A large number of Harvard Law 1Ls have never experienced failure when they first arrive in Cambridge. For some, this changes in late January when the first set of grades are released. For others, the change happens when they find out they failed to make law review or to snag an offer at their topic choice firm the Early Interview Program. Most students have little choice but to add learning how to deal with failure to the long list of topics to master in law school.
While dealing with failure is not often explicitly discussed, there seems to be a popular way of thinking about it that isn’t often discussed. Consider the handouts that Student Government distributed around campus on the day that fall grades were released: the ones that told us that Justice Elena Kagan had gotten a B- in torts her first semester at HLS but that things did not turn out too badly for her in the end. We too can be just like Justice Kagan, the handout implied; no aspirations need to be abandoned as a result of receiving a less than stellar grade. Poor grades should be looked at as anomalies and not reflective of our true abilities.
I applaud the Student Government for helping students through what is for many a difficult time and I do not quarrel with the claim that grades are in many cases very poor indicators of legal acumen, but I wonder about the general sort of thinking that messages like this encourage. Rather than suggesting that students assess critically their own abilities and come to terms with the fact that they may not match the skill and talent of their classmates along all dimensions, this type of thinking encourages students not to deal with the failure they have experienced. But this is simply delaying the inevitable.
Accepting your shortcomings seems to me to be important part of maturing, and at some point, all HLS students should come to terms with their own limitations and failings, because this is what both respecting your classmates and a stable sense of self-esteem require. You can go through your years at HLS insisting that all bad grades are anomalies, all failures unreflective of your true abilities, but this devalues the accomplishments of those who have risen to the challenges and excelled. More important, thinking in this way tends to ultimately undermine self-esteem. A stable sense of self-esteem cannot rest on a false premise, and a belief that one is just as talented as everyone else here is quite simply false for almost everyone.
While this may sound harsh and discouraging, I do not think it ought to be. I’ve learned in law school that even though I am not the smartest, most talented person at HLS, that is nothing to be upset about, as I’ve learned not to base my sense of self-esteem on comparisons with the abilities of my classmates. Viewing one’s shortcomings accurately also allows one to reflect upon what one really values. Some introspection is likely to reveal for instance, that one does not need to attain a lofty, prestigious position in order to be content with what one has achieved.
The message of the Student Government handout is no doubt correct that you too may be a Supreme Court Justice despite a bad first-semester grade. What is equally true and often unsaid, however, is that if you are not destined for the Supreme Court, well, that’s okay too.
The author is an anonymous Harvard Law student.