well-being as “developing a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in all aspects of life.”
Since 2017, many reports and studies have affirmed the reality of the well-being crisis in legal education and the legal profession. Moreover, as Interpretation 303-5 in the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools stresses, the relationship between well-being and professional identity formation is clear. The Interpretation provides, “The development of professional identity should involve an intentional exploration of the values, guiding principles, and well-being practices considered foundational to successful legal practice.”
Regarding spiritual well-being specifically, social science and physiological research has found that spiritual and religious belief and practice can have significant health benefits. For instance, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Human Flourishing Program have conducted extensive research on the relationship between spirituality, most notably religious service participation, and well-being. This research has found that “the communal aspect of religion, namely service attendance, was inversely associated with various factors related to despair (e.g., lower risk of suicidality, heavy drinking, substance misuse, and depression)” and was “positively associated with psychosocial well-being outcomes, such as greater purpose in life.” In addition, this research found that individuals who attend religious services at least weekly were significantly less likely to die from “deaths of despair,” such as deaths related to suicide, alcohol poisoning, and drug overdose. The researchers point out that the social support individuals experience from such attendance explains only about a quarter of the effect and that religious community participation is a stronger predictor of health and well-being than other forms of social support. The researchers thus opine that religious participation enhances health and well-being by providing individuals with a sense of “hope, meaning, and purpose in life.”
Yet, despite the abundant research on well-being, the regulatory changes in the ABA Standards, and the ensuing well-being initiatives adopted in law schools and legal professional settings, the topic of spiritual well-being is often overlooked. It no doubt may be a difficult topic to discuss. Some may view the topic as only associated with a religious worldview and conclude that many lawyers and law students would not be interested in the topic because they do not come from a specific faith tradition. Others might similarly claim that most law schools are not faith-based and may face programmatic resistance to such efforts because discussing spiritual well-being could be perceived as imposing religious values. Still others might avoid the topic by asserting that it is difficult to measure and assess the success of efforts to cultivate spiritual well-being because the concept is too vague to fall within the proper purview of legal education. Finally, others might contend that students may have had negative experiences with religious communities in the past and therefore may be resistant to spiritual topics.
As the discussants in the session noted, each of these understandable concerns, however, does not override the importance of spiritual well-being as a foundational topic all law schools should consider in their professional formation efforts. The concerns about ties to specific religious worldviews and faith traditions belie the expansive definition in the National Task Force Report itself, which focuses on meaning and purpose with no expected connection to a specific faith tradition. The concern regarding measurement and assessment relates to professional formation generally, and many readers of this blog have already developed innovative and successful ways to assess professional formation in their students which could be adapted to assess spiritual well-being. Finally, the concern regarding negative experiences with religious communities relates to the first concern and can be addressed by honest and transparent discussions about these realities while recognizing that discerning meaning and purpose in life must not be shelved because of the troubling actions of some.
As we seek to shape students who are well and grounded, discussing spiritual well-being thus must be part of our professional formation process. Discussant David Miller powerfully observed that professional identity is downstream from personal identity. Even at the graduate, professional law school level, some of our focus must be on helping our students find purpose and meaning.
So what does it mean to help our students enhance their spiritual well-being? Here, the Task Force Report’s definition of spiritual well-being represents only a starting point. “Meaning and purpose” can be completely self-defining and self-serving. As I reasoned in our session, helping students find spiritual well-being must be more than affirming students who, for instance, find their meaning and purpose solely in making money so that they can accumulate physical possessions. Meaning and purpose must include more. That pursuit must connect to something beyond oneself—to the pursuit of justice, to the service of others, to the love of fellow humans, to the connection to the eternal and transcendent.
In her recent book The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life, Professor Lisa Miller at Columbia University describes extensive studies of the brain which find that spiritual and religious belief and practice have significant mental health benefits. She does not offer a precise definition of spirituality, but her research clearly supports a broad conception of the term, not tied to specific religious traditions. At the same time, her research does not support a conception so broad as to include anything in which an individual might find purpose and meaning. Her research specifically traces the mental health benefits to when individuals experience a connection to someone or something beyond themselves—“a feeling of oneness with the environment or the divine; a sense of their own individual voice or identity dissolving into something larger around or beyond them.” She writes that individuals with an awakened, healthy brain have experiences “involv[ing] self-transcendent awareness and relationship [which] induce a feeling of unity or closeness whether or not the content is explicitly relational [with other people].”
The point in sharing Professor Miller’s words is not to advocate that law schools should create such experiences as part of their curricula. However, we are educating students who are confronting a well-being crisis in our profession and in our larger society, and we must educate them on the mental health benefits of spirituality. In our discussion group, discussants presented strategies for how to enhance our students’ spiritual well-being, such as offering students more wholistic mentoring and opportunities for meditation and prayer, exposing students to moral exemplars who can encourage students’ pursuit of vocational purpose, having students write a statement of purpose or their personal philosophy of lawyering, and providing students with tactics they can use to better understand themselves and what values most inspire them. The particular strategies a school adopts can and should vary based on the particular missional context in which each of our schools operates. Nonetheless, as we begin another year, I challenge our professional formation community to work collectively and creatively to help our students become spiritually well by finding purpose, meaning, hope, and connection in their vocational calling. If you have any questions or comments about this blog, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com.
* Natt is Chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs Well-Being Pledge Committee and a member of the Research & Scholarship Committee of the Institute for Well-Being in Law.
 National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (Aug. 2017), at 9, https://lawyerwellbeing.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Lawyer-Wellbeing-Report.pdf. In a diagram summarizing these six dimensions, the Report identified them as “Emotional, Occupational, Intellectual, Spiritual, Physical, Social.” Id.
 See, e.g., “It is Okay to Not Be Okay”: The 2021 Survey of Law Student Well-Being, 60 Univ. of Louisville L. Rev. 441 (2021).
 Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools, Am. Bar Ass’n, ch. 3 (2023–24), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_admissions_to_the_bar/standards/2023-2024/2023-2024-aba-standards-rules-for-approval.pdf (emphasis added).
 Ying Chen et al., Religious Service Attendance and Deaths Related to Drugs, Alcohol, and Suicide Among US Health Care Professionals, 77 JAMA Psychiatry 737, 738, 742 (2020) (citing studies).
 See Tyler J. VanderWeele, Religious Communities and Human Flourishing, 26 Current Directions in Psych. Sci. 476, 478-79 (2017).
 Chen et al., supra note 5, at 738; see also id. at 743.
 As one example, Professor Miller’s brain research found “the moments of intense spiritual awareness were biologically identical whether or not they were explicitly religious.” Lisa Miller, The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life 162 (2021).
 Id. at 157.
 Id. at 161.
 See Madeline Holcombe, Welcome to the ‘new normal’ of people expressing low levels of well-being, according to a report (January 18, 2024), https://www.cnn.com/2024/01/18/health/gallup-well-being-2023-wellness/index.html.
 Specific approaches included having students work through self-assessment inventories, such as the VIA Character Strengths Survey and the exercises in Neil Hamilton’s book Roadmap: The Law Student’s Guide to Meaningful Employment.