Dan Bowling returns as today's guest blogger. The managing principal of Positive Workplace Solutions, Bowling is also a visiting scholar at University of Pennsylvania, and a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School.
Are law students too fragile to handle a bad grade? That is what one law professor seems to think. In a soon-to-be published article, Joshua Silverstein of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock urges that law schools eliminate all C’s because of the psychological harm they create.
Ever since The Wall Street Journal reported on Silvertstein’s proposal earlier this year, the blogosphere has been buzzing. The commentary has been brutally negative. That's not surprising because Sliverstein’s call to lighten up on law students fits neatly within one of two common narratives—that (1) law students are whiny exemplars of a pampered and babied generation, or (2) law professors are lazy, overpaid incompetents who can’t be bothered to conscientiously grade papers.
Actually, Silverstein makes some valuable points in his article that are largely ignored by the online commentators. Chief among these is that grading is more art than science, and the differences between a B and a C on papers or exams graded by different professors is not very reliable. Also, Silverstein’s research on grading policies among law schools shows there is little consistency in how often the C grade is utilized from one school to another, which in theory disadvantages graduates of schools with more rigorous grading curves.
What I don’t buy is that the existence of the C is why so many law students are miserable.
And many are miserable—a topic we have covered here before (click here). Up to 40 percent of law students suffer significant levels of clinical depression during law school, according to one study.
But is it only about grades? I don’t think so. Unhappiness doesn’t discriminate on the basis of class rank. Lawrence Krieger, perhaps the most well known researcher on law student happiness, doesn’t think it is about grades either, noting the “universal fallacy that the road to happiness leads through the top of the class.” Or a Big Law job.
Long-term happiness for law students comes from other places—such as friends, positive
emotional experience, hopefulness about an uncertain future. It's not about nailing a torts exam.
That said, there is no denying that the first wave of law school grades comes as a shock to many 1Ls. Over-achievers since toddlerdom, it is their first experience with something less than perfection. The mood in February after first semester grades are released is grim: Students walk around like extras in World War Z. Zombiefied, if you will.
But not all do—at least for long.
Researchers on resilience and post-traumatic stress have demonstrated there is a bell curve distribution among those who undergo an event they find traumatic. Some suffer mightily and never recover; others—the majority—bounce back after a while. And a certain percentage thrive in the aftermath of trauma. As famed psychologist Martin Seligman likes to note, there is empirical support for the old saying “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.” In my experience, law students are no different.
Is there anything law schools can do to help students bounce back more quickly in law school—yes, become happier—regardless of their 1L grades? Here are three ideas:
1. Start resilience training in the first year. Resilience skills can be trained, as the U.S. Army is showing with the assistance of trainers from the University of Pennsylvania. Law schools should invest in upfront psychological training of entering students to better insulate them from the emotional shocks sure to come. Teach students to bounce back, fast.
2. Focus on student strengths. Following that initial training, schools should continue to work with students in a formal, structured manner to help them develop strengths awareness and alignment. We are happiest and most productive when we are aware of our strengths and use them in our lives and jobs, as decades of Gallup surveying has shown. Students thirst for this sort of material. My course at Duke Law School (“Well-Being and the Practice of Law”) fills up within the first hours of registration every year—in no small part because of its strengths-based focus.
3. Toughen up the grade curve. You heard me right. Toughen up but standardize grade curves across faculties and between schools to the extent possible. Level the playing field. It isn’t the presence of C’s that is ruining things for the bottom half of the class; it is the almost random way they are assigned among professors and schools.
We have the finest law schools in the world and produce its finest lawyers. The practice of law is tough and demanding, and our training of practitioners must be the same. Keep the C’s. Tough and demanding, however, does not require slavish devotion to a hundred-old pedagogical model that is psychologically damaging to many. A few modest changes and innovations can make a world of difference.
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