Journal of Leadership and the Law

An Introduction to Learning Agility: An Overlooked Key to Law Students' Future Career Success

By Christopher Leupold, Ph.D.

Dr. Christopher Leupold is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and an Associate Professor in Elon University’s Psychology Department. In addition, he serves as the Faculty Leadership Fellow and Executive Coach in Residence at Elon University’s School of Law.

With its heavy academic requirements and course loads, law school is certainly a massive and grueling challenge for the majority of its students. Despite the emotionally and physically taxing demands that a legal education presents them, students choose to invest thousands of dollars and thousands of work hours because they believe their efforts will lead to their professional (and personal) success in the future. Perhaps as an exercise to remind themselves exactly why they endure the hardships that they do, many law students fantasize about the days they will graduate, pass the bar exam, and begin that first dream job as a freshly minted lawyer. Beginning one’s career is certainly an exciting time, and the first job is not only seen as the well-deserved fruit of the law student’s labors but also an exciting beacon for a promising and prosperous career.

Unfortunately, the fairy tale where the student who excelled in his doctrinal courses seamlessly transitions into his first job and immediately produces outstanding work does not always play out as a student hoped or dreamed. A reality is that many otherwise successful and hardworking professionals, law students included, simply do not automatically carry their record of outstanding performance from one setting to the next. Some people are just naturally more disposed to have successful transitions while are more disposed to have failed ones. Particularly for the achievement-oriented student who dominated the LSAT, proudly maintained an upper-echelon class rank, and served on Law Review; failure or even subpar performance in a new work setting after superior performance in law school is particularly unexpected if not confusing. Obviously, the mastery and application of legal knowledge is a fundamental requirement to have a successful career in law. However, students need to realize that their career success is not always going to solely hinge on the ability to study and learn volumes of complex information or write compelling course papers.

Organizational psychologists have identified a host of variables that have been scientifically determined to validly (accuracy) and reliably (consistency) predict individuals’ job performance. Some of the more well-known ones include cognitive ability, emotional intelligence, goal-achievement, and self-confidence. Of course, other factors such as performance in prior roles and other past experiences in both work and non-work contexts have demonstrated some predictive ability as well. However, the question that researchers and employers continually strive to answer is, “Which is the single best predictor of a candidate’s success when moving into a new work setting or role?” Recently, a new construct has been gaining impressive attention for its purported superiority over the other predictors. In their piece titled, “Learning Agility: A Construct Whose Time Has Come,” authors Kenneth De Meuse, Guangrong Dai, and George Hallenbeck provide a nice summary of learning agility, a variable that has proven extremely useful to employers in their quest to identify the candidate who has the highest probability of demonstrating exceptional job performance. This particular article is published in the esteemed and academic peer-reviewed journal Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, (volume 62, number 2) but the interest in learning agility has been growing among academicians and practitioners alike.

As De Meuse and his colleagues describe in more detail, learning agility is essentially the ability to learn from past experiences, directly or vicariously, and later apply those learnings to new and unfamiliar situations. As the proponents of learning agility would note, the reason many new hires and promotions fail is because organizations make the flawed assumption that effective performance in one role is indicative of similarly effective performance in a different role. The intuitive logic here seems reasonable enough, but the flaws in this fairly simplistic argument that ‘past performance predicts future performance’ soon become apparent. It is true that many abilities and skills are transferable to different roles. But this is probably most true if the role requirements from and to which one moves are fairly similar. The reality is most first jobs involve a law student moving into a role that has requirements far different than those they faced in law school. Comparing performance the performance expectations and skill requirements of a law student to those of a new practicing attorney is somewhat comparing apples to oranges.

People who are high on learning agility aren’t so because they simply have a lot of experience from which to draw. Rather, it is how an individual processes that experience that makes the difference. People who are learning agile are not only more prone to seek out new experiences, but also reflect deeply on them. They think about the experience, what they did, what they could have done differently, and what they might be able to do when in a similar situation in the future. This produces a reservoir of experiences and memories from which they can draw later. While the experiences in their new roles might be slightly different from ones they had in the past, learning agile people are nonetheless in a better position to retrieve some element related to a previous, different experience and apply it to the new one. In addition, they are more likely ask others for feedback and then commit to making modifications based on the assessment they receive.

De Meuse et al. highlight different types of learning agility. Mental agility refers to the ability and willingness to approach problems from multiple perspectives, explore creative ideas, seek additional information, and generally understand that there are different modes of thinking and ways to approach issues. To be clear, this is not simply cognitive or problem-solving ability. Rather, it is flexibility in thought, openness to approach issues in novel ways, and most importantly, an ability to draw upon knowledge of past experiences to make decisions in new environments in the future.

People agility refers to one’s tendency to explore and approach interpersonal relationships in much the same way. Individuals who are people agile recognize and appreciate differences in others, look to broaden their exposure to people who have perspectives different from their own, and have awareness of their own interpersonal styles and abilities to adapt to different audiences. Such individuals should not automatically be assumed to be extroverted or gregarious. Rather, they are simply highly attuned to social behavior and as such store the knowledge they learn from their interpersonal interactions to be retrieved later.  The authors also discuss change and results agility, which, as by now one would likely assume, refer to one’s ability to retrieve and apply information from past experiences as a way of affecting change or achieving results in new scenarios. All of these dimensions of learning agility thus involve an individual having a natural, if not active curious nature about things and a desire to experience and learn from them. It doesn’t mean that they are always successful in everything they do; however, when they do experience failure, they seek to understand what happened, consider what they could have done differently at various points, and what they would do in the future. Then, when they encounter a new experience in the future, they sort through this growing collection of memories and thoughts and from them determine what the best course of action in the present should be.

When compared in empirical research studies to the effectiveness of the other variables identified earlier in this article, learning agility proves to be superior in its ability to predict success in a new job or promotion. So, while the implications around succession planning and personnel management are fairly clear here for hiring managers and human resource professionals, what can law students take from this? In short, they should recognize that, a) learning agility is a real thing, b) that having it is something that will help them in their careers, and c) it is something that they should look to develop in order to create a track record of future success across the multiple jobs or roles they will likely have. According to the authors, learning agility is something that can indeed be developed. This is much more comforting and gives more hope to people who might be lower on a more fixed trait like natural intelligence. To date there is no evidence of gender or racial differences, or even age ones for that matter. What is important is the ongoing willingness to experience new situations, reflect on them before, during, and after; and then applying these learnings to future situations.

Given this knowledge about its potential role in career success (and more likely than not, life success in general, however one wants to define that), it would behoove law students to begin looking how do develop their own learning agility. The beauty of developing learning agility is that it does not necessarily require readings, seminars, or expensive training programs. Again, the most important ingredients are simply a willingness to engage and experiment in new situations, to critically think and reflect on those experiences, and to actively try to use and apply those insights to new situations. This might require students to step out of their comfort zones where they could rely on the convenience of tried and true approaches. But the more exposures a person has to new people, ideas, and approaches, the more likely he will be forced to adapt and try new approaches. Rather than see these as burdens or opportunities for failure as things to consciously avoid, learning agile people embrace them as opportunities to learn and grow. Wisdom and learning often comes best from experience; and in some cases, it is those situations that really test us from which we learn the most valuable insights.

So, at the same time a law student rightly focuses his energy on learning course material, he should look for and take advantage of the many opportunities in his world to develop his learning agility. Simply experimenting with different studying styles, engaging in conversations with students and faculty, and serving on student committee are opportunities for a student to put himself in a novel situation, reflect and process that experience, and store that information to apply to a future situation. For example, engaging in a discussion with another student who might have a different perspective on a case presented in class may be a challenging situation that many students prefer to avoid. However, in having such a conversation the student, among other things, will have the experience of articulating complex ideas and answering challenging questions and defending his position all while maintaining a poised and professional presence. As a lawyer this student will undoubtedly find himself in numerous similar situations in the future whether arguing a case before a judge, managing a conflict among his co-workers, or presenting a new strategic plan to his firm. Another example might be attending a local bar event, perhaps even in an area of law outside the student’s own interest. By attending, the student will put himself in a position of having to meet new people, learn new legal content, and carry himself as a credible professional in an important networking environment. Again, the student’s first job will present him with dozens of similar situations where he will be alone in an unfamiliar environment but have the opportunity to network, learn, and basically enhance his professional image. By processing these earlier experience in terms of what behaviors were effective, what behaviors should be repeated with which sorts of people, which behaviors should be avoided, what could have been done differently, would certain behaviors work in other scenarios and so on, the student will be in a better position to determine what will lead to success in a future situation.

When law students finally begin the first jobs that they so deserve they are going to face a new and very different environment with different expectations and requirements for success. The better prepared a student is to make this transition, by drawing upon the vast reservoir of experiences he has had and thought about, the more successful he will be. Developing one’s learning agility can really be thought of as a general approach to life, particularly given how quickly job roles and expectations shift. Law students who adopt such a perspective of continuous growth and seek to take advantage of the myriad experiential learning opportunities will surely be the ones who are better able to contend with the many challenges they will face in their profession and thus have the successful and satisfying career they so desire.