Every student begins law school at the same starting line. Within weeks, days even, some students pull ahead while others fall behind. By the end of the year, at law schools all across America, the class is divided into GPA and class rank strata that include a top, middle, and bottom. What factors determine which group students end up in?
Correlation between LSAT and First-Year Grades
The first answer of many people would be “LSAT score,” and that is one factor. Empirical studies show a correlation between LSAT scores and first-year grades, but the correlation is not as strong as most people believe.
Correlation is measured by a coefficient for which 1.00 represents a perfect correlation, and zero shows no correlation beyond one attributable to random chance. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC), the good folks who administer the LSAT, regularly conduct validity studies of the LSAT. The most recent study covered 2011–2012. Lisa C. Anthony et al., Law Sch. Admission Council, LSAT Technical Report Series: Predictive Validity of the LSAT: A National Summary of the 2011 and 2012 LSAT Correlation Studies (2013).
For 2012, the mean correlation between LSAT scores and first-year grades was a relatively weak 0.36. The correlation varied widely among schools, from a low of 0.19 to a high of 0.55. Generally, variables are not considered to be “highly correlated” unless the coefficient reaches or exceeds 0.7, although the context of what is being considered is important in evaluating the strength of correlations.
While the LSAT correlates with success for many students, it does not reliably predict the success of any individual student. The LSAT measures a limited range of skills, primarily the ability to read, comprehend, manage, and analyze complex text. These abilities are important, but other key ingredients to law school success are not measured by the LSAT.
"Grit and Grind"
In Memphis, we love our NBA team, the Grizzlies. Without any superstars, they’ve made the playoffs for six consecutive years. Their motto is “Grit and Grind.” Its origin is credited to tenacious, defensive-minded guard Tony Allen, who was asked to explain his exceptional performance in a surprise win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011.
“All heart,” he said. “Grit. Grind.”
When Memphisport.com asked Grizzlies fans to define “grit and grind,” one captured it perfectly: “The intrinsic spirit of struggling to beat whatever’s stacked against you—persistence in the face of any obstacles.”
“You don’t have to come from a family of legal scholars to do well in law school. Hard work is truly the great equalizer.”
Now, Professor Angela Duckworth has written a bestselling book, Grit, where, based on a decade of research, she explains how and why grit—a combination of perseverance and single-minded passion—is as important as native intelligence in predicting success. Duckworth began her research studying cadets at the West Point military academy. Despite elaborate efforts to compile a success predictor called the “Whole Candidate Score” (based largely on traditional indicators such as SAT scores), the academy simply could not predict which cadets would make it through West Point training and which would drop out.
That was until Duckworth came up with her “Grit Scale,” a test to measure the degree to which a person approaches life with “grit.” Cadet scores on the Grit Scale bore “absolutely no relationship” to the Whole Candidate Scores yet turned out to be “an astoundingly reliable predictor” of success at West Point. She repeated her work with salespeople, high school students, spelling bee competitors, and other groups, always with the same result. Grit trumped talent alone.
Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed grit prevail time and again. I’ve seen students with high LSAT scores flunk out and students with below-average LSAT scores become law review editors and graduate in the top 10 percent of their class.
When I asked a group of 1Ls what advice they would give to a close loved one starting law school, I received this reply from a student who wrote the top exam in Torts:
Do not let below-average undergraduate GPA or LSAT scores discourage you from attending law school. Admittedly, I fell somewhere slightly below average in both, and I nearly decided that I shouldn’t come to law school for fear that I wouldn’t be able to pass. I spent the first month in constant worry of not being able to compete with classmates who had great LSAT scores. I ended up in the top five of my class after the first semester. … My advice would be that if you want to go to law school, use below-average entrance numbers as MOTIVATION in proving your scores wrong, not as reasons you won’t pass!
A C.R.E.D.O. Approach to Harnessing Grit
One of the most useful chapters in my law school prep book, 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (West Academic Publishing 2d. 2013), is the “C.R.E.D.O” chapter, which explains the top five habits of successful law students. Those habits—Consistent, Rigorous, Efficient, Diligent, and Organized—provide a framework to help any student effectively harness their grit. (The 1L of a Ride Video Course also has a module on the C.R.E.D.O.)
Don’t doubt “The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” the subtitle to Duckworth’s book, to academic success in law school. Take the following comment to heart. Asked to list one thing she wished she had known when starting law school, one of my students wrote: “You don’t have to come from a family of legal scholars to do well in law school. Hard work is truly the great equalizer.”
Or as “Grindfather” Tony Allen would put it, “All heart. Grit. Grind.”