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Don't Coddle Law Students!

The Careerist

September 23, 2013

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.

Bad Grades © leszekglasner - Fotolia.comAre 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.


Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. 

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"We have the finest law schools in the world and produce its finest lawyers." Could you please support this assertion with evidence-based facts? The US may be among the best, but why the finest in the world when there are many other developed (and richer) countries with law schools?

The zombies in World War Z were actually extremely fast and agile. Some might even say they were superhuman with their incredible strength and resilience.

Dave, thanks! Great to hear from THE lawyer resilience expert. Vickie, wow - you are tougher than I am! But one point you made - rank 'em and let the grade curve sort 'em out - is implicit in my argument. More valid to separate a good paper from an average one than assign a letter grade. Windy City, in my group of rowdy friends in law school we called C's "aspirational goals."

Nice, Dan. Agree with both your recommendations

I too am 30+ years out of law school and am still having nightmares about taking the California Bar Exam but there's something in that which is as much initiation rite as it is a necessary sieve through which only competent lawyers will pass. But on to Gen-Y law school grades. I taught as an adjunct at a second tier law school for one semester. Here was my undoing. After the first exam, I emailed the entire class saying, "if I were Donald Trump this is the point at which I'd fire all of you." Then I went on to point out what was wrong with all of their work. Well, you'd think I'd water boarded the entire class. The students immediately reported my gross and offensive bullying to the Dean who promptly called me into his office to instruct me in the ways of the world in which students and their parents pay $50,000 + per year for law school. "They are our customers," he said, "and you cannot treat them that way." Our CUSTOMERS. OK. I'd been practicing law for a quarter century by that time and had been treated worse by superiors, clients and, of course, Judges, all of whom most certainly did not treat me like a "customer." "What are they going to do when they start practice?' I asked and was told that was none of my business. If I wanted to continue teaching at this august legal institution, I was required to keep my students happy even though the administration would, at year's end, reject my grading because it violated the school's mandatory curve. When the students inevitably complained about their grades, I frankly told them that I hadn't graded them, only RANKED them. If they were unhappy about their letter grade, they'd have to take it up with the Dean's office. Unsurprisingly, I was never again asked to serve as an adjunct professor.

Ok, I am 30+ years out of law school and still have to provide my GPA to potential employers who seem to think everyone has a 3.9 at worst. I was at one of the top 5 schools, so I really suspect all those C's I and my friends got are worth a lot more than the auto A's given out at Level 4 schools. And I agree, struggle is part of the learning process. If you can't deal with that, god save you when you are in the real legal world.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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