Law students grossly overestimate their academic abilities, research finds

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By Emily Hinkley on


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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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