Debra Austin, JD, PhD

professor of the practice of law
university of Denver Sturm College of LaW

research & scholarship

Debra is a neuroscience nerd.  She studies how neuroscience research can improve law student and lawyer performance and wellbeing. 

Her seminal work, Killing Them Softly, shines a bright light on lawyer depression, substance abuse, and suicide, and its application of neuroscience to the chronic stresses of law school and law practice depict how law students and lawyers suffer cognitive damage that impairs them from doing precisely what their studies and practices require.  It is one of the most downloaded articles of all Sturm College of Law faculty.  She followed Killing with Drink Like a Lawyer, using neuroscience research to demonstrate how self-medication with substances like alcohol, marijuana, and study drugs impairs law student and lawyer thinking. Her article Food for Thought, examines the neuroscience research on the relationship of nutrition choices and optimal brain health and challenges lawyers to rethink their food philosophy and redesign their anti-aging plan.  And Positive Legal Education discusses the wellbeing crisis in legal education and the practice of law, and argues that Positive Psychology findings can help curate a culture of wellbeing in the legal field. 

Can Professor Austin’s neuroscience obsession help find a cure for what ails the study and practice of law?

Debra was awarded a Legal Writing Institute-Association of Legal Writing Directors-LexisNexis 2012 Legal Writing Scholarship Grant to write her article on stress in legal education and lawyering (Killing Them Softly). She was awarded a Hughes-Ruud Research and Development Fund grant to attend 2014 Neuroscience Boot Camp at the University of Pennsylvania.

Debra's articles include:

Positive Legal Education: Flourishing Law Students and Thriving Law Schools, 77 Md. L. Rev. (forthcoming).

Mindfulness for Lawyers: Decrease your Stress and Improve your Performance, COLAP Wellness Corner, The Docket, the Denver Bar Association Magazine and Blog, August 1, 2017.

Food for Thought: The Neuroscience of Nutrition to Fuel Cognitive Performance, 95 Or. L. Rev. 425 (2017). 

Emotion Regulation for Lawyers: A Mind is a Challenging Thing to Tame (with Rob Durr, Northwestern University), 16 Wyo. L. Rev. 387 (2016).

Got Stress? You may be Harming your Brain, The Coffee House 6, a Publication of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association, Spring 2015.

Drink Like a Lawyer: the Neuroscience of Substance Use and its Impact on Cognitive Wellness, 15 NEV. L.J. 826 (2015).

Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791 (2013). This article has been covered by the ABA Journal Law News Now, the National Jurist, the TaxProf Blog, the Law School Academic Support Blog, the Colorado Bar Association Legal Connection, and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Library Blog.

Debra's scholarship is situated in the Balance in Legal Education literature. She played a key role in developing the AALS Balance in Legal Education Bibliography designed to evolve with author submissions of relevant work.