Law students grossly overestimate their academic abilities, research finds

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By Emily Hinkley on


Sorry, what!?

A study has highlighted the potential perils of overconfidence for incoming law students.

The study, which appears in the University of Illinois Law Review, found that US law students with the lowest grades often start off with more confidence than their higher-performing peers.

When asked to predict their class rank the average new student expected to end up near the top 25% at the end of their first year.

Of the 600+ students surveyed, 95% anticipated they would rank in the top 50% of the class. Meanwhile, more than 22% thought a top 10% position was on the cards for them.

The paper, titled Optimistic Overconfidence: A Study of Law Student Academic Predictions, identified that students who ended up in the top 25% were more likely to initially slightly underestimate their scores, while those destined for the bottom 25% were more likely to overestimate their eventual mark.

Explaining the psychology behind their findings the authors describe the phenomenon of “optimistic overconfidence”, where humans are naturally inclined to have unrealistically positive views about their abilities.

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According to the study, the phenomenon is common in professionals from a wide variety of fields, including law. The authors reasoned that law students may need to be “highly confident to be willing to take the risk of enrolling” in a law course but equally the pessimism shown by successful students may be an early demonstration of the caution required by practicing lawyers.

The study concludes that the “optimistic overconfidence displayed by students has the potential to be both an asset and an obstacle”. Finding the balance between optimism and accurate self-evaluation, it says, is something they should learn during their studies.

Something to consider for those starting a law course this autumn: put your best foot forward, but perhaps don’t count your chickens before they hatch!

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Nobel prize winner

Water is wet.

Pedantic Antics

Water is not wet, as a liquid water can make other things wet but cannot be wet itself.

Based and truthpilled

This explains all the painfully mediocre students sitting (and failing) the SQE.


maybe people are failing the SQE because it’s significantly harder than the LPC?

Reply not relevant to original point

And what does that say about the LPC?

Dismissing people complaining about SQE is transparent posturing

Not much. Having just passed SQE1, i can say that i felt more confident about my chances of getting a first from Oxford than i did about my chances of passing SQE1.

I managed both, but my views haven’t changed since.

Namedropping Oxford like it strengthens your point is also posturing

Good effort but in what way is what you’re saying relevant? OP argues that people sitting SQE are finding it difficult because they took a subject at UG that inflated their self-perception. This could apply to you. Dismissing points based on ??? nothing because they’re ‘too mean’ doesn’t add anything to the conversation x

Based and truthpilled

Hey you stole my name!


I used to work at a magic circle firm as a paralegal. I was shocked, genuinely at the time, at the sheer mediocrity of people I knew personally who went on to get training contracts.

I once had a trainee email and then call me to help them to unzip a file and send it back to them. I attempted to tell them it was zipped because it was too big for email but they simply did not get it. This incompetence didn’t stop with IT I’ll tell you that.

Law students and lawyers – especially those at “impressive” firms are some of the least critical and analytical “smart” people I’ve ever met.


Or perhaps they lack some confidence or experience. It’s funny you’re critical of a future trainee when you’re stuck as a paralegal. They may lack some skills but they probably are smarter than you. Think of it like this, experience moulds you and you just have a little more. Stay a jealous paralegal. You may be the intellectually deficient person here.

MC Trainee

Holy shit this is one of the most toxic comments I’ve ever seen on this site.

You’re clearly very insecure

He has a point

OP is the one criticising other people’s intelligence when they probably were not able to reach the same level so far. Either they would rather be a paralegal than a lawyer, or they were even less intelligent than the ‘stupid’ trainees — and who wants to be a paralegal? Criticising those below you is ungraceful but criticising those who are directly achieving more than you at the same thing is pathetic. Sorry.


I know many brilliant trainees but also many wonderful high performing paralegals, so think it all depends on the individual trainee or paralegal.

However, in terms of responsibilities and doing the job, I will say this –

Whilst the trainee might be on a more secure career path to qualification, day to day, there is in most cases, no comparison between the two… whereas the trainee operates with a safety net of at least two if not three supervisors for every bit of work, with training sessions, mental health support, networking training all rolled into their development (ie. the easier life), the paralegal will tend to have more responsibility, running their own files, having just the one supervisor, having to look after their own mental health, and needing to be independent enough to manage their own workload… and their time actually counts for billing.. in short, a paralegal is in many ways already doing the job of an NQ much more than a trainee is.

So when you go about claiming that trainees are smarter, they are not, nor are they more talented, more capable, or superior. In most cases, by virtue of passing the recruitment process, they now just have an easier path laid out before them and a less vigorous day to day, coupled with probably higher pay.


The more you know the more you realise you don’t know…

Once a law student

Not sure this study is really insightful. Most law students probably were the best in their respective school classes. But when you join law school, you have hundreds of other talented peers with you, especially in a city like London. It is impossible for everyone to still be at the top. Just a natural process that most law students eventually understand.

No they weren’t come on

I’m sorry but no one picks law at undergraduate because it’s hard. “Top of the class”. LOL.


keep in mind this study was conducted in a US law school, so yes, it would be highly competitive and many would often be the top of their cohort prior.


That was very interesting reading. And whilst I don’t doubt the findings, it is very much at odds with my experience at the Bar. Just about everyone I meet there is riddled with Imposter Syndrome. It seems almost ubiquitous. Maybe the reality of practice gives a new slant on things?

But to illustrate.

I am pretty heavily involved in advocacy training for barristers; both here and abroad. As mentioned, imposter syndrome is a big issue. So I approached a very senior and well respected member of the Bar. I was hoping maybe they could give some guidance or advice on how to address this problem with the new barristers.

“Hey X, can I talk to you about imposter syndrome…”

“Oh god it’s terrible isn’t it. I just dread the day I’ll be in the ICC and they’ll realise I’ve been bluffing all these years.”

Whilst not exactly helpful, it was in a way reassuring. To know that it’s not just me.

No they weren’t come on

And what percentage of undergraduate law students ends up at the bar?


Well in 2021/22 there were 26,290 people admitted to undergraduate law degrees.

There were 486 pupillages available.

In 2021 there were 286 tenancies.

So those figures might give a rough approximation.

Housing Lawyer

This is another illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect

Old cynic with an undeserved 2:2 from a Poly but odd, Top 50 partner.

CV says First . They interview with a First. They wither and die because a First is unless from the very best Universities, worthless twaddle. Could have done better spending time learning the fine art of conversation or playing for the rugby first XV.


How’s SQE? Is it really that bad?

Llanelli the Llanelephant

When I was a student I knew everything and had the answers to all the worlds problems.

I’ve become thicker as I’ve grown older and don’t really know much now.

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