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Success: It’s all in your head

Moving Mountains

Everyone goes through periods of self-doubt, even the most successful people, according to the former chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, Roberta Liebenberg. “Everyone has these moments where they feel like they’re an impostor, that someone’s going to find out that they’re actually not that good,” she said. “Recognizing that everyone has those moments and that you can change your mindset is really important. A lot of being a good lawyer is having the right mindset and not stymieing yourself.”

A new initiative by CWIP seeks to educate women and other underrepresented groups on how to build that successful mindset – and early indicators are that it’s gaining ground.The effort is called the Grit Project, and it was launched by CWIP to identify some of the traits successful women in the legal field have used to advance their careers and help others develop those traits. The concepts are now being expanded to law school campuses to help women and minority students better weather the challenges they face in building a successful legal career.

How “gritty” are you?

CWIP’s program is based in part on research done in 2012 and 2013 by Milana Hogan, a co-chair of project and the chief legal recruiting and professional development officer at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP in New York. Hogan, who undertook the research as part of her doctoral thesis at the University of Pennsylvania, found that two particular traits were common to high-achieving women in the legal field: A high level of “grit,” and a strong “growth mindset.”

“Grit” is a factor determined by a test developed by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth and explained in her book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” It measures a person’s “grittiness” on a scale of one to five based on their answer to a series of questions. Take a few minutes and complete the test yourself here. According to Duckworth’s recently published book, “Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals…grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.”

A “growth mindset,” according to CWIP materials, is one in which you don’t believe your personal strengths are predetermined. Instead, you see your abilities as flexible and believe you have the ability to develop and refine your strengths if you dedicate yourself and do the work. The good news is that you can enhance both your level of grit and your mindset, and that’s what the Grit Project is about—teaching and empowering women, other lawyers, and law students about the findings of this research and how they can employ these important traits. As part of the project, the ABA has developed a Grit toolkit and will this summer be publishing a book based on the project’s findings.

Grit moves the needle

One of the best things about the ABA’s Grit Project, according to Hogan, is the ability to use this research to expand the horizons of lawyers and law students. “I think ultimately these are empowering findings,” she said. “What this research tells you is that if you hang in there, if you apply the lessons of grit to the practice of law, and if you try to approach tough situations with a growth mindset, you can achieve great success.

“Science tells us that effort pays off,” she added. “That may seem like the most obvious thing in the world, but consistently putting forth the effort, especially when it becomes challenging, is often what differentiates somebody who’s average from somebody who’s really exceptional. It’s the application of real effort consistently over time, not just ‘phoning it in,’ not just showing up. Being totally engaged and giving it your all is what really separates the top performers.”

Hogan said her research was designed to be scientifically sound and based on quantitative data and statistics because, as she pointed out with a laugh, “lawyers like evidence.” She said her initial research was focused on BigLaw, but a new round of research done in conjunction with the ABA’s Grit Project has expanded the findings across the legal field.

“It turns out that grit and the growth mindset matter no matter what kind of law you’re practicing,” she said.

Struggling? So are others

One important take away from the program, according to Hogan, is that it helps young attorneys realize they’re not alone in their struggles. “It’s a message to take to heart— to not get discouraged,” stated Hogan. “I think this is a profession that requires a certain amount of resilience and the ability to bounce back if you don’t get it right at first, or the ability to keep pushing even when something doesn’t come naturally to you.” Entering the workplace can be a huge adjustment from law school, added Hogan, and grit and a growth mindset can help young lawyers, especially women, succeed.

“You may feel overwhelmed as a first-year lawyer making the transition from law school to practice, and it’s exciting to me that this research could make you feel better,” noted Hogan. “Hearing this information could make you see that this happens to everybody. We all face a steep learning curve, and this is how you learn. A tough day or a bad oral argument or tough feedback on a brief doesn’t mean you can’t be successful in this profession. You should think about feedback as an opportunity for learning.”

People often gloss over the difficulties successful people have to endure, Hogan said, which can make it seem as though if you struggle at all, you aren’t good enough. “We tend not to want to talk too much about the struggle,” asserted Hogan. “We like to make people who are successful out to be heroes.

We like to say they’re special and different from everybody else. That makes for a great story, but that’s not the reality. “If you talk to people who are successful, they’ll say they struggled along the way,” contended Hogan. “They’ll say that, at points, they doubted themselves. It’s very rare that somebody sails through to the top of a profession without working hard and sometimes panicking and having some self-doubt.” CWIP’s program helps participants realize they’re not alone, stated Hogan. “You don’t need to be ashamed of the struggle,” she said. “You don’t need to internalize it as some sort of indication that you’re not good enough to have a successful legal career.”

True grit in Texas

At the University of Texas at Austin, the fruits of the Grit Project and the research behind it are paying off, according to Linda Chanow, executive director of the Center for Women in Law at the university’s law school. Chanow said she has implemented the findings of the Grit Project, in particular the growth mindset, in her classes. “I teach mindset in all my classes now,” she said. “I have all my students do the mindset test, and I teach to it. If someone rates as a fixed mindset, I’m very conscious of how I interact with that student to grow their mindset. We’re conscious in every class of what we need to do to grow mindsets and how to intervene.”

In addition, the University of Texas at Austin is including a short video “intervention” on mindset as part of undergraduate orientation after a study showed impressive results. Chanow said the school was focused on the “12-credit completion rate,” which looks at how many students make it through the first semester.

“By doing that 20-minute mindset intervention video in the orientation, the school was able to cut the gap in the 12-credit completion rate for disadvantaged students in half,” reported Chanow. “Now the school has implemented it permanently into the orientation for all students.”

Chanow said that grittiness and the growth mindset is helpful for anyone who faces challenges in the legal field, but particularly for women and those in underrepresented groups. “This is really critical for women lawyers because we know a large percentage of women lawyers in BigLaw are in this fixed mindset, so there’s a lot of room for movement into the growth mindset,” she said. “If you have a fixed mindset, when you hit an obstacle, that tends to confirm your perceived limitations.”

For the same reason, stated Chanow, people with fixed mindsets are more susceptible to the negative impact of gender and racial biases. “People with a growth mindset are less susceptible because they don’t let the obstacle stop them—they figure out how to solve the problem,” she said. “A woman with a growth mindset hears that women aren’t good at business development, and she doesn’t give up. She says, ‘Well, I’m going to figure out how to be good at business development.’”

Chanow is also leading a new program through the law school called Accelerate, where law firms across Texas will send first-year associates to the school for training on the growth mindset. “The goal is to intervene and break the cycle of attrition,” she noted. “We’re aiming to grow their mindset and support them during the first year of practice with their firm.”

No more death spirals

Liebenberg, who’s a senior partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia, said the Grit Project is especially helpful in quickly recognizing and dismissing devastating thoughts. When people have a fixed mindset and encounter serious obstacles, she stated that it’s easy for them to go down a bad path. “I like to call it the ‘death spiral,’ which is: You get a really marked-up memo back from your boss, and your next thought is, ‘I’m going to get fired. I won’t be able to pay my student loans. I won’t be able to pay my mortgage. I’ll be living on the street,’” she explained. “People enter this spiral pretty quickly.”

The key to avoiding the death spiral is to use criticism as a learning tool. “You can’t grow unless you’ve been criticized,” asserted Liebenberg. “You have to be able to accept constructive feedback, and you won’t grow as a lawyer unless you get it.

“The key is: How do you handle that feedback?” added Liebenberg. “Can you change your mindset from one that says, ‘I can’t do this, I’m going to be a failure’? You need to be able to handle criticism, be able to hear it, and be able to learn from it and change.” The goal of the grit research isn’t just to aid the career advancement of women in the legal profession, said Liebenberg, but also to keep them in the field—period.

“I think that, given the very high attrition rate of women lawyers from the profession, changing the narrative is important,” stated Liebenberg.“I think you need to figure out what you can do that’s within your own control to make your professional and personal lives more satisfying. It’s really vital to stem that attrition and make sure we do have a sustained pipeline of women all the way through the arcs of their careers, who will stay in the profession and become leaders in the profession.”

Liebenberg said she hopes the Grit Project will not only empower but also remind young women why they got into the legal field in the first place. “You invest so many hours in being an attorney that you really have to find the passion because that’s what makes this profession so enjoyable,” stated Liebenberg. “I still love being a lawyer,” she asserted. “I still love what I do, and what I’m hoping with the Grit Project is that other women lawyers will find that same sense of fulfillment.”

ERIK BADIA is the deputy student editor at Student Lawyer and a second-year student at Georgia State University College of Law. He was previously a journalist, most recently for The New York Daily News.

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.