How Empathy Can Increase Your Success in Law School

How Empathy Can Increase Your Success in Law SchoolThis week we welcome guest writer Cathlyn Melvin to talk about developing empathy as a law student.

Law school is competitive.

Shocker, I know.

Put 75 mostly-Type-A personalities into a “small section,” tell them that the students who score the highest reap the rewards, and see what happens. (Hint: there won’t be a lot of meditative chanting and handholding going on).

The competitive culture of law school is strengthened by the structures it upholds: the on-the-spot Socratic method makes us judge ourselves and others, “relentless public competitions” rank students from “success” to “failure,” and there is a severe lack of feedback and growth-minded communication. And then, of course, the culture “is locked in by its resonance with the currency of success—money.”


While competition is a necessity for human survival, intense and perpetual competition alone is not a great recipe for thriving.

To be most effective, competition needs a balancing partner

Dr. David Johnson, a professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, has a simple suggestion on how to make competition work for us: encourage each other.

The combination of competition and support can increase satisfaction among all participants, and perhaps more importantly for our purposes as law students, increase metrics for success as well.

The concept of encouraging our competitors might seem counter-intuitive, but I bet most of us can probably remember a time when supporting each other in a competitive environment allowed us to achieve greater goals.

When working as part of a sales team, for example, I competed against my fellow salespeople for the highest conversion rates. There were bonuses to be won and special privileges to be earned, and we went after them hard. But we didn’t do it in a vacuum. Although we were competing against each other, we also supported everyone’s efforts with advice gained from personal experience, confidence-bouying compliments, and supportive gifs and memes sent via gchat.

So let’s think of law school as a team, too. As on any team, every individual member has different strengths, and the more successful the team is as a whole, the more successful each individual will be, too.

Empathy is vital to the health of the team

And that means that empathy is vital for the health of you, as a member of that team. People with greater measures of empathy tend to also report greater happiness, increased negotiating and problem-solving skills, and stronger interpersonal connections.

Lack of empathy increases stress by eroding trust, destroying our sense of community, and eliminating our willingness to appear vulnerable. It’s not uncommon for students to feel especially lonely during law school.

Competition works best when it’s paired with empathy. But paradoxically, competition also erodes empathy.

So how can we counteract that erosion and take action that will strengthen our ability to empathize with our competitors?

Empathy takes practice

In short, we practice.

There are lots of ways that we can practice empathy in our daily lives, either internally or through an external activity.

Embrace curiosity

We often make assumptions about people’s lives and choices that minimize external circumstances and highlight assumed internal flaws. This phenomenon is called “correspondence bias” or “attribution bias.”

That girl at the library is a resource hog. She’s probably just doing it so no one else can benefit from the materials.

Or . . . maybe she’s lost track of time and she doesn’t realize you’re waiting to use those resources, too.

When someone behaves in a way that frustrates you, take a breath. Ask yourself some questions.

  • What might be going on that you can’t see?
  • What might have happened leading up to this moment that made them act that way?
  • If you were in their shoes, why might you have made that decision or taken that action?

Curiosity helps us fight against attribution bias by forcing us to ask, “why?” (and mean it). When we ask ourselves why a person might have made a certain choice, and we think of a handful of possibilities, we’re more likely to give that person grace for the actions we perceive negatively. Having those options helps us assume the best of the people that might, on the surface, seem selfish, lazy, manipulative, or any number of other unsavory traits.

Assume the best

The driver who raced ahead of you on the on-ramp might not be a selfish jerk. Maybe he just couldn’t get in before, and he’s panicking, he’s reacting to an emergency, or he simply went on auto-pilot for a minute and now he feels trapped on the on-ramp.

It might also be that he is a selfish jerk. Those people do exist and they do make harmful choices that irritate, frustrate, or endanger us. But the point is that it does you no good to dwell on that negativity, and most likely there’s more to the situation than is immediately apparent.

Immerse yourself in other perspectives

Read novels

Cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley explains, “When we read about other people, we can imagine ourselves into their position and we can imagine it’s like being that person. That enables us to better understand people, better cooperate with them.”

Watch international news outlets

Similarly, watching news from around the world can help us gain perspective on what’s going on in our corner of it, making us more attuned to cultural differences and the choices and actions that might be rooted in them.

Take an acting class

In an article for Huffington Post, playwright Lauren Gunderson asserts that “so much of the toxicity in this world comes from a collective draining of empathy. We don’t understand each other, and we don’t want to. But theater invites us—no, forces us—to empathize.”

Through considering fictional character interactions, their choices, and their own perceptions, we’re given a sort of simulation of life. An acting class is a safe space to discuss why a person might choose to do what they did, and you’ll likely hear various interpretations from your classmates. These varied perceptions can open your mind to views beyond your own and increases your ability to understand others when you step out of the theatre classroom and into the real world.

It’s on us

The competitive culture of law school can affect you even before you set foot on campus: we fight to get into the school we want, we fight for the best scholarships.

And that sense of competition can feel increasingly personal and dire as you begin your 1L year, the year of law school in which professors and administrators are said to “scare you to death.” Law student Shirlene Brown remembers, “On my first day of orientation . . . they told my incoming class, ‘Look to your left, and then look to your right. By graduation one of you won’t be here.’”

The system is set up to intimidate and pit students against each other. It’s not set up to encourage cooperation, empathy, and support, so it’s especially important that we make our own effort to practice empathy in our daily interactions.

Practicing empathy is simple (although not always easy) to do, and it can improve not only your own law school experience and the success you achieve, but the experiences of those around you, too.


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About Cathlyn Melvin

Before beginning law school in Fall 2020, Cathlyn worked as an actor, educator, and writer in Chicago and around the US. Now freelancing her way through school, Cathlyn loves reading memoirs, editing essays, baking cheesecakes, and petting cats.

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