chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.



Five Ways to Incorporate Grit and a Growth Mindset into Your Practice

Milana Hogan and Katherine Larkin-Wong

Five Ways to Incorporate Grit and a Growth Mindset into Your Practice
miljko via iStock

Jump to:

What if you could develop the traits that, research shows, are common among successful women lawyers? As documented in the book Grit, the Secret to Advancement: Stories of Successful Women Lawyers, research has identified two important traits that are linked to several important measures of success for women practicing law: grit and a growth mindset.

Grit, defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, and a growth mindset, defined as the belief in the power of effort to influence individual outcomes, have both been shown to predict achievement for women lawyers in many different contexts. Importantly, both traits are mutable, and even those who don’t currently approach challenges in a gritty, growth mindset-oriented way can make some quick changes that will have a dramatic impact on the way they experience the practice of law. Here are five ways to start incorporating these concepts into your practice now.

1. Convert Setbacks into Learning Opportunities

It is inevitable that young lawyers will make mistakes. Some will be small mistakes and some may be more significant. When this happens, grit and a growth mindset can help you reframe these temporary setbacks as learning opportunities. When Katie was a first-year associate, she had to write first drafts of three motions in limine. She worked tirelessly, putting together the best possible motions she could. The first draft of the first motion came back bleeding from track changes. At that moment, Katie felt like she was a terrible lawyer who was going to be fired! Then, she took a step back and realized that she was only a first-year associate who was not going to write her first motion in limine as well as a seasoned partner would. However, she could incorporate the partner’s edits into the next two drafts and learn from his important feedback. Suddenly, what felt like a career-ending setback became a helpful learning opportunity.

We are not suggesting that you suppress your “failure voices”— the internal monologue that tells us we are going to be fired when we make a mistake (or whatever your personal version of such a monologue is). Instead, take a moment to recognize those thoughts and then ask yourself what you can learn from the “mistake.” Try to find a learning opportunity that can apply to a future project and/or take a moment to talk to a mentor, supervisor, or another associate about what the key takeaways should be and how you can grow from this experience.

2. Don’t Focus on the Math

Every young lawyer has days where the volume of work and the time you have to complete it do not seem to match up. Too often, we find ourselves paralyzed, unable to start on any single project because we are overwhelmed by what is on our plates. The problem with focusing only on the math is that it can lead to further catastrophizing, panic, and paralysis. One way to increase your growth mindset, especially when you feel overwhelmed, is to fake it! Tell yourself that you can handle your to-do list; you just need to get started. Start one project and focus on it for at least an hour, then see where you are. If the math will not work, especially if it could mean missing a deadline, then ask for help.

3. Relentlessly Pursue Feedback

Law remains an apprenticeship profession; you cannot learn everything you need to in law school and will need to rely on more experienced practitioners to show you how things are done. There is no substitute for on-the-job, real-world training. All lawyers, at least to some extent, must learn by doing. Thus, your ability to pursue, accept, and incorporate feedback is a necessary precursor to success. Grit and a growth mindset can help. You accelerate your apprenticeship by actively seeking feedback. At the conclusion of a project, ask your supervising attorney, mentor, or colleagues how you can improve. To frame your question in a growth mindset–oriented way, ask: “What are my opportunities for growth the next time I handle [insert description]?” If you are a supervising attorney, model a growth mindset. Ask your team what they learned and offer reflections on your own performance to cultivate a growth mindset amongst your team members.

4. Praise Effort Rather than Outcomes

It’s easy to be overly focused on outcomes. We all want to win and achieve the best possible results for our clients. Doing your best work for clients is a great goal, but you should be sure to pause every once in a while and give yourself a mental pat on the back when you really push yourself or endure a particularly grueling stretch of work (e.g., when preparing or trying a case). Winning is important, but the ability to engage in a sustained effort over time is what sets you up for victory in the long term. If you are a supervisor, consider rewarding your team after a particularly demanding time. Telling them that you value their effort is important to ensure you continue to get the best from them. This will encourage them to develop a growth mindset and will likely lead to more engaged and happy junior lawyers, which will help set your team up for long-term success.

5. Try Bringing Grit and a Growth Mindset to Another Part of Your Life

If you are struggling to apply a growth mindset in a professional context, try to bring this approach to bear in another domain of your life. For example, when Milana was training for the New York City Marathon several years ago, she used a growth mindset to help her train. When she was feeling defeated by the (brutal) hills of Central Park, she read up on best practices for conquering hills and tried a new approach (smiling while running), which helped her tackle the challenge and accomplish her goal of a sub-four-hour marathon time. Sometimes, when the going gets tough, you have to find (and be open to) new ways of tackling daunting challenges.

These five tips are just the beginning. The American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession offers a number of resources to help you learn more and even provides a toolkit to teach others how to apply grit and a growth mindset to common scenarios facing young lawyers. Learn more about how to use the concepts of grit and a growth mindset to fuel your success as a lawyer, view the toolkit, or to purchase the book.