The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress, Continued: What are the Real Effects of the Grading Curve?

optimism bell curve

We are discussing Larry Krieger’s booklet, “The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress.

Krieger’s first assertion is that, while the heavy workload of law school is unavoidable and beyond our control, the extent to which this results in negative levels of stress depends upon our attitudes and priorities—things that we can control.  This latter source of stress is “hidden” because, while the heavy workload of law school is obvious, the fact that we can control its effects may not be.

Similarly, while we may be aware that the academic competition of law school is intense, we may not be aware that this competition is laden with false values that we can choose to accept or reject.  And, as Krieger describes, living and trying to perform in accordance with false values “creates constant stress.”

What are these false values?

Primarily, the notion that the only way to achieve professional and personal happiness is to land in the top 10% of your law school class.  This pervasive “truth” is problematic for several reasons:

(1) Individuals who are admitted to law school are accustomed to—and to some extent base their identity on—success.  If success in law school is defined as being in the top 10% of your class, then 90% of this class of motivated, intelligent individuals is destined to be categorized as failing.

(2) This unrealistic and (for most) unattainable measure of success is ever-present in the law school environment, and creates a preoccupation with external measures of self-worth.  As a result, students worry about grades and class rank to the detriment of their intrinsic educational motivation: what Krieger describes as “the natural enjoyment and satisfaction inherent in learning.”

It is clear that established law school institutions like mandatory grading curves and class rank contribute to the intense level of competition and its side-effects.  As a result, many in the movement to humanize legal education have questioned the utility of these institutions in legal education.

(This is part of the focus of the study of assessment techniques, the subject of a very successful recent conference here at DU:

But changes to institutions are slow and incremental.  What can a student do now to minimize this source of unhealthy and unproductive stress?

Krieger identifies a number of things that an individual student can do in terms of adjusting her attitudes and expectations to maximize her learning experience in law school and to maximize personal thriving.

Krieger encourages students to recognize that the assumption that being in the top 10% leads to automatic happiness is false.  In short, psychological studies indicate that a focus on external markers of success such as “affluence, fame and power,” does not result in personal fulfillment.  Rather, it is a focus on intrinsic values—such as doing a job well, enjoying learning new things, and preserving healthy relationships—that leads to fulfillment.

High-status, high-paying jobs—the brass rings so many law students reach for—do not necessarily correlate with meaningful work, the ability to maintain a healthy personal life, or professional fulfillment.  This is not to say such jobs never provide these psychic rewards, but it is clear that salary is not an accurate proxy for happiness.

By recognizing that high-paying jobs are not the only measure of success, Krieger encourages law students to diversify their career values and not consider it an unmitigated failure to not be chosen for the “top jobs”—or to decline  the “top jobs” if they are offered.

Krieger’s radical idea is that if we focus on intrinsic values rather than external rewards, we will experience less stress and perform better in our chosen venue.  This is because a focus on intrinsic values fosters a sense  of personal power and control (the opposite of what so many law student describe feeling).  This in turn supports a sense of efficacy in the world, which translates into a greater ability to define and achieve our goals, and, I would argue, to serve our clients.

For students reading this: consider your attitudes about law school success.  Do you believe that success is confined to being in the top 10% of your class?  If so, where did you get that message?  Alternatively, have you developed your own, different measures of success?  If so, have you received support in pursuing those alternative goals?


3 responses to “The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress, Continued: What are the Real Effects of the Grading Curve?

  1. Some really helpful and TRUE information, thank you.

  2. Grades do not get you anywhere in the legal profession, except maybe a foot in the door for an interview. Who you know is much more likely to get you a job. The question is, is it going to be a job you want?

    Do not make the mistake of working towards the big check with no concept of what that big check requires. Once I figured out what would be required I had to change direction mid-stream.

    Of course, if law school has beaten all of your sensibility out of you and you are a slave to the grade, then you might not mind working 60-80 hours a week and kissing major you know what most of the time.

    On another note, I had never had the experience of being “average” until I started law school. Boy that was a shocker.

    • I think that’s a good point Char. There is a narrow set of jobs that you get to interview for based on grades, but networking is key—and also good performance once you get the job, of course. Interestingly, as law school students become more and more socially diverse, including folks who are the first professionals in their families, are we expecting students to have networking skills that they actually need to be taught?

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