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Distinguishing between Competitive and High Achieving Law Students

People running in suits on a track field

Recently published a story about high achieving university students, in degrees such as law, who are ruthless, competitive and go out of their way to undermine the learning of their peers. In the article these types of students are referred to as a ‘rare breed of students’, and it’s true: they are rare, but there’s a chance that you’ll encounter one or two during your degree.

We often assume that the students who are ultra competitive are also the high achievers. I’m here today to challenge that misconception: the highest achieving law students are sometimes the most caring and helpful students that you’ll meet at law school.

For example, the student at my university who is set to become the medallist for her year regularly goes out of her way to provide assistance to her peers. She has a genuine concern for the mental health and the wellbeing of law students, and has publicly spoken about her own experiences with stress and anxiety. She was even the student who suggested that the university’s law society implement a regular puppy therapy initiative. She has also helped many of her fellow law students by explaining assignments and offering tips for studying particular subjects.

This student admits that she felt insecure and competitive, particularly in the earlier years of law school, but told me that she’s since realised the importance of making her wellbeing a priority. Says she wants to be a happy, nice person – not just a student who achieves good marks.

By contrast, every now and again you might meet a law student who refrains from helping, or may even try to sabotage their peers. Tactics such as hiding crucial textbooks on other shelves in the library are not unheard of. While this individual earns a few high distinctions, I can assure you that they won’t get very far by operating this way in the workforce.

While both students are smart, the difference between them is that the first student doesn’t feel the need to engage in ruthless conduct to get ahead. She knows how lucky and talented she is and she’s using these skills to help others. On the other hand, the ruthless student feels that by helping their peers, this may disturb their position and would potentially compromise their marks. While most of these competitive students will resort to refraining from helping their peers, it is sad that some have resorted to sabotage. Although law school is a competitive environment, showing kindness to other students shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness.

To tackle some of these competitive attitudes at my university, the law society recently handed out kindness cards to law students. The purpose of these cards is to prompt students to engage in random acts of kindness to encourage a more collegial atmosphere at law school. I have already begun to see a change among the first and second year law students at my university so there is hope!

Some students have even created Facebook groups for asking questions and helping each other out with courses they are taking. Some students with nothing to gain from this initiative will regularly be present in these groups answering questions by their peers: but don’t mistake their kindness for weakness; they’re the students with the highest grades in the course.

While independent learning is definitely an important skill, law school can be a lonely experience and no one needs to go it alone. These types of initiatives that encourage students to help their peers and engage in interdependent learning are steps that we can take to ensure those ruthless and competitive students remain a “rare breed” at law school.

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