The Method and the Message

27 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2010 Last revised: 29 Feb 2012

Date Written: November 18, 2010


“If you build it, they will come,” has been the silent mantra of law teaching programs across the United States since the days of Christopher Columbus Langdell. For generations, law schools have modeled themselves on the Langdellian system, a system made famous by films like The Paper Chase and Legally Blonde. This is a system that, according to those depictions set forth in popular culture, breeds a ferocious brand of competitive nastiness and a value-system that prioritizes looking good and looking smart, which, all too often, are the same thing. At the same time that popular culture has dramatized the more notorious myths surrounding the legal academy, scholars focused on law student success have identified an alarming real-world phenomenon: law student depression is on the rise. Students entering law school experience a marked decline in subjective well-being over the course of the first year, and their sense of balance and autonomy support continues to decline throughout law school, leveling off only in the early years of practice.

Much has been written describing the depression epidemic in today's law schools, and scholars in the field of law student distress agree that further inquiry is warranted. A lack of autonomy support, the employment of a language that challenges students’ most basic and closely held values of justice and equality, and environmental features that push students to value the extrinsic, in lieu of the intrinsic, have all been cited as potential causes of the increasing prevalence of depression among law students.

This paper proposes a new framework for understanding some of the sources of law student depression. Primarily, this article argues that a possible source of law student distress is the institutional encouragement of a fixed, or entity theory of intelligence, which is communicated to students through various forms of ability praise. This article will establish the methods by which that ability praise is communicated and will go on to suggest that the entity theory of intelligence, as fostered through ability praise, can be examined through the lens of the literature of Positive Psychology. This article will argue that the fixed-mindset is an example of a pessimistic approach to learning - one that contributes to law students’ feelings of helplessness, lowered sense of autonomy support, learned helplessness, and depression. Ultimately, this article will suggests methods that professors and institutions can employ to combat the entity theory of intelligence, pessimistic attribution style, and the depression problem that so much research suggests is a pervasive problem in contemporary American law schools.

Keywords: positive psychology, entity theory of intelligence, growth-midedness, depression, law school, learned helplessness, pessimism, defensive pessimism, optimism, forced curve

Suggested Citation

Rosen, Corie Lynn, The Method and the Message (November 18, 2010). Nevada Law Journal, Vol. 12, p. 160. Available at SSRN:

Corie Lynn Rosen (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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