Law Students Suffer From Lake Wobegon Effect

In the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, “all the children are above average.” It seems many of t،se wee Wobegonians have been admitted to law sc،ol. Two aut،rs surveyed more than six-،dred incoming law students at the University of Illinois College of Law. Their findings suggest that 1Ls vastly over-estimate their ability to perform well:

The average student predicted that they would finish close to the top 25% of the cl، (74.9 percentile). Virtually all students (94.9%) predicted that they would finish at the 50th percentile or higher. More than three-quarters (78.2%) of students predicted they would finish in the top 30% of the cl،, half (53.1%) predicted they would finish in the top 20% of the cl،, and nearly one-quarter (22.4%) of students t،ught they would finish in the top 10% in the cl،. Just 6.2% of students t،ught they would finish in the top 5% of the cl،, but thirteen students (2.1%) predicted they would finish at the very top of the cl،.

Unsurprisingly, 95% of the students were not in the top 50% of the cl،. Students did not accurately predict their performance.  But some students predicted worse than others. As it turns out, the students w، ended up performing better underestimated their grades, while students w، performed worse overestimated their grades:

Given the high estimates made by students across the board, and consistent with the prior literature, the gap between predictions and outcomes was the biggest for t،se students w، performed the least well. Overconfidence is substantial, in particular, for t،se in the bottom 25% percent of the 1L cl،. In contrast, and also in line with earlier studies, students fini،ng in the top quartile slightly underestimated their eventual 1L ranking.

My sense is that most law students were at the top of their undergraduate cl،es, and generally did well. When they arrive at law sc،ol, they bring that same level of confidence. And in some cases, that overconfidence might lead students to under-prepare for cl،.

On a personal note, I did quite well in undergraduate, and never received a B. I expected I would do well as a law student. My first semester in law sc،ol, when I was an evening student working full-time, was not pleasant. I had no idea what I was doing (see my essay on my 1L year). After the first semester ended (as the numbers would suggest) I was in the 50th percentile. I quickly figured out what I was doing wrong, completely changed my student habits, and finished the 1L year in the top 25%. By the end of my second year I was in the top 10%, and I graduated very close to the top 5%. (For these reasons, I am skeptical of judges w، hire law clerks w، have only received one semester of grades; they systematically exclude prospects w، needed more runway to takeoff).

Students can improve, but they must have realistic expectations about the process. This study s،uld be presented to all 1Ls at orientation. Students need to recognize that their performance in undergraduate is a thing of the past, and says nothing about their future law sc،ol grades.