Something interesting happened the other day. I assigned a hypo to a law student and she turned it in but as soon as I looked at her write up, it became clear that she had copied her answer—sometimes word-for-word, from the model.
This got me to thinking: Why would a person do this? The whole point of writing hypos is to help you learn, and if you’re copying the answers, you’re definitely not learning anything. So, how could an otherwise honest, hard-working student decide it was worthwhile to take the easy way out? Here are some ideas:
Law School Puts a Premium on End Result Over Process.
What matters in law school? If you ask most people, they will probably say something like, “getting good grades,” or “landing a good job,” or “making money and being successful”—all very results-oriented responses. Looking at the curriculum at most law schools, it’s easy to see that the exam at the end is what matters. No one cares if you turn in your homework or understand anything that you’re learning along the way—that part is up to you.
In law school, it’s easy to overlook the process in favor of the results. By doing this, though, you can really miss out on the benefits of things like outlining and practicing hypos—the things that help get you to the good end results. I’ve seen law students who care a tremendous amount about their grades. They tell me they are “committed to doing well and trying hard,” and I believe them. They probably are. But, they also need to do the work it takes to get there. And guess what, this can’t start during reading week, and it can’t happen if you’re afraid to struggle. Back to the story about the ant and the grasshopper. You need to be stockpiling your practice and hard work all throughout the semester, not just at the end.
Law Students Can Convince Themselves of Almost Anything.
When I talked to the student I mentioned above about why she copied the sample answer, she said she wasn’t trying to cheat—after all, it’s not like it was a graded assignment. Plus, she thought using the sample would help her learn how to do it right herself.
Okay, let’s unpack this rationale: No, it wasn’t a graded assignment. Turning in a copied write-up to your tutor isn’t unethical or against the honor code at school. But if you think that copying something will help you do it right, that’s absolutely not true. You can’t learn Japanese by copying down the dictionary in Japanese. At most, this will help you write your characters better, but it won’t teach you anything about substance or what the words actually mean.
Law school is about struggling your way to good results. If you don’t struggle even a little bit, you’re not going to learn. Some students might say, “Well, I’m doing great in law school, and it’s really not as hard as everyone thinks it is.” I know students like this too. But believe me, the vast majority of students do not fall into this camp.
Societal Pressure Isn’t Helping.
Just take a quick look at the nearest middle school or high school student in your life. They’re probably obsessed with what their peers think of them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t end when these little guys go off to college, not even when they enter grad. school. Facebook is still plastered with the perfect life everyone wants the world to think their leading. People still photoshop just about everything, even when the end result is downright absurd.
There’s so much pressure to be perfect, and law school is no exception. It’s a time of uncertainty for a lot of people. No one knows what they’re doing at first. Students are afraid of getting it wrong, afraid of being embarrassed in class, and they don’t want to look bad to their peers, professors, or evidently even their tutors. This can make it really hard to buckle down and do the kind of work that throws you smack on your face every single day. It’s uncomfortable. If law school work feels easy, or if you get a perfect end result without trying, you’re probably doing it wrong, and these shortcuts are only going to hurt you.
Everyone Else’s Good Intentions Sometimes Make Everything Worse.
I was reading an article about how well-intentioned parents telling their kids “You’re so smart!” can actually really backfire when the kid grows up to think “smart” is a state of being—a pedestal they have to try hard not to fall off of. They end up not wanting to disappoint their parent who thinks they’re so smart, even if it means fudging their spelling quiz results or copying answers. The article suggested that parents praise the process instead, by saying things like, “You worked so hard!” or “You are so good at trying new things!” In other words—it suggested praising the process rather than the immutable quality or result.
Law students can fall into the same precarious situation—especially when they are worried about disappointing the people close to them. I talked to a seriously unhappy lawyer last month who was so miserable in his job but too afraid to quit because he thought his boss would think he was an idiot for giving up such a great opportunity. Never mind that he was totally miserable and didn’t respect his boss anyway. The fear of disappointing others can run deep. Similarly, a bar student called me up after the exam thinking she had failed and the first thing out of her mouth was, “I’ve let down so many people.” Forget other people. If you’re going to law school for anyone besides yourself, you’re doing it wrong.
Fixed Mindset Rather Than Growth Mindset.
We’ve done a lot of exploration into the effect a student’s mindset can have on their ability to learn and improve. If you’re not sure what I mean by mindset, check out this handy chart and see where you land. Another problem with results-driven learning is how difficult it makes it to see the opportunities that come with failure.
If you’re in law school, I would encourage you to view each badly written hypo, each faltering response to a cold call question, each missed citation on your legal writing assignment, not as a ding to your otherwise awesome reputation, but as a chance to get better. These mini-failures are good. They show you your weaknesses so you can turn them into strengths.
As I tell my bar exam students, you need to struggle now so you don’t struggle when it comes time for the real thing. Law school is the same. Putting yourself into a growth mindset is less comfortable. Staring your shortcomings in the face is not easy. As they say, though, the first step in solving the problem is identifying what the problem is. You need to face it head-on.
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