Monday, March 9, 2020
Overconfidence has become a new norm in legal education. More and more students are entering and graduating from law schools with self-perceptions that exceed their proven competencies. We cannot know whether law school attracts overconfidence or breeds it, but studies show that overconfident personality types abound in law schools. Productive overconfidence can yield high rewards through the generation of a “can-do” mindset. This type of benign overconfidence prompts a scholar to submit a paper proposal and commit to presenting at a conference or symposium before completing a substantial draft of the work. This rather common phenomenon allows us to believe, based on past successes or purely aspirational hopes, that the commitment to deliver by a stated deadline will force our hand to keyboard to produce the committed work.
However, it is the malignant overconfidence that has seemingly become pandemic in the law school environment. The overconfident student archetype personifies a counterproductive level of self-assuredness that presents a challenge to law school faculty, those manning academic intervention programs, and the professional development and career services teams. The overconfident student has a distorted self-perception that internalizes affirmation, from any source, and dismisses constructive criticism. If ever forced to reckon with a shortcoming, the overconfident student code shifts it to an endearing quirk.
The risk to students in this archetype is that their overconfidence prevents them from seeing anything inconsistent with their self-perceptions. The overconfident student views success as any score above rock bottom. Because failure and poor performance will be attributed to teacher error or incompetence and to hyper-competitive student peers, low formative grades and below-mean performance will not register as warning signs for potential failure.
We all face overconfidence in the law school environment. And we can all play a role to combat the failure risks that it carries. First, we can and should set degree advising goals for students who exhibit counterproductive overconfidence. From ASP to Career Services to doctrinal office hours, we can identify GPA means for internships or clerkships in the student’s field of interest. We can present statistics that show bar passage results based on LGPA and class quartile ranking, and comparatively identify where the student is trending. We can demonstrate through alumni testimonials or raw data (if collected and maintained) the added difficulty of learning bar tested content through self-study or bar review instead of taking bar subjects while in law school. This type of blunt force mathematical trauma may be the only thing that resonates with the overconfident student type, because it presents facts and raw data that cannot be dismissed as assumption or overcome with misplaced self-assuredness.
*Excerpted from Academic Archetypes, a work in progress by Marsha Griggs, Associate Professor, Washburn School of Law.
 Jonathan F. Schulz, and Christian Thoni, Overconfidence and Career Choice, PLoS ONE 11(1): e0145126. doi:10.1371 (2016).