Learning Curve

More Than Belonging: Tying Diverse Identities to Law School Success

Laura Riley

Associate Professor of Lawyering Skills
University of Southern California Gould School of Law

Nickey Woods

Assistant Dean Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
University of Southern California Gould School of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2022

It is no secret that certain racial, socioeconomic, and other groups were historically excluded from elite spaces, including law schools, and still continue to be underrepresented in them. Now that law schools are trying to change the makeup of their student populations, it is important to not just take steps to include students of color, those with disabilities, and others, but also to ensure that diversity of experiences and identities are not just “differences” even if they’re celebrated. One way to accomplish this is by creating new ways to acknowledge success in law school. Doing this completely would entail radical shifts to the law school curriculum, grading structure, and hiring processes, subjects that some academic success and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) scholars write more extensively about. In this article, we propose what could be an initial step in re-envisioning the law school experience that would benefit students as they enter law school—tying diverse identities to law school success via collaborative ASP and DEI programming.

ASP and DEI Partnership

In the Summer/Fall 2021 Edition of The Learning Curve, Belinda Dantley and Petina Benigno shared the history of academic support programs in law schools and encouraged a return to focusing on the needs of students the programs were initially created to assist.1 We agree with this argument and suggest that ASP do so in a holistic way by partnering with DEI offices and utilizing research-based educational approaches. This article’s learning objectives are to demonstrate how to: (1) apply ASP and DEI teaching strategies to increase law students’ sense of belonging; and (2) construct spaces and engagement opportunities for students to tie their diverse identities to law school success. The goals behind these objectives are centered on student outcomes, specifically to: (1) increase students’ sense of belonging and psychological safety in law school; and (2) have them connect their backgrounds and experiences with characteristics of law school success.

The Reality of the Law School Experience for Marginalized Students

Law students begin law school with high life satisfaction and strong mental health measures, but within the first year of law school, they experience a significant increase in anxiety and depression.2 Research suggests that law students are among the most dissatisfied, demoralized, and depressed of any graduate student population.

For marginalized students, stress related to the rigors of law school is exacerbated by negative perceptions related to their intellectual capabilities and ability to succeed in law school. Contending with the notion that marginalized students’ presence in law school is the result of their race rather than academic merit, scholars have long described the law school classroom as a “hostile education environment” for marginalized students.3 Underrepresented students are also less likely to participate in class and must contend with cultural stereotypes that influence both student and instructor perceptions.

Student Belonging and Psychological Safety in Law School

To foster a student’s sense of self-efficacy and academic engagement, educational environments should promote two things: (1) a sense of belonging, and (2) psychological safety.4 Rooted in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a sense of belonging supports feelings of security, identity, and community. Psychological safety encourages students to take risks in the classroom and reaffirms the idea that their identity, perspectives, and contributions to classroom discussions are valuable.

Both a sense of belonging and psychological safety are elusive when marginalized students must navigate racial bias, stereotype threat, and imposter syndrome. When a sense of belonging and psychological safety are absent from the educational experience, students invoke defense mechanisms that monopolize their cognitive energy. This results in diminished academic performance, leading to withdrawal or dismissal from law school. This only serves to perpetuate systemic issues of inequity and a racial imbalance in the legal profession. Thus, for marginalized students, tending to issues of belonging and safety are critical to their academic success and persistence in law school.

The Importance of Creating Spaces for Students to Explore Their Identities

Embarking on a rigorous academic journey in an educational environment that can exacerbate stress for marginalized students requires counterbalancing ideas, messaging, and of course, realities. First, there must be an authentic communication of what characteristics help students perform well academically in law school. Second, there must be a space where faculty and administrators help students interpret how the characteristics they already possess are precisely those that will help them academically in law school and beyond as they enter into practice.

How to Create Safe Spaces

Because law school students are perceived to be high achievers, driven, and competitive, there is typically not much thought given to creating safe spaces for them – spaces where belonging and safety are prioritized. Spaces are safe when they prioritize belonging, respect, growing self-esteem, establish a sense of connection, and promote self-actualization. Because all of these pursuits, particularly self-actualization, are active ones, they are not always comfortable—but the spaces that facilitate this growth should be safe.

Safe spaces could be informal or organized by various groups outside of ASP or DEI offices in law schools (possibly starting with admissions, career services, social events in partnership with student groups). Here we discuss some more formalized workshop structures that ASP and DEI professionals can partner together on, or academic support faculty can facilitate using their own expertise with input from literature that links academic support and DEI.5

In the past, at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, we held two separate sessions on Community Building (Nickey Woods) and Reflections (Laura Riley) as part of a pre-orientation program geared towards students who identified as needing transitional support into law school, many of whom were first generation law students. After this experience, we created an additional workshop that we plan to implement in Fall 2022. The workshop will follow a safe space format that combines individual writing, pair sharing, mapping and facilitated reflection, and group dialogue, as explored below.

Tying Identities to Law School Success Workshop: 3 Activities6

Activity 1: Focus on Growth Mindset

  1. Quick Write: Provide students with the following prompt and give them 3-5 minutes to reflect and write.
    Visualize yourself in an undergraduate class or past work position. Bring to mind one project that you did really well or an initiative you spearheaded or participated in that made you proud. Write down three personal characteristics that helped you perform well.
  2. Pair/Share: Put students in groups of two (no more, to ensure each person shares) and ask them to share their successes and characteristics behind them.
  3. Moderated Group Dialogue: In advance, prepare a list of characteristics that you believe are vital for law school success. Then, ask groups to share either their or their partner’s characteristics. Write those on the board. Map the prepared list to the ones the students share, while reinforcing that their current strengths match the ones necessary for success in law school—you’ll see, they do!

Activity 2: Focus on Resilience

  1. Quick Write: Provide students with the following prompt and give them 3-5 minutes to reflect and write.
    What words or phrases express your thoughts and feelings about starting law school? This could be modified to feelings about their performance in the first semester or year of law school depending on when the workshop is being held.
  2. Pair/Share.
  3. Moderated Group Dialogue: Emphasize the importance of dedicating time to personal and professional reflection during law school. Teach students that reflection7—thinking critically about why we are doing something and the way in which we are doing it—is key to the legal practice and suggest that this is important in both our legal assignments and our personal approaches to law school. Suggest a few forms of reflection, whether it is once a week to check in via journaling for 10 minutes, going for a walk, checking in with a study partner on how life is going outside law school, or any other forms your students find helpful. You can also emphasize resilience and how key it is to restarting mentally when facing the challenges of law school.

Activity 3: Focus on Belonging and Community

  1. Quick Write: Provide students with the following prompt and give them 3-5 minutes to reflect and write.
    What steps could you take during the first month of the semester to increase your sense of belonging in the law school community? How might you help others feel more connected to the law school community?
  2. Pair/Share.
  3. Moderated Group Dialogue: Bring out the themes of individual belonging and the role each person has in the “4 C’s”: care, concern, and connection in community.

This pre-orientation workshop structure is certainly not the only way to help demonstrate (and help students discover for themselves) how aspects of identities relate and tie to characteristics necessary for success in law school. You could center an entire workshop around one of these activities, add one to an existing workshop, or spread them throughout a semester.8

Permission to Experiment/Conclusion

As instructors and shapers of the law school experience give students permission and tools (growth mindset, reflection, ways to connect with community) to do the same, they help shape students’ law school experiences by encouraging them to utilize those abilities and tools to navigate issues they may encounter—particularly in the first year. Utilizing ASP and DEI strategies to increase law students’ sense of belonging and psychological safety and constructing spaces that foster engagement opportunities ensures that we are maximizing students’ sense of belonging and psychological safety in law school, thereby ensuring that students can connect their diverse backgrounds and experiences with characteristics of law school success.


1 See Belinda Dantley & Petina Benigno, Expansion and Collaboration: A Multi-Office Approach to Supporting First Generation Law Students, The Learning Curve 21 (Summer/Fall 2021).

2 See Bree Buchanan & James C. Coyle, National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being: Creating a Movement to Improve Well-being in the Legal Profession (2017), available at https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf.

3 See Leslie P. Culver, White Doors, Black Footsteps: Leveraging White Privilege to Benefit Law Students of Color, 21 J. Gender Race & Just.  37 (2017).

4 Erin Cristina Dallinger-Lain, Racialized Interactions in the Law School Classroom: Pedagogical Approaches to Creating a Safe Learning Environment, 67 J. of Legal Educ. 780 (2017).

5 Moin Syed, Margarita Azmitia, & Catherine R. Cooper, Identity and Academic Success Among Underrepresented Ethnic Minorities: An Interdisciplinary Review and Integration, 6 (3) J. of Soc. Issues 442-68 (2011) available at https://bridgingworlds.ucsc.edu/docs-pdfs/Syed,%20Azmitia,%20and%20Cooper%202011.pdf.

6 Professor Russell McClain’s The Guide to Belonging in Law School is a helpful reference for themes on all three of these activities. See Russell A. McClain, The Guide to Belonging in Law School (2020).

7 Articles on teaching and assessing reflection include Timothy Casey, Reflective Practice in Legal Education: The Stages of Reflection, 20 Clinical L. Rev. 317 (2014); Jodi S. Balsam, Susan L. Brooks, & Margaret Reuter, Assessing Law Students as Reflective Practitioners, 62 N.Y.L. Sch. L. Rev. 49 (2017-2018).

8 If you experiment with other models or timing we would love to hear about them and can pass along to others who contact us, if you give permission (lriley@law.usc.edu; nwoods@law.usc.edu).


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