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Aric Short

The Power of Pivoting (Part II of II)

By: Aric Short, Professor of Law & Director of the Professionalism and Leadership Program, Texas A&M University School of Law

In Part I, we talked about three important competencies that help us accomplish difficult tasks: grit, resilience, and strategic pivoting. Putting those competencies into action can make an enormous difference, in particular, for students struggling to rebound from disappointing Fall grades. But the long-term benefit in professional identity formation can be even more powerful given the challenges and setbacks that lawyers frequently face. As essential sub-parts of being self-directed, these competencies better position students for later professional success.

Effectively pivoting can be especially hard for law students for various reasons as discussed in Part I. So in this post, we’re going to cover a number of specific, practical steps to begin strategically pivoting to achieve greater academic success. And for students who may feel bewildered or even despondent about their Fall grades, I want to add a personal plug: I know this process works. Having worked with hundreds of 1Ls, I’ve personally seen students make dramatic gains in the Spring following this general approach.

Step 1: Practice self-compassion. Let’s not sugar-coat it: In the face of disappointment, whether it’s about grades, a relationship, or something at work, we can feel bad about ourselves. Our feeling isn’t just that the goal wasn’t achieved; it’s that we failed. It’s about us. For law students already struggling with imposter syndrome, lower-than-expected grades can serve as fuel for their inner-critic: “See, I told you that everyone else is smarter. You shouldn’t be here.”

In difficult times like this, it can helpful to quiet the internal dialogue by adopting the perspective of giving advice to a friend you care about. What if your friend were in this situation, and she were looking to you for counsel? What would you say? You probably would remind her, first, that her acceptance to law school was built on a long track record of success, some of which didn’t come easy. You’d also remind her that the admissions office didn’t, in fact, make a mistake in letting her in. And you’d give her unconditional support and encouragement to believe in herself and take the steps necessary to regroup and figure out an effective way forward.

Although law students often exude confidence externally, many are plagued with relentless self-doubt and self-critique. So if you’re feeling some of these kinds of emotions, it’s normal. You’re not alone. In fact, many attorneys also feel these same emotions—and yet, a large number of those attorneys are very successful. So self-doubt in law school is not inconsistent with success as a lawyer. Recognizing that reality can make it easier to accept yourself and, maybe, give yourself a little grace. Doing so can help your psychological well-being and give you the physical and mental strength necessary to effectively gather the necessary information and strategize about how to effectively pivot. So, work on healthy sleep, eating, and workout habits. Remain connected to friends and family who support and encourage you. Take care of yourself.

Step 2: Choose your focus wisely. Within the academic setting, imagine one large circle containing the things you care about. Only you can know what’s in that circle, but it might include making higher grades, feeling like you’ve worked as hard as you can, being invited to join a journal, becoming an effective oral advocate, being selected as a teaching or research assistant, etc. And then imagine a second circle containing all the things you have control over in your life. Your most efficient, effective use of time and energy is at the intersection of these two big circles: the things you can control that also matter to you.

It gives us a sense of security to imagine that we control a lot in our lives; but in reality, we really don’t. What we truly control, I think, boils down to two areas: our effort (behavior) and our attitude. That’s it. We like to think we control outcomes: whether we make an A in a class or whether we get hired for a certain job. But we don’t. We can certainly influence and affect these kinds of outcomes as a result of our effort and attitude, but we absolutely do not control them.

Is this just a theoretical distinction without practical meaning? I don’t think so. Going back to Step 1, we often take “failure” personally, as a reflection of some shortcoming of ours. But if we can step back a little and recognize that we never had control over those outcomes to start with, we can refocus on what we do, in fact, control while also treating ourselves more humanely. By doing so, for example, our focus can shift from getting an A to working more strategically to execute as effectively as possible on the exam. Reframing in this way gives us a sharper, more honest way to evaluate ourselves.

Step 3: Ask useful questions to identify what is real. Useful questions might be grouped into three categories: (1) Why Questions; (2) You Questions; and (3) Community Questions. “Why Questions” focus on the big-picture: Why are you in law school? Why are you willing to work hard and persevere through three (or more) difficult years of schooling? What do you hope to accomplish with a law degree? The answers to these kinds of questions are foundationally motivating. They help illuminate your purpose and can motivate you in difficult, trying times. People who demonstrate grit and resilience often have a clearly-identified purpose that serves as an ongoing source of strength, motivation, and even inspiration.

“You Questions” are some of the most important questions to ask in this process: What did you do the first time to prepare? How did you spend your time studying on a daily basis? Was your focus on class preparation or getting ready for exams? What happened on your exams? This category of questions gathers both the steps you took as you prepared to execute and the specific results, at a granular level, of your assessments. Meaningfully evaluating your performance in each class may be the trickiest part of this analysis.

To truly gather the necessary information to pivot effectively, you need detailed information from your Fall courses. For midterms and final exams: How did you do on each section of the assessment, as compared to the class high, low, and average? Were you consistent in your performance across all of your doctrinal classes? How did you do in your 1L writing class as compared to your doctrinal classes? How did you do in your writing class as compared to the essay components of your doctrinal classes? What feedback do your professors have on your assessments? The answers to these kinds of questions give you important information on what should be your focus of attention this semester. And without fact-based answers to these questions, you’re just guessing about what to do differently.

Finally, “Community Questions” help you consider resources beyond yourself that could be useful. What school resources are available? How can you access them? When would be the most beneficial time to do so? Are there resources your classmates can provide? Within this category of questions, you may identify possibilities such as visiting professor office hours to clarify areas of confusion every week. Or meeting with academic support staff for strategies on answering multiple choice questions. Or forming a study group to begin preparing for your midterms.

It’s important to emphasize that within this step, the goal is to gather specific information about what is real. Although that point may seem obvious, my experience is that many, many students at this point in the semester have reached conclusions about what is real based on their unreasonably negative emotions. In emotionally difficult situations, particularly when there is significant uncertainty and a perceived lack of control, we tend to conflate the emotions we’re feeling with reality. If we’re feeling “not good enough” or “a failure,” it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that these feelings reflect the truth—that we are, in fact, not good enough or a failure. The negative spiral that often follows can be powerful.

Walking a healthy and useful line here can be challenging. On the one hand, it’s essential to be aware of and process your emotions. What you’re feeling in any given situation carries meaning. Attorneys and law students are not well-served by blocking and ignoring their emotions. But we need to see emotions in perspective. Perhaps one useful way to frame this balance is that while our emotions are valid, they do not necessarily reflect reality. In fact, we might go so far as to say that emotions (especially negative ones experienced in times of stress and uncertainty) are not reality unless proven otherwise.

Step 4: Putting it all together. If you’ve worked through the prior steps, you have in front of you the raw information needed to make thoughtful, effective decisions about adjusting your study plan this semester. Your actual plan is personal to you and your needs, rather than some generic template. But here are a few general observations, based on years of working with 1Ls, that might help you consider how to strategically pivot this semester.

  • Consider the purpose of your study activities. Fall 1L students need to spend significant time learning how to read appellate cases and understand their various components. For many students, this involves reading the assignment multiple times and creating a written brief for each case. Most of that significant time investment is focused on understanding the material well enough to follow class discussions. Students also frequently cite another, related reason for spending so much time preparing for class: They don’t want to be embarrassed if they’re called on for a case. You’ll need to figure out, with reflection, whether the cost-benefit tradeoff was worth it for you. In particular, did you over-prepare for class discussions, particularly in light of how much (or little) those discussions directly impacted your final grade?
  • Shift study time to make it more effective. With a little experience under your belt, maybe it makes sense to reallocate your study time for each class. For example, if you allocate two readings for each case, maybe move one of those to after class so you can see the case in light of your professor’s comments and class discussions. Without adding time to your overall studying, this pivot may increase the value of the time you’re investing.
  • Look for near-value activities. These are study activities that do bring some value; however, their worth could be greatly enhanced with just a little more time investment. Practice questions are the prime example. Maybe you worked some sample questions in the Fall, but you didn’t seek input from your professors on your answers. That may have been due to time constraints or a reluctance to attend office hours. But if you have the opportunity to seek feedback on practice questions from the person who will be grading your final exam, why wouldn’t a reasonable person prioritize that activity? Ten minutes in office hours talking about your practice answer can be invaluable.
  • Target your weaknesses. This should be obvious, but look for specific ways to address the relative weaknesses you identified when you analyzed your Fall exam performances. What types of questions give you trouble? If there were areas of material you never fully understood, what could you do differently this semester to avoid that problem?
  • Look for subtractions. Pivoting, by definition, involves subtractions, as well as additions. As a rule, law students work very hard, and I’m not suggesting that most students should invest a net increase in study time this Spring. Whatever you’re adding in terms of study time and activities should be more than offset by what you’re taking away. Be rigorous in your evaluation of what you spent your time on this Fall. Was each activity strategically designed to bring you closer to your goal? If not, don’t be shy about abandoning that task (and then carefully evaluating the impact of that decision). What might fall into that category? Possibly extra passes through your reading even after you understood it; unproductive study group sessions that were disorganized and without a clear goal; reading outside sources to make absolutely sure you understood everything you could about the covered material; or tracking down and working every multiple choice question available.

Although pivoting can be challenging for all of us, a stepwise process of gathering relevant information and then strategically plotting a path forward can help. And as we become more adept at pivoting, our overall self-directedness improves as well.

Please feel free to reach out to me at if you have any questions or comments.

Aric Short, Professor of Law and Director of the Professionalism & Leadership Program, Texas A&M University School of Law



Aric Short

The Power of Pivoting (Part I of II)

By: Aric Short, Professor of Law & Director of the Professionalism and Leadership Program,
Texas A&M University School of Law

The Spring semester in law school is a new beginning for students, staff, and faculty, but it can be extremely difficult for 1Ls who have just received their first semester grades. It’s normal for law students, most of whom have achieved consistent academic success over the years, to experience a range of emotions when they receive grades that don’t match their expectations. Disappointment, frustration, and even anger are common initial reactions. But throughout the years I’ve taught 1Ls, the reaction I’ve observed most of all is bewilderment. Exploring this reaction of bewilderment fully would require more than a blog entry. But for now, I think this general reaction signals a fundamental difficulty some students experience in knowing how to move forward productively in the face of unexpected feedback that is inconsistent not just with their past grades, but with their deeply-rooted sense of identity.

To help students “right the ship” in the early Spring, three core lawyering competencies can be especially important: grit, resilience, and strategic pivoting. This powerful triad of competencies provides a key to succeeding with difficult challenges. Lawyers face difficult challenges on a daily basis—demanding schedules, difficult personalities, and regular setbacks and even losses—so learning and internalizing these competencies in law school can help students with their longer-term careers. But 1L students may be especially receptive to exploring them in the first weeks of the Spring semester as they struggle to process Fall grades and figure out a strategic path forward in the Spring.

Grit. Most law students don’t struggle with grit. In fact, they’ve achieved academic and other life successes largely because of grit: the ability to work very hard, over a sustained period of time, to achieve long-term goals. Gritty people passionately pursue their goals, tirelessly, recognizing that consistent hard work will separate them from the pack. Long-term grit can be difficult to maintain. Focusing on the “why” underlying the pursuit can help motivate students to continue working hard, day after day. Not surprisingly, people who are generally successful in academic and professional settings rate high when it comes to grit. So it might be considered a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for success. Anyone who works with 1Ls knows that the vast majority of them enter law school already possessing this competency, and they work very hard during their first year.

Resilience. In the course of pursuing difficult goals, there will be setbacks, roadblocks, losses, and other adversities. Continuing the chase, and even growing through those challenging times, requires resilience. Being agile and “bouncing back” are both ways of articulating aspects of resilience. Michael Jordan famously described his own resiliency when he said that he had “missed more than 9,000 shots . . . lost almost 300 games . . . ”  and missed the game-winning shot twenty-six times. “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Resilient people persist despite results that might cause others to stop.

Grit and resilience are both critical to long-term success. If we don’t work hard, or if our response to the first signs of adversity is to give up, we won’t make it very far. We know this intuitively, and we see it play out in all aspects of our lives. But to succeed at difficult things, we often need more than hard work and the ability to bounce back. We need to know when and how to strategically pivot in an effective manner.

Strategic pivoting. Pivoting is simply changing—direction, strategy, or area of focus. Pivots can be big (“I’m quitting my job as a teacher to go to law school”) or smaller (“I’m going to start going to the gym twice a week”). We change direction in our lives all the time, often without giving it much thought. But we don’t always realize the power of strategic pivoting: intentionally changing direction in the face of feedback and after deliberate and calculated reflection on what it will take to improve. Pivoting in a strategic way can be extremely liberating, and it makes great sense. Yes, we should work hard and reasonably bounce back, but it should appear fundamentally unreasonable for us to continue the same strategies going forward when we have clear evidence that those strategies have not led to the desired outcome in the past.

In my experience, while 1Ls are relatively strong at grit, they are relatively weaker at resilience—perhaps because many of them have not faced exceptionally hard challenges before law school (although clearly there are many exceptions to this rule). So bouncing back from adversity may be a new competency for some of them to develop. But within this triad of competencies that helps us succeed at difficult tasks, strategic pivoting is by far the least familiar to students, and it is the most difficult for them to implement. But if mastered, it can be extraordinarily powerful.

Why is strategic pivoting a difficult concept for students to implement? One reason may be, as just mentioned, that while 1Ls have a track record of working hard before law school, most of them have been largely successful in school and outside activities because of that hard work. “Failures” have been relatively minor, and often working a little harder or being more consistent with hard work was enough to then achieve success. For many students, law school is a different beast. Fifty percent of students will be in the bottom half of their class—a reality that most law students probably do not fully absorb before they start. Resilience and strategic pivoting are theoretical concepts, at best, for many students, because they just haven’t needed to rely on them.

Strategic pivoting is also a challenging concept for students because embedded in this concept is the idea of quitting. Changing direction requires pursuing a new path while abandoning an old one that wasn’t effective. And many students have an uneasy relationship with the idea of quitting. Society tells us all that “quitters are losers.” And the very concept of grittiness seems to be in tension with quitting. How can we continue to work hard (and thereby achieve our dreams) while also giving up?

This last question is hopefully rhetorical. Wise law students know, at some level, that if their first grades in law school don’t meet their standards, they will need a new and different strategy moving forward. But it can be helpful to make this explicit for students: I know you worked extraordinarily hard in the Fall, and I am not asking you to work harder in the Spring. For most of you, doing so would be unhealthy and detract from your well-being. What I am suggesting is that there are some things you can do differently to more effectively pursue your goals. The strategy you come up with will likely involve some additional tasks; but if you’re thoughtful about this process, that strategy will also involve eliminating some less-effective activities that you engaged in last semester. Quitting, or strategic pivoting, is critical to this process. It can free up time and energy for more useful work.

How can students work to develop this new strategy for academic success? A helpful orienting concept in this regard is the “mother of all competencies”: being self-directed. Students can remind themselves that there are four connected steps to achieving their goals: (1) Identify their goals with specificity; (2) Create a plan of specific steps that must be completed to be successful; (3) Execute; and (4) Monitor and reflect: what adjustments need to be made to be more successful next time? Return to Step 1. Repeat as necessary.

That self-directed cycle provides just the basic framework for developing a strategy for academic success—or a strategy to be successful in any endeavor. In Part II, we’ll explore some specific suggestions and practical tips on exactly how to strategically pivot to greater academic success in the Spring, using a student’s experience in the Fall as a springboard.

Please feel free to reach out to me at if you have any questions or comments.

Aric Short, Professor of Law and Director of the Professionalism & Leadership Program, Texas A&M University School of Law

Aric Short

Crowdsourcing Implementation Plans, Tools, and Techniques for Standard 303(b)(3)

By: Aric Short, Professor of Law and Director of the Professionalism & Leadership Program, Texas A&M University School of Law

As law schools welcome students back to campus this fall, a revised accreditation standard goes into force. Under the new Standard 303(b)(3), each law school “shall provide substantial opportunities to students for the development of a professional identity.” As explained in Interpretation 303-5, “[p]rofessional identity focuses on what it means to be a lawyer and the special obligations lawyers have to their clients and society.” Exploration of this topic should include the “values, guiding principles, and well-being practices considered foundational to successful legal practice.” Importantly, the ABA recognizes that professional identity formation is a process that takes time, experience, and reflection. As a result, students “should have frequent opportunities for such development each year of law school and in a variety of courses and co-curricular and professional development activities” (emphasis provided).

The ABA has taken a sequenced approach to implementation of this new professional identity formation requirement. In the fall of 2022, all law schools are expected to have initial plans in place to implement Standard 303. By the fall of 2023, schools are required to begin implementing their plans.

Figuring out exactly how to comply with this new ABA standard can be challenging. Embedded in that challenge are various procedural and structural questions. What process will your school use to evaluate existing professional identity formation efforts? Who will be in charge of ensuring compliance? Which law school stakeholders will be involved in that process? Will professional identity formation be introduced during Orientation? If so, how and by whom? Will 1L students take a course on professional identity formation or be required to attend a series of workshops? Or will similar themes be introduced in classes across the 1L curriculum? Similarly, how will each school continue to expose students to professional identity formation themes throughout the remainder of their law school experience—including in experiential courses and in interactions with offices supporting career services and academic support? Beyond these and other mechanical issues, there exist significant questions about content. What exactly does professional identity formation mean to your institution? What are the core themes you want to emphasize and reinforce with your students? And how will those themes be staggered and built upon so that students develop a deeper sense of their own professional identities as they move through law school?

To assist law schools as they work through these and other issues related to Standard 303(b)(3) implementation, the Holloran Center is announcing two new crowdsourced and collaborative resources. You and your school are invited to contribute to these resources and to learn new ideas and approaches to professional identity formation from colleagues across the country. While these resources are related, they have different purposes:

Resource #1: A repository of law school implementation plans for Standard 303(b)(3). This database, in Google Sheets, is intended to capture law schools’ evolving plans to implement Standard 303(b)(3). Each school is requested to share a narrative describing its Standard 303(b)(3) plan, as well as whether that plan is currently in draft or approved form. Schools are encouraged to provide a full description of their plans to help share creative and effective ways to implement this new Standard. This Google Sheet also asks for contact information for the person at each school responsible for Standard 303(b)(3) implementation, as well as anyone else on your staff or faculty who will be taking the lead in any specific professional identity formation efforts (for example, related to academic support, career services, clinics, externships, legal writing, doctrinal courses, etc.). Each school is also encouraged to provide links to any related web-based materials and to submit any other supporting documents through this Dropbox. While anyone with the link to this Google Sheet can review the submitted plans and contact information details, this document should be completed by the person at each school responsible for compliance with Standard 303(b)(3).

Resource #2: A clearinghouse of specific ideas, techniques, strategies, and tools related to professional identity formation. We know that many of you are already doing impactful work in this area, regardless of your title and the capacity in which you engage with students. This database, also in Google Sheets, provides a means to share those great efforts and learn new ideas from other law school faculty and staff across the country. Anyone who is engaged in professional identity formation efforts—big or small—is encouraged to share their ideas, as well as their contact information. This database is organized broadly in tabs across the bottom by the general area of student engagement, including academic support, career services, clinical / experiential classes, doctrinal classes, lawyering skills classes, student organizations, and professional formation courses. Within each tab, contributors are asked to indicate the primary professional identity focus of the exercise, program, or reflection and to include additional information, including the primary contact person for that contribution. We hope this format makes it easy for you to search for techniques and strategies that might be useful for you. In addition to providing a description of the professional identity work you are doing, you are encouraged to submit to this Dropbox any supporting documents that might be helpful for others, including syllabi, course plans, teaching notes, assessment tools, and grading rubrics.

A note on scope: As described above, these two new crowdsourced resources are focused primarily on Standard 303(b)(3), which relates to professional identity formation. The ABA has also implemented a new Standard 303(c), which requires law schools to “provide education to law students on bias, cross-cultural competency, and racism (1) at the start of the program of legal education; and (2) at least once before graduation.” Most of us working in this general space understand that bias, cross-cultural competency, and racism are foundational topics within professional identity formation. As a result, you and your school should feel free to share in the databases above specific implementation plans and strategies related to Standard 303(c). However, our primary focus is Standard 303(b)(3). We also encourage you to visit Buffalo School of Law’s Website on ABA Standard 303(c) for more specific information about efforts across the country to implement Standard 303(c).

We wish you and your law schools the best of luck as you create institutional plans and design specific techniques for implementation. Hopefully the two databases announced above will help you come up with impactful and effective ways to engage in this important work. We encourage you to share your ideas, to borrow from others, and to connect with other faculty and staff exploring professional identity formation.

Aric Short, Professor of Law and Director of the Professionalism & Leadership Program, Texas A&M University School of Law