'Virtually all' incoming law students think they will be in the top half of their class, new study finds
Updated: A new survey of more than 600 incoming law students found them to be overconfident about how well they will do in law school and poor predictors of how they would perform.
“Virtually all” the students predicted that their 1L grades would be above the median, while about three-quarters thought that they would be in the top 30%, according to an article on the study published in the University of Illinois Law Review.
Reuters noted the findings.
The students’ predictions were unrelated to their actual performance. The gap between prediction and actual performance was largest for students who performed the least well. But students in the top 25% slightly underestimated their future 1L ranking.
“The degree of overconfidence is particularly substantial for those who find themselves at the bottom of the class,” the researchers wrote. “Indeed, just 5% of students predicted that they would finish below the median. The vast majority of the students who end up in the bottom half of the class, therefore, did not expect to find themselves there when they started law school.”
Students may be overconfident because they enter law school following a successful undergraduate experience, according to the study, titled Optimistic Overconfidence: A Study of Law Student Academic Predictions. Many enter law school with a “dearth of information” and little experience with thinking like a lawyer and the type of exams that they will have to take.
The grades may also reflect the students’ aspirations, according to the authors. They are Jennifer K. Robbennolt, a law and psychology professor at the University of Illinois, and Sam Barder, a 2023 law graduate.
The researchers surveyed incoming students at the University of Illinois College of Law from 2014 to 2019. The researchers received responses from 629 out of 863 JD students. Students were asked to predict their academic percentile after the first year of law school and were asked questions measuring their “dispositional optimism.”
Researchers also obtained information on each student’s first-year grade-point average in law school, along with their undergraduate GPA and score on the Law School Admission Test. The researchers found:
- 94.9% of the students predicted that they would finish their 1L year at the 50th percentile or higher, 78.2% predicted that they would be in the top 30%, 53.1% predicted that they would finish in the top 20%, and 22.4% thought that they would finish in the top 10%.
- LSAT scores were “significantly correlated” with first-year grades, while undergraduate GPAs were more weakly correlated with first-year grades.
- The higher an incoming student’s score for “dispositional optimism,” the better they predicted that they would perform.
“Some good news,” the authors wrote, “is that although optimism might lead to disappointed expectations, optimism is also associated with more effective coping mechanisms. These mechanisms and students’ psychological immune systems will help moderate disappointment.”
Updated July 28 at 10:53 a.m. to correctly identify study author Jennifer K. Robbennolt, a law and psychology professor at the University of Illinois.