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Motivation, growth, and the bar exam

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Growth Mindset
Wait? Isn’t this a bar exam column? It is. News flash: These are critical factors in your success.

This winter, as 1Ls reflect on their first completed semester, 2Ls—who are halfway done— consider what they want to do in the remaining year and a half, and 3Ls think about finishing up their final semester and passing the bar exam, I encourage all of you to think about a few important concepts: motivation, growth, and what’s next.

All of these can positively impact your first-time bar passage and whether you move on to a fulfilling and successful career.

Feeling less motivated?

Our motivation guides us in our daily actions, consciously and subconsciously, in critically important ways.

There’s much research about motivation theory, some of it highly relevant to your success in law school and on the bar exam. While I don’t have space here to detail every theory, nor would that be helpful to you right now, I’ll highlight a few key points.

Remember that motivation will fall along a continuum. We’re not entirely motivated or unmotivated; we’re somewhere in between and shifting constantly. We can become more or less motivated.

Motivation includes intrinsic motivation, a force driven by internal reward, such as a feeling of accomplishment.

It also includes extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside rewards or the avoidance of external punishments. Research suggests that students who are intrinsically motivated often have greater success than those who are extrinsically motivated.

Some of you may, understandably, feel your law school experience undermined the internal motivation you came to law school with, perhaps because of the legal education’s many outward, performance-based rewards.

Those include curved grades, class ranking, and competitive honors such as law review, not to mention on-campus interviewing, externships, and clerkships. If for any reason you feel less motivated than when you started law school, I’m encouraging you here and now to find ways to regain your internal drive.

One way to regain motivation is to see that more of your underlying needs are met, including your needs for competence, belonging, and autonomy. These you can work on. And you should. Here’s how.

Build your competence

To feel more competent in law school and as you face the bar exam, think about how incremental daily work continuously improves your fundamental skills, including critical reading, clear and effective writing, logical analysis, and time management. The stronger you are in each of these, the better you’ll likely perform in your classes, on the bar exam, and in law practice.

You’re not “inherently” a good or bad reader or a good or bad writer— these aren’t binary, and they’re also not immutable; you can and will get stronger in these as you train, just as muscles get stronger from working out.

Read as much as you can. Do the mandatory reading for your classes, and read for pleasure—the latter even a few minutes a day. I know you’ll get advice from seemingly reputable sources advising you to take shortcuts on reading cases. They’ll suggest you review only canned briefs or use hand-me-down outlines rather than writing your own.

But reading and briefing cases alone can and will strengthen certain indispensable lawyering skills. Your feeling of being ready for the bar will increase, and your perceptions of your own abilities and preparedness will affect how motivated you are. It’s a positive, virtuous cycle.

Also, if you want extrinsic motivation to read cases, know that you’ll have to read and brief cases under extreme time pressure on the multistate performance test or state-specific performance test portion of your bar exam. So training now will get you ready for the exam.

Talk with your academic success and professionalism faculty and professors with whom you feel comfortable. If you don’t have a positive experience with one of them, try someone else. And remember that someone who seems gruff as a professor in class may be an entirely different person during office hours. Give people a chance.

Take advantage of tutoring and mentoring opportunities. Sometimes even a small change can make a big difference in illuminating something you may not know about yourself.

Seek to belong

What about belonging? Can you work on enhancing your own sense of connection, or are you resigned to feeling isolated in law school?

Of course, you can work on it. Consider every opportunity, and if one doesn’t feel right, try another. From study groups and group projects in classes to student government, journals, and student organizations, there are endless opportunities.

You can also join many bar associations as a student, and those might help you find connections. I sit on an ABA committee that focuses on mental health and wellness in law schools, and we have a student representative. Many other ABA committees do, too.

Sometimes trying a new elective might light a fire. One of my former students, who came to law school certain she wanted to pursue a career in criminal law, felt burned out and disillusioned by her second year. Nothing was stimulating to her in the way she’d hoped. She ended up taking a chance on an animal rights course, and that was it. She found her calling and her inspiration, along with a post-graduation job doing legal work on behalf of animals.

Find just one person to connect with, one subject you’re passionate about, one moment during which you feel great, and seek out more of that. There’s a great chance that finding a connection will spark your motivation.

Control what you can

Autonomy may seem particularly difficult because you’re not in control of so much in law school. Take control of what you can—starting with your schedule. Even if you can’t plan when you have classes, you can plan around your classes to leverage your own needs and strengths.

When are you most energetic? What are your commitments, and what time is flexible? What different forms can your studying take? Working alone or working with others? Listening to recordings or reading text? Drawing diagrams and flowcharts or making lists?

What else can you control? Here’s a potential list to run through:

  • Your attitude—Consider the growth mindset reframing technique outlined below.
  • Your diet—Buy and cook nutritious foods for yourself.
  • Your sleep—You can’t create extra hours in the day, but sometimes if you’ve slept well, you study more efficiently.
  • With whom you surround yourself—You can’t pick your classmates, necessarily, but you can be selective about whom you spend time with outside class. If people don’t make you feel smart and good about yourself, or if they’re not uplifting, minimize the time you spend with them.

The old saying “control the controllables” is some of the best advice ever. It helps your motivation and your sanity. That’s true especially in times such as these, with a pandemic and when so much is beyond our individual control.

How to pursue growth

Here, I discuss different aspects of growth. The first is a growth mindset, which is the basic idea that your capacities and talents can be improved over time. Read an article or books by Carol Dweck as a starting place.

In one of my bar success books, I use a thought reframing technique that exemplifies the growth mindset. I urge law students and prospective bar takers to take charge of and change the tone and content of your own inner dialogue—something totally in your control—to empower you in the quest to achieve your goals and propel you toward success. Consider these examples:

Thought: Why can’t I get a higher score on these practice tests?
Rephrasing: How can I do better on these practice exams?

Thought: This easements and covenants stuff (or whatever subject you find challenging) is so difficult, I’ll never understand it.
Rephrasing: Maybe I need to reread the explanations a couple of times to get this. Or maybe I need an explanation that makes more sense to me. But, I will get it eventually.

Thought: I’ll never be able to sit and focus for two days. I can’t go 10 minutes without checking my phone!
Rephrasing: It’ll be a challenge to build the endurance to focus for days on my bar exam, but if I slowly reduce distractions and increase focus, by exam time, I’ll be ready.

In addition to a growth mindset, think about growth in terms of outcomes, specifically, improving your law school grade point average. There are many reasons to believe that your LGPA is set after the first semester or that, with the curve, it’s just too hard and not worth it to try to bring up an LGPA that started off lower than where you’d have liked it to be.

However, preliminary findings from a recent study show that students whose LGPA improves significantly between 1L and graduation have a much higher chance of passing the bar the first time around. This is important.

At the moment, most law schools don’t have an award for most improved student. I know of at least one medical school that does, and having seen those research findings, I believe every law school should consider creating such an award.

I also know that some of my former students have very effectively used growth in LGPA as a talking point in job interviews. When asked about grades, they acknowledged their lower starting place, stressed the amount of improvement and grit it took to see the improvement they demonstrated, and assured the prospective employers that they’d bring that same persistence to the zealous representation of clients.

You might not think a column on bar success would focus so much on motivation and growth. Maybe you expected words of wisdom on the mailbox rule or the rule against perpetuities?

But motivation and growth are essential foundations. With them, you’ll be well on the road to success in class, on the bar exam, and in your future.

Sara J. Berman Sara J. Berman is a legal education thought leader specializing in student success, teaching and learning, and bar exams. Her most recent book, Bar Exam Success: A Comprehensive Guide, was published in 2019. After decades in faculty and law school leadership positions, Berman is now leading student success research initiatives at the nonprofit AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence. The views expressed in this article are Berman’s own.