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Mindsets in Legal Education

September 01, 2021

By Victor D. Quintanilla & Sam Erman

Incoming Penn Law School students go through a day of orientation at campus. Events included lect... If you teach 1Ls, you may share the following concern. At the start of each year, we meet enthusiastic and successful students who are passionate about law. They arrive on campus invested in learning, ready to work hard, and eager to participate in class. But trouble brews soon thereafter. Students worry whether they have what it takes to do well, whether they will fit in, and whether they belong in law school. Answering questions in class, many sense (rightly or wrongly) that their professors and peers think that they aren’t smart and that they will not do well. When they encounter difficulty making friends, finding study groups, and connecting with professors in office hours, they worry that “maybe this means that people like me do not belong or cannot succeed here.” Worse yet, discussions in class lead many to lose sight of why they chose to go to law school and the important role that lawyers play in serving the public. These experiences erode confidence in their abilities and their engagement in law school, and they cause distress and undermine well-being. Given the inherent interest of law, our commitment to teaching, and our concern for our students’ well-being, we tell ourselves, there is surely some small change that would allow our promising students to thrive. Yet any solution remains paralyzingly elusive.

We recently published Mindsets in Legal Education, an article in the Journal of Legal Education, which validates the impulse to treat law students’ engagement, learning, and well-being as interconnected and improvable. In the article, we offer a way forward that builds on the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE)’s rich data and the findings and efforts of legal scholars who have studied law students’ well-being for the past two decades, and we suggest ways in which LSSSE data can be used by researchers who wish to intervene to improve law students’ well-being.

New Directions in the Psychological Study of the Student Experience

In Mindsets in Legal Education, we introduce social psychological research that helps identify how legal education affects law student learning, growth, engagement, and well-being. We focus on psychological insights: the relationship between stress and anxiety, the cues hypothesis, and mindsets. Research on stress and anxiety reveals how worries about the stress of challenging evaluative situations can undermine performance. The cues hypothesis explains how threatening cues in social contexts can lead to experiences of belonging uncertainty and stereotype threat. Mindsets include lay theories of intelligence held at the levels of students and faculty members and within schoolwide cultures. This research reveals, for example, that faculty mindsets can shape students’ views about whether brilliance is a quality that they either have or do not have and whether this brilliance is something that can be nurtured and developed.

All three psychological phenomena may result in vicious or virtuous cycles, which psychologists refer to as recursive processes. For example, people make meaning of their experiences and of the cues in their environments. Those construals may lead them to think, feel, behave, and interact with others and the surrounding context in ways that sustain and amplify these meanings. In that way, an original construal can become self-fulfilling across time. In our article, we propose a model of how these recursive processes relate to the experiences of law students.

Belonging Uncertainty and Stereotype Threat

When law students first arrive at law school, they often worry about whether they will fit in and belong. While all students worry about belonging in this new environment, these concerns are particularly salient for law students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. These worries may be exacerbated in the first year when law students interact with professors and peers. For example, law students from underrepresented groups and those who are the first in their family to earn a college degree encounter negative stereotypes about their intellectual ability, numeric underrepresentation, and other group-based threats on campus. Moreover, the presence of a competitive classroom culture and the absence of a collaborative culture with communal affordances and opportunities may especially impact women and members of disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.

These experiences may lead them to believe that “maybe this means that people like me do not belong or cannot succeed here.” These kinds of inferences sap motivation and behavior that fosters achievement through a vicious cycle that gains strength through its repetition. Over time, this recursive process unfolds whereby these feelings of nonbelonging interact with difficulties in making friends with peers and forming mentoring relationships with faculty. Law students who experience this belonging uncertainty are less likely to engage in the effort needed to form these relationships. For example, these meanings and experiences may decrease the likelihood that they will instigate a study group or visit with professors in office hours.

In contrast, law students who feel more assured of their belonging may develop more frequent social interactions with peers and faculty, forming better relationships on campus, facilitating their social integration and further benefiting their well-being, engagement, and success in law school. Early successes in law school may serve as a cue that assures students that they, in fact, belong there, which in turn improves their performance and leads to a self-fulfilling cycle and prophecy. But when students experience friction in the transition to law school or in law school classes they may feel that they do not belong and withdraw from the very practices that may be beneficial for their well-being and success—withdrawal that itself fuels further experiences of belonging uncertainty across their path in law school.

Growth Mindsets and Mindset Cultures in Law School

Similarly, many students worry about their potential and whether they have what it takes to do well in law school. Again, these worries can be particularly salient for members of disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. For example, when law professors communicate a fixed mindset—that some law students have what it takes and others do not—this can lead law students to endorse this fixed mindset when thinking about their own abilities in law school. Law students who are members of underrepresented groups may also experience threat. When law students answer questions on call and infer that a professor thinks that they are dumb, this can exacerbate these worries about their potential. Moreover, when law students have difficulty connecting with students in study groups or experience negative interactions with faculty members in office hours, this may lead to worries about their ability and potential to succeed. Students with these worries—and who believe that perhaps they really do not have what it takes to earn high marks in a course—may exert less effort when studying and perhaps less effective strategies than those who really do believe that they have what it takes to earn an A. This may, in turn, lead to skewed differences in law school grades, which in turn feeds back on skewed differences in accumulating important markers of success in law school (e.g., journal and internships) and perhaps career opportunities while in law school and beyond.

Stress and Anxiety

Finally, the meaning that law students make about their stress and arousal before an exam (or while taking the exam) may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a law student interprets the stress and arousal as harmful, this may lead them to worry about that anxiety. This worry itself may sap executive functioning as it forces the law student to deal with this psychological friction when taking the exam. These worries may increase the amount of stress that a law student experiences, which further erodes their confidence and performance on the exam. When this worry interferes with their performance, they will earn a lower grade than they otherwise would have. On the next exam, they may experience even greater or equal stress and arousal (as they feel the need to earn a higher grade to offset the lower grade). Moreover, recalling the worries on their last exam may lead them to believe that they are simply not “a good test taker.” This meaning may further interfere with their performance. While these processes are subtle, social psychologists (and our own research team) have revealed the extent to which altering these meanings can lead to virtuous cycles that nourish performance.

Confidence in Ability Chart


The Science of Psychologically Attuned Interventions

In Mindsets in Legal Education, we describe a variety of targeted, psychologically attuned interventions that address the friction that law students experience when transitioning into law school and when preparing for the bar exam. Such interventions promise to transform the recursive cycles produced by interactions between law schools and law students into virtuous ones. The proposal rests on three contentions: psychological friction plays a role in all aspects of the law school experience; problems in legal education can be defined in part as psychological problems amenable to psychological solutions; and such solutions can (and should) be subjected to rigorous, empirical testing.

One of the chief insights of social psychology is the power of construal. As we live and navigate our day-to-day lives, we constantly make meaning and sense about ourselves, others, surrounding events, and our own experiences. This process of construal shapes our perceptions, feelings, motivation, thoughts, actions, and thereby our lived experiences, life trajectories, and the environments we inhabit. Several terms have been used to describe this central insight: mindsets, lay theories, subjective construal, causal attributions, social construction, and stories. Importantly, this process of meaning-making is changeable, albeit variably so. Construals act much like hypotheses. During times of minimal friction, this meaning-making goes unexamined and is treated as presumptively confirmed, a self-fulfilling dynamic like those described above. However, at critical moments of change, transition, friction, or problems, construals become more open to revision—including in precise ways by targeted psychologically attuned interventions, known as wise psychological interventions. Because these new construals may themselves be subject to recursive reinforcement, the result is that even brief, targeted exercises can turn negative self-fulfilling cycles into positive self-fulfilling cycles, thereby leading to lasting change.

Ultimately, we believe that these psychologically attuned interventions are becoming ever more feasible, and in the article, we offer scaffolding for how to implement them, and why doing so has the potential to transform legal education. Moreover, we also discuss how our own interdisciplinary, multi-institution collaboration used LSSSE data in building a program to mitigate the psychological friction law students experience when preparing for the bar exam.

Our aspiration is that Mindsets in Legal Education may inspire those seeking to improve law student learning, engagement, and well-being with well-tailored and empirically tested social psychological interventions.

About the Authors

Victor D. Quintanilla Victor D. Quintanilla Headshot

Victor D. Quintanilla is the Co-Director of the Law School’s Center for Law, Society & Culture, an Indiana University Bicentennial Professor, Professor of Law, and an Adjunct Professor at the Indiana University Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Quintanilla’s research investigates civil justice design, access to justice, and legal education by drawing on theory and methods within the field of psychological science, including experiments conducted with judges, lawyers, law students, and members of the public.


Sam Erman Sam Erman Headshot

Sam Erman is a professor of law at USC Gould School of Law. He is a scholar of law and history, whose research and teaching focuses on citizenship, the Constitution, empire, race, and legal change. Erman is also the author of Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution and Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2018). This book lays out the tragic story of how the United States denied Puerto Ricans full citizenship following annexation of the island in 1898.


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