Welcome to Ahead of the Curve, our new series for incoming 1Ls. We’re getting lots of questions about what law school to attend, how to pay for it, and what people can be doing now to set themselves up for success in law school. Stay tuned, and be sure to sign up for our free mailing list and check out the Start Law School Right course to ensure you’re ready to go on Day One!
A question many prospective law students, current law students, and new lawyers consistently ask is: how do I stand out? Set myself apart from the crowd? Get into the school I want? Get the grades I want? Get the job I want? Succeed in my career?
Students and lawyers alike seem to be searching for the answers to these questions and complaining that when they don’t achieve their desired outcomes, it’s the result of bad luck, bias, poor instruction, insufficient education, or any other tangible fault that lies outside of themselves.
It’s no secret that success requires a strong worth ethic, intense preparation, and dedication. But that’s not all. Science is suggesting more and more that our ability to succeed is directly linked to the way we think about and react to our successes and failures.
Does your LSAT score predict how well you’ll perform in law school? Is your class rank the best indicator of your intelligence in the field of law and what kind of career you will have? Can you overcome a less than desirable first year GPA? Recent studies are suggesting that your answers to these questions can establish your beliefs about the nature of intelligence, and those beliefs are key indicators of your ability to succeed. Some people believe that intelligence is fixed, and remains fairly consistent throughout life. Others believe that intelligence is adaptable over time and that people can significantly increase their level of intelligence over the years. People who believe that intelligence is a fixed entity are described as having a fixed mindset, and those who believe that intelligence is adaptable have a growth mindset.
In the context of law school, this issue has received a great deal of attention recently. For years, law professors have asked themselves and each other why students have such different reactions to feedback. Why do some get defensive about their work or merely glance over comments on a brief, while others really want to learn from professors’ opinions and guidance? Research demonstrates that the difference in responses depends on your inherent beliefs about intelligence, and whether you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. These mindsets not only govern your reaction to feedback, but also your drive, effort, and perseverance. A fixed mindset student is more likely to become so unsettled by a real or perceived failure that he or she will start to perform poorly on tasks, regardless of whether they are challenging or they are well within the student’s aptitude. This is partly due to the fact that people with fixed mindsets tend to pursue performance goals, not learning goals. Fixed mindsets set us up for failure, especially in challenging fields like law, by preventing us from learning from mistakes, a vital part of the process of become proficient in any area. Specifically, those with fixes mindsets will respond to setbacks, mistakes, challenges, and even critical feedback with negative reactions, ineffective strategies, blame, or even cheating, because, instead of seeing mistakes or criticism as a learning opportunity, the fixed mindset believes that failures are indicators that an individual has reached his or her intellectual limits.
Conversely, students with a growth mindset focus on learning and understanding material rather than outperforming others, because they believe they have some control over their intelligence and that with the right effort, they can more intelligent over time. This means that instead of feeling intimidated by challenges or devastated by one poor performance, they see these instances as opportunities to learn and improve for the future. This attitude allows those with growth mindsets to avoid shutting down and getting defensive, and instead to objectively listen to feedback and employ new strategies and efforts or seek out help to learn what needs to change.
This difference in mindset makes a big difference in law school, where entering students are typically used to academic success and high achievement throughout high school and college. They have also likely not been graded on a curve prior to law school, meaning their ability to succeed in courses is directly related to how their performance compares to that of their peers. Law school is often the first time these high achievers face real challenges or setbacks, and their mindsets will affect their reactions to those challenges and subsequently affect their ability to overcome them significantly.
Can Mindsets Change?
This all sounds fine to someone who naturally has a growth mindset, but what are you supposed to do if you’re just hardwired to have a fixed mindset? Luckily, the research in this area has also demonstrated that mindsets can change. It’s not easy – changing deeply held beliefs and habits is hard – but it is possible. Through studies, social scientists now posit that students must be taught to believe that intelligence is not a fixed trait. This comes from committing to challenging yourself every time you catch yourself thinking “I’m just bad at contracts” or “I’ve already done everything I can and studied for hours so I just won’t ever get this” or throwing away your legal writing memo in frustration after viewing your grade and refusing to read the comments. If you find yourself doing these things, it’s ok to take some time to cool down, but once you’ve had time to process your initial feelings of disappointment and frustration, come up with active ways to challenge those beliefs. Explore other strategies, seek out advice on new approaches, be honest with yourself about how you are spending your time and be open to making changes. And perhaps most importantly, find a way to see criticism for what it is – a way to see how someone else viewed your work and the tips they have on how you can improve it.
One study found that once people committed to producing a growth mindset, they started to think that way in earnest after seeing improvement in their work. The more they were able to stick with this approach, the better their reactions became when they faced a mistake or perceived failure, and the less likely they were to give up or stubbornly keep doing everything the same way no matter what the outcome.
Embarking on the path to a legal career is always going to be hard. But hard work alone is not going to be enough to achieve all of your goals. Law school is going to be a new environment, and one that offers fewer opportunities for evaluation where you can see a pattern of improvement, which means that your mindset is more critical than ever. If you are one of the lucky people who is hardwired towards a growth mindset, you’re on the right path, but if you’re not, recognize that you have some control over how you think and how you react to the challenges of law school, and of life.
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