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A growth mindset for law school success

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Mindsets

Deciding to go to law school is a major life decision for most students, and it is one that (we hope) is carefully weighed and considered.  The financial, intellectual, and time commitment involved is a substantial undertaking.  Many students dismiss these challenges, assuming that acceptance into law school equates inherent success.  Some believe that brains and natural talent in academics are reasons why they were successful in college, and thus, law school will be no different.

When the reality sets in after grades come out, disappointment sinks in.  For students in a fixed mindset, law school is a place that has two types of students: the smart ones who will go off and do some amazing things at the most prestigious firms, and the not-so-smart ones who will get the bottom of the barrel jobs doing mediocre things.  For students in a fixed mindset, they are likely to view setbacks, such as lower-than-expected grades, as a sign that they are incapable.

On the other hand, students in a growth mindset who understand that abilities can be developed, tend to look at the inevitable setbacks differently.  They view law school as a place that can provide them with opportunities to grow and learn.  They actively seek feedback and strategies to tweak their approaches so that they achieve greater improvement and outcomes the next time around.

In this article, we take a closer look at these two mindsets from the perspective of a law student, discussing how these underlying beliefs about learning and intelligence affect the overall law school experience, including outcomes and competencies.  We also offer strategies law students can use to cultivate a growth mindset for law school and life success.

Brooke: A common law school experience

During college, Brooke was the epitome of success.  She was elected president of the student council, competed on the debate team, planned social events for her sorority, and volunteered at the local youth center, all while maintaining top grades.  When Brooke applied to law school and got into her first choice, she was ecstatic.  Her parents were the first to say, “Brooke, you’re so smart!  We knew you’d have no problem getting in.  You’re going to land that 6-figure job at a prestigious firm in no time.  You’re a natural!”  Brooke, beaming with pride, was excited about her new journey.  She knew that law school was going to be tough, but she was determined to do the work needed to excel at it just as she had throughout her life.

And then the first semester happened.  The Socratic Method, the rigor and pace of academics, and the prevalence of similar high-achieving peers brought about unprecedented levels of challenge.  Brooke worked hard (even harder than she did in college), putting in the long hours and applying the same study strategies that helped her succeed in the past.  Unfortunately, it didn’t lead to the straight As she was used to.  When first semester grades were released, Brooke logged into her laptop, and stared at the screen.  She felt sick to her stomach.  She was relegated to the middle.  For the first time, she was average.  What went wrong?  She never missed class.  She read her assignments and was prepared (at least she thought she was prepared).  She made detailed outlines and participated in study groups.  With average grades, there would be no coveted invitation to Law Review, nor a sought-after On-Campus Interview spot.  To Brooke, this was a defining moment.  She felt she was not of the same caliber as students around her, nor destined to be a great lawyer.  She simply did not have the intelligence nor the ability to excel as a lawyer.  Not wanting to let anyone down, Brooke decided she would do what she needed to get her law degree.  She played the part, looked confident, went through the motions, but inside she felt like a failure.  She continued to work hard because it wasn’t in her to quit, but she didn’t see effort as a way to improve her abilities, but rather as a way to learn facts and complete tasks.  Unfortunately, the remaining 2.5 years of law school were more of the same – middle of the road grades with an occasional A or B.  When graduation day came, Brooke did not feel any joy or sense of accomplishment.  She was simply relieved that it was over.

Today, Brooke feels that if she had applied what she now knows to her time during law school, she likely would have had a more positive and successful law school experience.  She now realizes that as a first-year law student, she was in what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset,” which is viewing one’s abilities as fixed.[1]  Brooke thought that she was special and perhaps smarter than others, which she saw as the reason for her prior success.  But when she started getting average grades, that same fixed view led her to conclude that she must not be so smart or special after all.  Rather than reflect on what she could do differently to study more effectively and accelerate her growth, Brooke chose instead to try to survive until graduation.  In other words, she came to believe that she did not have the natural ability and talent to succeed in law, as her average or lower grades proved.  In a “growth mindset,” viewing abilities as malleable, Brooke would have reframed her adversity as an opportunity to become more capable, perhaps even finding joy in the challenge and growth.  She would have reminded herself that every extraordinary achiever worked very hard to develop his or her abilities, not just to learn facts or complete tasks.  This would have helped her not only in law school, but also as a lawyer, and in life.

Prevalent disappointment

Today’s law students are experiencing more than the usual concerns over academic performance and workload.  According to a recent law school survey of student engagement, more than half of the students surveyed reported high levels of stress related to landing a job and paying back student loans, which most often total over $100,000 at graduation for private law school students.[2]  In another survey conducted at Yale Law School, 70 percent of students indicated they struggled with mental health issues during law school.[3]  For many students, the stress and anxiety continues after graduation as they enter the profession.  Lawyers are experiencing greater demands, increased pressure, and unprecedented technological and global change in a contracted legal market, which is leading to increase work dissatisfaction.  A study at Johns Hopkins University examined anxiety-related issues in over 100 occupations and found that lawyers suffer from depression at a rate 3.6 times that of other professions studied.[4]  In a fixed mindset, change is seen as a threat rather than an opportunity and as part of life.

Why do so many law students feel trapped and discouraged?  The answer is complex, but there a number of factors at play.  Law school tends to attract students who are driven, ambitious, self-reliant, and used to success.  These students were usually the high achievers in college – the ones “most likely to succeed.”  Entering law school, students are faced with unrelenting pressures, competition, and unexpected disappointments that are very much a part of the law school experience.  Students used to As and Bs in college may find themselves with Cs or even (gasp!) Ds in law school despite working hard.  In Brooke’s mind, her grades proved that she wasn’t “smart” or the “natural” legal eagle her parents praised her to be.  So, she went through law school with decreased motivation and interest.  Brooke simply wanted to finish and get her degree so she could stop letting everyone down.

Is encouraging grit and resilience enough?

The legal profession is in the midst of dramatic transformation.  Legal futurists and commentators have often referred to this transformation as the “new normal,” though change will never end, as it never has.  With the market far more global today than in years past, technology evolving at a rapid pace, increased competition from nontraditional legal service providers, and pricing pressures from clients, hiring partners are demanding more from their associates.  Hiring partners want associates who can hit the ground running so that they don’t have to spend significant amounts of time training them on their client’s dime.  They want associates with grit and resilience – lawyers who can withstand the pressures and rigor of practicing law in this new normal.

Keith Lee, an attorney speaking on behalf of the older generation of lawyers, once said: “Nothing is going to be handed to you on a silver platter.  I’m sorry if you feel as though you were duped in some manner, but at this point you’re spending your time crying over spilled milk as opposed to doing something about it.  The legal profession is in upheaval.  Guess what?  So, is the whole world.  Change is here whether you like it or not…Either embrace it or get out of the race.”[5]  He goes on to say that “Gen Y needs to strap on their big-boy (or girl) pants and get on with it.  Success is not something that is handed to you.  It requires long hours, hard work, and dedication.  It requires fighting, passion, and sacrifice.”[6]  These are tough words to hear, but they ring true.

For the last decade, the legal profession has taken an interest in the idea that “grit” and “resilience” are essential qualities that determine success.  Psychology professor Dr. Angela Duckworth, who catapulted the idea of “grit” to center stage, defines “grit” as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”, or “[the] quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work really hard at them, over really disappointingly long periods of time.”[7]  Other experts, such as Dr. Larry Richard, define “resilience” as being “durable in the face of adversity” and having the “ability to bounce back after suffering adversity.” [8]  In just the last couple of years, there has been an influx of trainings, workshops, and literature on helping law students develop grit and resilience.  Articles such as “Grit and Grind Your Way to Success in Law School” and “Do You Have the Right Kind of Grit to Succeed?” have emerged.  Common themes from the grit and resilience literature:  Don’t give up when challenged.  Work hard.  Persevere.  Be tenacious.  Be thick-skinned.  Brooke tried to be more thick-skinned and tenacious, but she didn’t really know exactly how.  There were not enough hours in the day, because she was focused in only working harder rather than smarter.  After all, she saw the world as comprised of either talented or incapable people, and so she didn’t work to become and work smarter.  Her hard work and perseverance were aimed more at survival than at trying different approaches to develop and grow.  Brooke wasn’t thinking as deeply about how to study differently.  She was not operating from a growth mindset, which leads people to engage in long-term development and become grittier.

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

When Stanford University professor and psychologist Carol Dweck was a young researcher, she was fascinated by how some children avidly sought challenges and became more invested when faced with obstacles, while others would shrink back and shy away.  One answer, she soon discovered, lay in their beliefs about why they had failed.[9]  In a study, she gave 10-year-olds problems that were slightly too hard for them.  Some of them reacted in a positive way – saying things like “I love a challenge!” or “You know, I was hoping this would be informative!”  These kids understood that their abilities and intelligence could be developed – what she called a growth mindset.  Other students became discouraged by challenge.  Dweck discovered that these students tended to think they were either smart or not, which couldn’t be changed.  From their fixed mindset view, they saw the problems as a way to assess and show how smart they were, rather than as a way to become smarter.  They believed that others were judging their intelligence, and they saw imperfect scores as evidence that they didn’t have what it takes.[10]

When Dweck delved further into these two mindsets, she discovered that they led to very different behaviors and results.  In a study she conducted with psychologists Lisa Blackwell and Kali Trzesniewski, Dweck assessed the mindsets of 373 seventh graders and then monitored them over two years during their transition to junior high school to determine how different mindsets affect their math grades.[11]  Dweck and Blackwell assessed the students’ mindsets by asking them whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change” (what would be a fixed mindset statement).[12]

The results showed that the students with a growth mindset – those who felt they could change their own intelligence – increased their grades over time.  They had an interest in learning and “held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it….Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mindset said they would study harder and try a different strategy for mastering the material.”[13]  Those in a fixed mindset, on the other hand, were more concerned about demonstrating intelligence with less regard for learning.  These students believed that failure was a sign of low ability, so instead of looking “stupid,” they said they would rather avoid taking the particular subject again and would consider cheating on future tests.[14]  Although the math achievement test scores of the students (both the fixed and growth-minded students) were similar at the beginning of the study, the gap in performance widened over time.  As the work became more challenging, the students in a growth mindset showed greater desire to work hard to improve and persist through struggle, and they reached higher achievement as a result.

Physiological manifestations

Neuroscience shows that our brains are malleable and that they possess the ability to grow neurons, reorganize pathways, and create new connections, which makes us smarter.  With practice, neural networks grow new connections, strengthen existing ones, and build insulation that speeds transmission of impulses.  Thus, we can improve our cognition, or become smarter, through the actions we take.[15]

Neuroscience also shows differences between the brains of people in a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  When brain scans are conducted on people in a fixed mindset, they show the greatest brain activity when the person is receiving information about how well they performed (e.g., receiving a grade or a score), whereas those conducted on people in a growth mindset show the greatest brain activity when the person is receiving information on what they could do better next time.[16]  People in a growth mindset pay more attention to what they can learn from mistakes and unexpected outcomes, and as a result they learn and improve more.  On the other hand, people who see intelligence as a fixed trait are more concerned with assessing how much intelligence they have.  This results in lower grit, because setbacks are perceived as evidence that they lack the necessary abilities.

How to Develop a Growth Mindset

Studies show that mindset is malleable.  We all oscillate between fixed and growth mindsets, but we can become more growth minded over time.  Here are some strategies to do so:

  • Become clear on exactly what a growth mindset is. When people think about what a growth mindset means to them, they come up with a variety of answers, including being hard working, gritty, or open minded.  But a growth mindset is none of those things.  It is the understanding that personal qualities and abilities can change.  If we are unclear about what a growth mindset is, it is hard to foster it.  We may simply attempt to compel ourselves or others to work hard or persevere without examining the underlying beliefs that heavily influence our behaviors.  We need clarity on what a growth mindset is.[17]
  • Become acquainted with our fixed mindsets and fixed mindset triggers. According to Dweck, everyone is actually a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, and that mixture continually evolves with experience.[18]  We may find ourselves in a growth mindset in some areas and in a fixed mindset in others.  There may be cues that trigger us into a fixed mindset, such as receiving criticism, having a setback, or encountering something outside of our comfort zone.  Before working to change our mindset, it helps to observe our fixed mindsets to become more acquainted with them, to understand better our own thinking and the consequences of thinking in a fixed mindset (e.g., falling into insecurity or defensiveness, feeling threatened, and not growing as much).  Before trying to change, we should seek to understand out fixed mindset triggers, so that we’re better equipped and motivated to engage in change.
  • Learn about how to develop abilities. A large body of research in psychology, neuroscience, and expertise development shows that people can improve their abilities with effective strategies.  We can learn about these bodies of work to strengthen our conviction that people can improve and we can learn how to do so.  Some helpful books on the subject include Peak, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Intelligence and How to Get It, by Richard Nisbett, and How We Learn, by Benedict Carey.
  • Develop “If Then” plans. If we’re more aware of what triggers us into a fixed mindset we can develop “If Then” plans when triggers arise.  A sample “If Then” plan would be: “If I receive an exam back, then I will examine my mistakes to learn from them, research what is needed, and re-quiz myself to learn the material” Or:  “If I’m feeling ineffective, then I will reflect on my studying habits and determine how I can re-structure my day, week, and month, and identify what to try differently.”
  • Seek out a growth mindset community. Our beliefs are heavily influenced by the people around us.  If the people with which we interact like to talk of themselves as geniuses with natural talent, it will be harder for us to develop a growth mindset and sustain it over time.  Instead, we can seek out groups of people who are interested in learning and improving, and befriend them.  We can also lead the cultivation of such communities.  When Alexander Hamilton entered King’s College (now Columbia University), he and his friend Robert Troup formed a club that gathered weekly to hone debating, writing, and speaking skills.[19]  Throughout his life, Alexander Hamilton was described by others as a very hard worker, but such grit was grounded on the understanding that he could and was able to improve.
  • Develop purpose. Sometimes we get lost in the daily grind of life without being clear on why we’re doing what we do.  What is our life about?  How will our work benefit others?  Asking “why” we do what we do, or what we want our life to be about, helps us identify and develop our higher level goals, like making the world a better place rather than winning an argument.  It is on these higher level goals that grit is most important.  If George Washington hadn’t quit and fled some battles, the losses to the Continental Army would have been much greater, perhaps compromising the higher level goals of winning the Revolutionary War and ultimately gaining independence.  Washington’s growth mindset led him to retreat, regroup, and develop new strategies or tactics to the next battles.  The ultimate high level goal was most important to him, and that is where he was the grittiest.  Put another way, we may need to change our lower level goals in order to meet our higher level goals and purpose.  Being clear on our highest purpose can help us become more motivated and resilient.

Conclusion

The good news for Brooke:  She has embraced the idea that her intelligence, her abilities, and qualities are not innate or fixed, but can be cultivated through effective effort.  No longer does she believe that intelligence is carved in stone and predetermined at birth.  Instead, she realizes that her talents and abilities can be developed, and she has found ways to do so.  To Brooke, challenges, obstacles, and setbacks are no longer about her fixed ability or about being judged.  They are now opportunities to gain feedback and information to grow.

For a variety of reasons, fixed mindsets abound in law schools.  But if we want law schools to develop lawyers like Alexander Hamilton, voracious learners who work to improve themselves throughout their lives and achieve high level goals, we need to cultivate growth mindsets in ourselves and in our law school communities.

Footnotes
[1] Dweck, C.S. (2006).  Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  New York: Random House.
[2] The Law School Survey of Student Engagement (2015 Annual Survey Results), How a Decade of Debt Changed the Law Student Experience. See http://lssse.indiana.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/LSSSE-Annual-Report-2015-Update-FINAL-revised-web.pdf.
[3] Yale Law Health Mental Health Alliance (December 2014), Falling Through the Cracks: A Report on Mental Health at Yale Law School.  See https://law.yale.edu/system/files/area/department/studentaffairs/document/falling_through_the_cracks.pdf.
[4] W.W. Eaton, J.C. Anthony, W. Mandel & R. Garrison, Occupations and the Prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder, 32 Journal of Occupational Medicine 1079 (1980).
[5] Lee, Keith, Grit and a Growth Mindset (June 13, 2014), Above the Law. See http://abovethelaw.com/2014/06/grit-and-a-growth-mindset/.
[6] Id.
[7] Smith, Tovia, (March 17, 2014). Does Teaching Kids to Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead? NPR Ed, Morning Edition. See http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/03/17/290089998/does-teaching-kids-to-get-gritty-help-them-get-ahead
[8] See Richard, Larry, (May 20, 2016). Career Advice Series: Lawyer Resilience and Grit: How to Thrive as a Lawyer, ABA Legal Career Central. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=El4DmN3cIck.
[9] Dweck, Carol, (January 1, 2015). The Secret to Raising Smart Kids, Scientific American.
[10] See Carol Dweck, (December 2014), The Power of Believing You can Improve, TedTalk.  See https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve.
[11] Dweck, Carol (January 1, 2015).  The Secret to Raising Smart Kids.  Scientific American.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] See Dr. Dweck’s Discovery of Fixed and Growth Mindsets have Shaped our Understanding of Learning, MindsetWorks, https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/.
[16] Supra at 14.
[17] Briceno, Eduardo (November 16, 2015).  Growth Mindset: Clearing up Some Common Confusions, KQED Mindshift, https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/11/16/growth-mindset-clearing-up-some-common-confusions/.
[18] Dweck, Carol (January 13, 2016), What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means.  Harvard Business Review.  See https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means.
[19] Chernow, R. (2004).  Alexander Hamilton.  New York: Penguin Books.

Eduardo Briceño and Dawn Young Eduardo Briceño is the CEO of Mindset Works, the leading provider of growth mindset training services and programs, which he co-founded in 2007 with Carol Dweck and colleagues. He is a national speaker and writer on the subject. Check out his TED talks and find him on twitter at @ebriceno8.Dawn Young is Director of Institutional Projects and Director of the Solo & Small Practice Incubator at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. Dawn manages various programs for the law school, assists with short and long-term planning, and advises and counsels students and graduates on career and professional development.