Making Legal Education Responsive to Student Needs
Scholarship by Professor Emily Zimmerman
Professor Emily Zimmerman has conducted empirical research exploring psychological factors that affect student performance and satisfaction in law school, with the aim of helping legal educators determine how best to support students and prepare them for their careers.
Two papers focus on behavioral factors that psychologists and educators have studied extensively in contexts other than law school.
In “Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud: Defensive Pessimism in Legal Education,” Zimmerman and co-author Casey LaDuke of John Jay College conducted research that focused on a strategy that some individuals use to prepare for anxiety-provoking events, which has been studied in other contexts, but not in relation to law students’ performance.
Zimmerman and her co-author did not find a correlation between students’ performance and defensive pessimism: a process that involves setting low expectations, anticipating pitfalls and taking steps to avoid them.
Acknowledging the “intuitive appeal to the idea of a positive connection between defensive pessimism and academic performance” in a setting that explicitly trains students to identify potential risks and anticipate problems, Zimmerman’s study found no such association. Instead, the research found a link between law students’ defensive pessimism and distress.
That connection, Zimmerman writes, suggests that “legal educators should be sensitive to law students’ use of defensive pessimism as a strategy and to the fact that law students who are performing well might nonetheless be in distress.”
Further, the article concludes, “academic performance alone cannot be relied on to identify students who may be struggling psychologically in law school…a concern for law students’ wellbeing should extend beyond a focus on students’ academic performance.”
In a second article, “Grit and Legal Education,” Zimmerman and co-author Leah Brogan, a psychology fellow at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, investigated whether grit and students’ academic performance are related.
Researchers have taken tremendous interest in the role that grit plays in education, but its role in legal education has gained less attention. Zimmerman and her co-author conducted an empirical study that did not find a connection between students who possess a high degree of grit and those who perform well academically. Their research did, however, find that female law students self-reported more grit than their male counterparts.
The findings point to the need for greater research regarding grit in legal education, Zimmerman wrote.
The research also suggests that legal educators should find ways to reward grit and to take the long view.
“One of the facets of preparing students for law practice is preparing students for the sustained effort that will be required of them as lawyers and helping students develop strategies for managing their lives as lawyers. Just as we want law students to be interested in the work they are doing in law school and value that work, we also want law school graduates to be interested in the work they are doing and value that work.”
Empirical research on grit has uncovered insights that could enhance students’ experience in law school.