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 firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or comments.