Monday, July 2, 2012

Is a Great Lawyer Born or Made?

[By Bill Henderson, originally published in The National Jurist, January 2012 (PDF)]

Many law students spend their 1L year fearing that they might be the admissions mistake.  I was one of them.  The only feedback is what can be gleaned from the professor-student dialogue.  In turn, everyone uses this information (if you can call it that) to handicap their likelihood of making law review or otherwise getting the grades needed to get the most coveted jobs.  The whole process seems very binary:  Am I smart enough to be a successful lawyer, yes or no?

When I became a law professor, my research on law firms and legal education eventually brought me to the topic of lawyer success.  I started collecting examples of lawyers with sterling credentials who failed to develop a significant practice; and those with less impressive pedigree who ended up becoming go-to experts and indispensible lynchpins of their organizations.  What explained these divergent outcomes?

The research of Carolyn Dweck, a cognitive psychologist at Stanford University, provides some important insights to this question.  Before delving into these insights, however, ask yourself whether the following statement is true:  “A lawyer’s skill set is determined primarily by innate ability—you either have enough or you don’t.”

Dweck’s research focuses on self theories.  If you agreed with the above statement, your self-theory reflects a fixed mindset.  You tend to believe your destiny (and others) has been substantially fixed by your genetic endowment.  In contrast, if you disagreed with the statement, your self-theory reflects a growth mindset.  You believe you can substantially change your abilities and intelligence through focused effort and learning.  See Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006).

Self theories are important because they affect our choices and behavior.  According to Dweck’s research, people with a fixed mindset tend to prefer activities that validate their own abilities.  Similarly, they shy away from tasks that may provide the world with evidence that they lack innate talent.  In contrast, people with a growth mindset believe they can acquire important skills, knowledge and abilities through effort.  So floundering at a task is not failure—its learning.  As a result, the two mindsets evaluate opportunities very differently and thus tend to accumulate different life experiences.

Dweck has conducted several fascinating experiments regarding the differences between fixed and growth mindset people.  For example, in psychology, it is long been known that people tend to overestimate their own abilities.  In a sample of college students, Dweck and her colleagues collected self assessments of ability and compared them with objective measures of performance.  Remarkably, growth mindset people had a near perfect correlation between self-perceptions of ability and their own performance.  In contrast, fix mindset people accounted for virtually all of the exaggerated self perception.

Dweck explains, “when you think about it, this makes sense.  If, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even if it’s unflattering.  What’s more, if you’re oriented toward learning … you need accurate information about your abilities in order to learn effectively.  However, if everything is either good news or bad news about your previous traits—as it is with fixed-mindset people---distortion always inevitably enters the picture.”

In another experiment, people with both mindsets visited the brain waves laboratory at Columbia University.  They were then asked a series of hard questions and given feedback on their answers.  According to the subjects’ brain wave activity, people with a fixed mindset tended to pay close attention only to the portion of the feedback that told them whether they got the answer right or not.  When presented with information that could help them learn, there was no sign of interest.  In contrast, “people with a growth mindset paid close attention to information that could stretch their knowledge. Only for them was learning a priority.”

Imagine this attitude playing itself out over a period of decades.  How in the world can we accomplish anything important when we shut our minds to new information?

There is a persistent narrative in American culture that attributes great success to innate ability.  Yet, on close examination, it does not align very well with the underlying facts.  As Dweck note, the contributions of the world’s most iconic geniuses -- Edison, Darwin, Mozart, etc – were not flashes of brilliance.  Rather, they were the product of years of focused labor and learning, often in relative obscurity.  These are the habits of the growth mindset.

When I first read Dweck’s research, my mind went back to that first year of law school and my persistent worry about whether I had enough innate ability to be successful.  Legal education makes a great case study for Dweck’s ideas because the student population is filled with people who have done very well on standardized tests and other academic pursuits.  Because of the years of praise and reinforcement for being smart, gifted, advanced, etc., we are the most at risk to believe that we won the genetic lottery.  So rather than provide our classmates with disconfirming evidence of our abilities—at least relative to them—we keep our heads down, take notes, and hope we don’t get called on.  We hope that the end of semester grades will validate our ability.  But what about learning?

Since law school, I have always been amazed by the propensity of lawyers and law professors to over-generalize from academic performance.  There are so many facets to effective lawyering that are never touched on during law school—interpersonal skills, teamwork, client communications, resilience, leadership, followership, etc.—and so many years of focused effort ahead just to obtain the requisite technical skills and knowledge to become a true expert.  Academic performance only accounts for a tiny proportion of one’s ability to run a lifelong marathon.  So the important question is, “what else matters?”

In various research projects over the years, I have reviewed personality and achievement motivation data on hundreds of lawyers.  To date, the single best predictor of high performance is “fearlessness”, which is the willingness to take on difficult tasks and not be worried about failure or being judged by others.  Something tells me these lawyers have managed to shed the fixed mindset. 

My single favorite example of a lawyer with the growth mindset is Fred Bartlit, a renowned trial lawyer and name partner in the Chicago litigation boutique, Bartlit Beck.  Over his 50-year legal career, Bartlit has tried several hundred civil jury trials to a verdict, winning a disproportionately high percentage.  Several years ago, I sat next to Fred at a dinner and asked him if he ever impaneled mock juries to help prepare for a trial.  Without missing a beat, he replied, “My last jury trial [where several hundred million dollars were at stake], I hired and ran eight mock juries.”

Now think about that.  Bartlit is in his mid-70s.  He is extraordinarily wealthy.  He has more trial experience than anyone else in the country.  Clients and fellow lawyers are convinced he was born with a natural talent.  And Bartlit has the humility, patience, and objectivity to wade through feedback from eight mock simulations, locate all his errors, missteps, and weaknesses, until he is satisfied with his level of preparation.  So I asked, “What happened?” Fred replied, “We won.”

Bartlit’s story suggests that excellence is, at least in part, a choice.  And when we attribute someone else’s success to innate talent, we may be subtly trying to explain our situation and choices.  How hard are we willing to work to become an excellent lawyer?  Are we ready to identify and embrace our errors and weaknesses?  When we adopt the growth mindset, we trade in our excuses.  It is not for the fainthearted.

Data on legal education, Data on the profession, Important research | Permalink


Post a comment