Harnessing the Power of Positive Psychology and Growth Mindset to Produce Happier, More Invested, and More Productive Law Students
This article originally appeared in PD Quarterly and is posted with permission.
By Jennifer Leonard L’04
My first semester of law school was, to say the least, a challenging time in my academic life. After a lifetime of achieving high grades, pleasing parents, teachers, and professors, and loving school, I encountered for the first time a struggle: even though I was working harder than I’d ever worked before, applying myself in ways that would have certainly guaranteed straight A’s in my previous experiences, I found myself gutted when I logged in to view my first-semester grades. To this day — 15 years later — that moment remains etched in my brain as the moment I decided that I was a failure, doomed to be a terrible attorney and a disappointment to all who had believed in me. I spent the next two and a half years doing only what it took to get through, pretending to those around me that I was doing well and feeling confident, and just hoping that I would receive a diploma at the end of my journey. When the dean handed that piece of paper to me, I felt no joy or sense of accomplishment — only relief that the experience was over and that I could stop letting everyone down.
Today, I look back at that 1L student and wish that she had known about the powerful research on growth mindset and positive psychology. I wish that I could tell her the many reasons why harnessing the power of these related concepts would help her not only to move past a disappointing experience but to learn how to view setbacks as opportunities to become stronger rather than as an immutable verdict on her talents and future prospects. I would tell her that her first-semester grades were no indication of how she would perform as a lawyer and that she had a lifetime to improve and become an exceptional attorney who would not just please those around her, but experience true happiness and career satisfaction as a result.
While I don’t have the opportunity to relive my own experience, I feel so fortunate each day that I eventually returned to my law school (after performing well as a practicing attorney, I might add) and now have the ability to introduce students — particularly 1Ls — to the power of positive psychology and growth mindset. I share my experience with them and let them know that it will get better and that this is just the beginning in a lifetime of professional growth. In many ways, law school is the beginning of an intensive strength-training program that focuses on the development of each developing lawyer’s intellect and mental toughness. When framed in the right way, law school can truly be an empowering, fortifying beginning of a lawyer’s journey.
Dr. Carol Dweck has famously coined the term “growth mindset” to encapsulate the idea that an actor has the ability to reframe a situation to enable growth as a result of experience and learning. In contrast, an actor with a “fixed mindset” views her abilities, situation, or talents as immutable. A fixed mindset inhibits growth because the actor feels helpless — she has the talents and abilities she has and there is nothing she can do to change them. Adopting a growth mindset allows an actor to reframe the situation. The actor is no longer powerless but has every opportunity to use experiences to strengthen her abilities.
Growth mindset focuses not on who we are today, but on the potential within each of us. Certainly, life presents each of us with periods of struggle and discomfort. Growth mindset allows us to focus on how our endurance through those times will help us to become stronger, more resilient, more knowledgeable, and wiser as a result. To those who adopt a growth mindset, learning is a process — not a series of isolated tests designed to confirm intelligence and talent and to elicit comparisons among students.
Applied Positive Psychology
Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania has pioneered the study of applied positive psychology. According to Seligman’s research, human beings are naturally programmed to seek out positivity and search for meaning in their work and lives. Positive psychology posits that we are capable of learning both helpful and harmful mindsets — we can learn helplessness, but we can also learn optimism. Learned helplessness is a condition in which a person feels he lacks power over his own situation because of a series of traumas he has experienced. Learned optimism, on the other hand, is the exact opposite concept — that human beings can work to cultivate joy from the situations they experience. Seligman makes clear that learned optimism is not easy work, but results from cultivating a “talent for joy” — consciously challenging negative thoughts and pessimism to emerge with a stronger, more positive sense of self.
Related Tools for Growth
Growth mindset and positive psychology are related concepts. Both are forward-looking: we can and will become better even though we are not our best today. Both are focused on building strength in mind and in spirit; it is this strength that allows us to achieve ever greater levels of effectiveness and to tap into more powerful feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction. At their cores, both philosophies emphasize the ability of each one of us to change who we are today to become a better version of ourselves. The adoption and conscious practice of positive psychology and growth mindset drain the setbacks each of us face of their power. Rather than allowing a failure or setback to overwhelm us, we are able to push forward, to learn, and to become stronger. Both philosophies encourage us to stop looking to others for validation. Comparing ourselves to the performance of others is harmful and meaningless. Focusing on the achievements of others not only drains us of the energy we need to focus on our own improvement, it deprives us of the joy we experience in our own growth.
Notably, neither concept espouses that these changes are easy. In essence, they are simple to understand, but require hard work, constant and conscious effort, and perseverance. But these exertions over time result in strength of mind and spirit and empower the actors to achieve a greater level of mastery.
Law School Application
Law school is a serious and rigorous educational pursuit that trains its participants to “think like lawyers.” In many ways, thinking like a lawyer is about learning how to spot and assess risks, to think ahead of time about the ways in which a given course of action might pose challenges for the client, and to develop solutions to achieve client goals. These skills are essential for all lawyers. Certainly, no client would want to hire a lawyer who wears rose-colored glasses! Nonetheless, awareness of the psychological pitfalls that can result from this field of study is important too, because while these issue-spotting and risk assessment skills are crucial, students may unconsciously internalize their focus, using those same skills to spot problems in themselves. By adopting an approach to their self-evaluation that is different and distinct from their evaluation of a legal fact pattern, students can learn to equate weaknesses and shortcomings with opportunities for growth. By employing two different methods of analysis — a critical eye toward a legal fact pattern or situation a client faces and a growth-oriented perspective toward professional development — students can learn the lawyering skills they need without internalizing and applying these issue-spotting skills to tear themselves apart. First, though, students need to be aware of the roots of their self-destructive thoughts so that they can begin to transform them.
Setting Reasonable Expectations
“The law” is an incredibly complex field. In a great Mad Men scene (which describes all Mad Men scenes, really), Pete Campbell’s father, who disapproves of his career in advertising and disagrees with his son’s assertion that it is a complicated endeavor, retorts, “Now, if you were to tell me the same thing about the law, I might believe you.” The senior Campbell is correct, of course — law is complex and even the most seasoned and effective lawyers are constantly wrestling with new legal problems. Why then, in the very first days of learning this discipline, do so many new law students expect that they will excel in this complex pursuit from the start?
I think the answer to this question is that law school and “the law” are vastly different from every educational experience most students have encountered before law school. Nonetheless, new law students tend to do what humans do in most circumstances — use past experiences to guide and inform present and future ones. Many students are in law school because they excelled at school and that excellence fueled their desire for more positive experiences — i.e., more school. So, for those students for whom law school is a challenge — perhaps the first real academic challenge they have faced — placing that challenge into perspective can be difficult because they have no frame of reference from which to draw. They may have no experience in processing disappointing grades, negative feedback on in-class performance, or some of the other routine experiences of law school. This experiential deficit (and the accompanying deficit in the skills necessary to persevere and grow in the wake of each new challenge) often means that students miss out on the tremendous opportunities law school and practice offer to strengthen legal reasoning, legal research and writing, interpersonal communication, client service, and the myriad other skills that contribute to effective attorney development. Approaching the experience with reasonable expectations and a focus on growth will aid the student in enjoying a more productive experience. The benefits extend well beyond an individual classroom experience, though.
A Win-Win-Win Approach
In fact, the benefits of focusing on growth and positive outcomes are threefold — personal, academic, and professional.
On a personal level, law school demands an incredible investment of resources. For many law students, a significant outlay of money is required to pursue a legal education. But even for those in the enviable position of pursuing a JD without incurring significant debt, a matriculating law student commits to three years of reading, preparing for and participating in classes, and pursuing co-curricular opportunities like clinical representations, public service work, professional development programs, journal and law review work, externships, extracurricular clubs and competitions, and summer legal work experiences. In addition, students spend a significant amount of time and energy applying and interviewing for post-graduate positions. In light of this huge investment of resources, then, adopting a mindset that the challenge one is about to pursue will require patience, determination, and resilience is critical. Investing so many resources in a pursuit as difficult as law school without being prepared to suffer setbacks and grow as a result is simply exhausting and joyless. On the other hand, being realistic, being open to development, and viewing law school as the first step in a lifelong journey of professional development prepares students to weather the difficult times, knowing that by persevering in the face of challenges they allow themselves to become stronger professionals in the end.
Academically, students have a full three years to begin their development as attorneys. Using early feedback in the form of grades, comments on legal writing papers, and commentary from supervising attorneys in work assignments, externships, clinical experiences, and public interest work to inform efforts to improve allows students to grow at each stage of the law school experience. The personal investment a student who adopts a growth-oriented approach to the law school experience makes is different, deeper, and more impactful than the approach of a student who fails to properly incorporate feedback and continues to approach problems in the same way. At graduation, these two students walk away with similar degrees but very different substantive understandings of how their legal education has prepared them to assume the next step on their professional journey.
Professionally, adopting a growth mindset and applying positive psychology to the law school experience allows a developing lawyer to become a more effective client service provider as well. As we have discussed, one of the most important goals of American legal education is for students to learn how to “think like a lawyer.” In many regards, thinking like a lawyer means that a law student learns how to identify potential legal issues so that the student will one day be able to assess the facts of the client’s situation and spot legal issues to determine the risk of a proposed course of action or to assess the likelihood of success during litigation. While critical to a lawyer’s core function, risk assessment and issue spotting are just one part of the equation. The modern sophisticated practitioner also knows how to solve problems and propose alternative courses of action that will allow clients to circumvent or mitigate risk. This second part of the equation — the problem-solver component — can really only be executed by a lawyer who adopts a forward-thinking, creative philosophy to lawyering. In many ways, learning how to adopt a growth mindset during law school nurtures the more creative side of a developing lawyer’s brain. For a law student who employs a fixed mindset, a disappointing grade or negative feedback on an assignment merely symbolizes a problem with the student’s understanding and performance. The student has identified that a course of action — answering a certain way on an exam or drafting a paper so that negative feedback followed — resulted in a negative result. The upshot for a student with a fixed mindset is: “I have failed in this endeavor and am therefore not talented in the competency this activity tested.” Adopting a growth mindset, on the other hand, allows a law student to understand that the feedback also provides the opportunity to be creative, to adapt, and to develop a different solution to the assignment next time with the goal of getting stronger. Practicing this reframing during law school will condition a developing lawyer to search for creative alternatives when faced with setbacks during a representation and will, by extension, strengthen the lawyer’s counsel to the client.
In sum, framing the law school experience as an opportunity to grow allows students to maximize their law school investment and to graduate having experienced a richer educational process. Moreover, this lens also provides the opportunity to grow as a lawyer in a way that will one day benefit the client.
How Law Schools Can Support Their Students in Becoming More Invested and More Productive
Law schools should actively support the students they serve in understanding, valuing, and implementing a growth-oriented approach to the law school experience. While undergraduate programs increasingly introduce students to some of these concepts, the beginning of law school represents a critical crossroads at which a law student needs a refresher or an introduction to these concepts. Ideally, law schools would adopt three approaches to support students in developing a growth mindset: (1) early and often; (2) “it gets better”; and (3) self-reflection.
Early and Often
Law schools should introduce the concepts of growth mindset and positive psychology as early in the law school experience as possible. Orientation is the perfect time to lay a foundation for developing these strengthening approaches. While students are unlikely to grasp the nature of the law school experience before their formal coursework has started, introducing the concepts this early sends a clear message that the law school endorses this positive approach and plants a seed for further development when the students need it most.
In addition to early introduction, repeated exposure is key, particularly during the 1L year. The 1L year can be an exciting and transformative time, but it can also be a year that tests the mettle of even the most successful student. Certain points during the year offer opportunities for introducing helpful supports to students.
- The first point is during the first month as students adjust to the Socratic method and experience a classroom activity that almost never seeks the “right answer” but instead challenges students to probe deeply their understanding of new concepts.
- A second point is upon a student’s receiving feedback from an initial legal writing or legal practice skills assignment. Students are likely unaccustomed both to the new style of writing the legal discipline requires and the extent and scope of the feedback they may receive on an assignment. But students with a fixed mindset or tendencies toward learned helplessness may be impervious to the feedback because it is actually too difficult to absorb through the lens they have used to view the world until now. Priming students to be prepared for feedback and to view that feedback as an opportunity for growth (and as a normal part of law student development) will help students to move past the disappointment and toward a more mature, future-oriented approach to understanding the feedback, incorporating it into subsequent assignments, and becoming a stronger legal writer as a result.
- Next, as students begin to outline for the first set of final exams, law schools should remind students that their goals have changed from their prior academic test-taking experiences. Students are no longer simply memorizing and regurgitating information. They are instead being asked to understand rules that govern a problem, to spot issues in a hypothetical fact pattern, to apply the rules to those issues, and to reach a conclusion. This is a very specific and novel test-taking approach, and law schools should focus on preparing students to be challenged in a new way but also in a way that will offer them early practice in identifying problems and applying the law. While their understanding of the law will grow and evolve beyond the rules they will apply in a single doctrinal course, they are in essence practicing one of the important skills that will make them valuable client service providers one day.
- Another important point is when first-semester grades are released. This is a critical time in the life cycle of a 1L law student. Many students — even those whose grades fall well within the class average — feel disappointed in their performance, especially when compared with a lifetime of positive and above-average academic results. The gut reaction I mentioned at the opening of this article has not changed since I graduated from law school — I still see it every year as exceptional students who will someday become terrific lawyers struggle to process the results of their first set of exams. Finding opportunities to remind students of the growth-oriented nature of legal education will help support students through this challenging time and, done properly, will allow students to see the balance of their law school time as an opportunity to grow and improve.
“It Gets Better”
“It gets better” is a philosophy schools should emphasize, and it should be trumpeted by those who have been through the experience — both recently and long ago. Thousands of support groups can’t be wrong; hearing that someone else has had the same (or a worse) experience, has weathered the storm, and has actually emerged stronger and more competent is invaluable to those in the thick of the storm. Finding ways — either through short videos, flyers, in-person panels, or newsletters — to highlight upper-level students, recent graduates, and prominent alumni who struggled through similar times of doubt and emerged stronger provides inspiration to students who are still reeling from a major disappointment.
When I work with students who are trying to process a negative academic experience, I often compare it to a very minor form of grief. Students are grieving the loss of the perfect student they thought they were, and law schools can play a role in supporting them as they engage in reimagining themselves as exceptionally talented but flawed developing professionals who are still learning the discipline and who will emerge stronger on the other side if they continue to persevere. Simply knowing that others have also weathered the storm and have found success on the other side can be invaluable during a time of academic disappointment and, in extreme cases, even shame.
In my experience as a law student and as someone who works with law students, I have found that law students, as a whole, are not as accustomed to performing self-reflection as their peers in other disciplines such as psychology and education. What a loss it is to pursue something as transformative as law school without actually investing some time in thinking about the process, how it aligns with expectations at the outset, and how values and priorities change during law school. Increasingly, graduate schools are working with their students to record reflections on personal, professional, and academic experiences in an effort to chart growth and change. Law students should be encouraged to engage in the same critical thinking about their experience. Law schools should consider finding opportunities — either through professionalism programs, legal writing classes, clinical experiences, pro bono opportunities, or even doctrinal coursework — to encourage students to reflect on some of the following themes:
- How law school is different from (and similar to) their notions of law school before they arrived.
- The highlights and lowlights of their last few weeks and what themes those experiences have in common.
- How, if at all, their career goals have changed since law school began and what that change means for their individual values.
- How they are really spending their time during the week and how that time investment aligns with their goals — personal, professional, and academic
- How their self-image is being shaped by peers and the daily law school experience and how that self-image differs from their self-image during the law school application process.
Simply providing the time for these reflections underscores their importance, and, given the natural skepticism that might meet such an exercise, the more imposing the source of the directive — the dean, esteemed standing faculty, prominent alumni, upperclass students — the stronger the message that these reflections matter and should be a part of a holistic law school experience.
Law schools are evolving to meet the demands of modern legal practice, and this change is exciting and important. The legal community also continues to design solutions to the industry’s notorious struggle with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, alcoholism/drug dependency, and self-harm. Law schools have a role somewhere in the middle of these two positive evolutions in the industry — finding ways to strengthen the creative muscle of the developing lawyer, which provides a better fit to the needs of today’s legal clients, and finding ways to also bolster law student resilience and positive growth, which will produce happier, more invested, and more productive law students and lawyers.
About the Author
Jennifer Leonard joined Penn Law to serve as the Director of its Center on Professionalism and Associate Director for Professional Development in 2013. She is a 2004 graduate of Penn Law School and a 2000 graduate of Penn State University. Before returning to Penn Law, Jennifer served as the Chief of Staff for the City of Philadelphia Law Department, a full-service law office that provides civil legal representation to the Mayor’s Office, Philadelphia City Council, and dozens of other City departments and agencies. Before working for the City, Jennifer was an associate with Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads in Philadelphia, where her practice focused on complex commercial litigation. After she graduated from Penn Law, Jennifer served as a law clerk to Justice Russell M. Nigro of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. She lives in Philadelphia with her morning-person husband, her yogurt-slinging toddler, her snuggly newborn, her two massive dogs, and a grumpy geriatric cat who rules them all.
 See, generally, Seligman, Martin E.P., Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (Free Press, 1998).