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How to Succeed In Law School

Pamela Zimba, Professor

Once upon a time, when I was a practicing attorney, I was deeply involved in a toxic tort case in which we represented 250 plaintiffs who found out that their houses were built on an alleged toxic dump site. Needless to say, the builder had not disclosed this information to the buyers. Over the seven-year period of time in which this litigation took place, I had the pleasure of working with a very experienced attorney whose son had been accepted into the Naval Academy. I was so impressed and very curious about his experience. My friend told me about his son’s strict routine in which virtually every moment of every day was accounted for by the academy. So, I asked “how does he do it, how does he get everything done on a daily basis?” The answer, “he knows how to work efficiently and he knows how to persevere.” Working efficiently and persevering are non-cognitive skill sets that the Naval Academy students have mastered over many years of practice, and they are skills that you can master too.

Right now, maybe you are thinking “all I have to do to succeed in law school is study more or study harder.  I don’t need to know about non-cognitive skills!”  That would be a mistake.  Studying IS important, but just studying more won’t always yield the outcome you are looking for.

The “Leveraging Non-Cognitive Skills” authors note that the LSAT and the law school GPA are the most accurate predictors of bar exam passage odds. Per the authors, it is often the bottom 20% - 40% of the class that fails the bar exam on their first attempt, but do not think this means their fate is pre-determined! Research suggests that with additional skills and resources, the bottom 20-40% of the class has an increased chance of passing the bar and that is not so much a question of “just working harder” in law school, but rather it is about working smarter.  The problem is not necessarily a lack of effort, it is frequently underdeveloped non-cognitive skills. Development of these skills may play a crucial role in helping the bottom of the class, and the top of the class too, in improving their odds of first-attempt bar exam passage.


Non-cognitive skills that have proven to be effective in improving academic performance are (1) academic behaviors, (2) academic perseverance, (3) academic mindsets, and (4) learning psychology and strategies. (See “Leveraging NonCognitive Skills”) Each of these skills will be discussed in greater detail in future blogs.

Today we are focusing on academic perseverance, and, more specifically, on the idea of GRIT. Angela Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance,” not talent. (See “Leveraging NonCognitive Skills,” p. 170) She believes that although talent counts, effort counts twice. Interestingly, and a topic for future discussion, is the point that passion is not a significant factor in relationship to academic performance, instead, perseverance is a much better predictor of performance. Although I believe that passion does play a role in the overall process, we’ll focus in on perseverance or grit, today.

So, what do I mean when I talk about grit?  It is a mindset of “hard work… accepting failure as a path to success, perseverance, and class and program participation.”  (See “Leveraging NonCognitive Skills,” p. 171).  Closely related to this is the idea of having a “growth mindset”- a belief that we can always grow and learn, that our talents and intelligence are not fixed assets, but things we can grow and develop.  How do we do that?  Through both success and failure. 

Everyone is familiar with the idea of learning through success, but sometimes we can learn more through our failure if we approach it as a learning opportunity instead of just giving up.  That is the essence of the growth mindset.  When you don’t do well on an assignment or an exam, someone with a growth mindset (an essential element of grit) will  probably feel bad, but will pick themselves up and try to determine why they didn’t do well, they will talk to their professors, they will do more practice exams and they will realize that it is still their responsibility to learn the material (whether it is because they will need to pass the bar exam or because they want to practice law in that area).  That is an essential element of grit and perseverance- the ability to take what looks like a failure and turn it into a learning opportunity.  That is also an essential skill for success in law school, because almost everyone is going to have the experience of not doing as well as they’d like on an exam.  The question is how do you move forward after that happens?

Importantly, grit is something that can be learned and improved upon over a period of time. It takes time to learn how to do what’s necessary to find the right goals for you and to summon up the grit / perseverance to achieve those goals. From my experience grit is not a quality reserved for just a special few; it’s available to anyone who wants something so much that they won’t let anyone stop them.

So…do you have grit?  Take the grit questionnaire and keep in mind that there’s no right answer. After answering the questions, check your score. If it’s not as high as you’d like it to be…congratulations!  You have your first opportunity to practice developing grit through a growth mindset. Take that score and learn from it- what can you do to develop and practice a growth mindset?  What areas of the questionnaire seemed like new ideas to you- maybe those are areas for you to focus on and improve within?   If you are interested in learning more about growth mindset, Carol Dweck has a great book called “Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success” that is a wonderful resource.