Excerpted From: Joseline Jean-Louis Hardrick, Using Positive Psychology Principles to Assist Black Students Succeed in Law School, 17 Southern Journal of Policy and Justice 39 (Spring, 2023) (70 Footnotes) (Full Document Requested)


JoselineJHardrickIn its initial scene, the Shonda Rhimes-produced television show, How to Get Away with Murder has criminal defense attorney Annalise Keating entering a classroom full of eager law students. Keating, played by Viola Davis, who won an Emmy award for the role, is sharply dressed, perfectly coiffed, and confident as she approaches the chalkboard. In a commanding voice, she announces:

Good morning. I don't know what terrible things you've all done up to this point in your lives, but clearly, your karma's out of balance to get assigned to my class. That said, here we all are. I'm Professor Annalise Keating, and this is Criminal Law 100. Or, as I prefer to call it ...

How to get away with murder.

She delivers that last line after she picks up a red marker and writes on the board; the students all watch, twisting their necks to see the words until she finally finishes. She then turns to them as she reads the words aloud. Intense theme music plays in the background as she smiles mischievously.

As a young Black woman attorney, watching this scene felt groundbreaking, extraordinary, and exciting. As a child, I saw no images like this depicting a Black woman as a criminal defense attorney. The only Black female lawyer I saw on TV (that I can recall) was Claire Huxtable. Then I saw the television shows Matlock and Perry Mason, and I was enthralled. They had great theme music, intense courtroom scenes, the literal “smoking gun,” and impeachment of witnesses. Those lawyers did compelling monologues and always got justice for their clients. I remember thinking that is what I want to do! Being in the courtroom questioning witnesses looked like so much fun.

Despite the lack of representation in the media of Black attorneys, attorneys of other races, and even female attorneys, I still wanted to pursue a legal career. Like many Black law students, I am a first-generation lawyer in my family, was raised in poverty (at least measured by American standards), and attended underfunded and poor-performing schools. I relied heavily on mentors and pipeline programs to find my way into law school.

I show the opening scene of How to Get Away with Murder during the first class of every semester. I do this for a few reasons. First, I am a Black woman lawyer and professor, representing less than 5% of lawyers in the country, and about 3% of lawyers in law firms. I may be an anomaly for some of my students. I did not have a Black female professor in law school, and I would bet many of my students have had few, if any, in their higher education careers. By showing a clip of someone like me, I am attempting to normalize the image of a Black woman lawyer and professor for my class. Also, it is dramatic and immediately grabs their attention. Competition for young adults' attention is fierce, and given social media's penchant for short quick “viral videos,” I have to capitalize on the trend. Additionally, there are some great lessons from the scene.

First, the show gets the legal definition of mens rea and actus reus right, which is one of the first concepts students learn in Criminal Law, one of the courses I teach. Second, Professor Keating immediately starts asking questions and using the famous Socratic method in the scene, which students need to familiarize themselves with. And third, several students do well in answering the questions (smugly, I add). In contrast, one poor student (literally and figuratively), a young Black man named Wes Gibbons, struggles to comprehend what is happening around him. He had to shamefully explain that he did not get notice of the assignment because he was admitted to the school from the “waitlist.”

Undaunted, Professor Keating continues and gives him a clue by defining the terms for him, then asks, based on the facts, for him to determine the answer. She states that it is simply “common sense.” He hesitates, and another student chimes in, eager to impress everyone. Keating acknowledges her, tells her she is right and then reprimands her for “taking a learning opportunity away from another student.” What a great scene!

I used this clip for this last reason in particular; no matter how much a student wants to answer a question, they should never take away learning opportunities from other students. The competitiveness in law school is palpable. Everyone is smart, but students insist on showing just how smart, and, worse, trying to prove they are smarter than everyone else. In that environment, first-generation, lower-income students of color, particularly Black students, struggle to keep up, matriculate, and graduate. And some do not excel, not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of a supportive environment.

In this paper, I propose using positive psychology strategies to assist Black students in improving academic outcomes in their grade point averages, graduation rates, and the bar exam passage. These strategies will also create environments where they can thrive and not just survive in law school, which leads to positive outcomes when they advance through their legal career.

[. . .]

The recommendations I make in this paper are great starting points. But students must opt in. What if we incorporated these positive psychology practices, the markers of happiness, and mindfulness into doctrinal courses? We could see tremendous improvements in all students, particularly Black law students who statistically are underperforming for various reasons.

Law professors should work to incorporate PERMA™ ACR, autonomy, mastery, relatedness, and mindfulness into doctrinal courses where possible. It takes some planning but does not have to take away from the core materials that every professor has to cover. It is imperative to occur in a doctrinal course, not just in electives. All students, particularly Black law students and students from other marginalized and underrepresented groups, need exposure to these techniques early and often. These students are usually struggling more, more unlikely to reach out for help, and less likely to have had previous exposure to these techniques.

Here are some final quick tips for incorporating these strategies into doctrinal courses:

• Make these practices part of “learning outcomes” for doctrinal courses

• Do a mindfulness meditation in class, particularly after or before a stressful event, i.e., midterms, oral arguments, etc.

• Share your personal practices with students.

• Include resources in your syllabus

• Require assignments that ask students to reflect on the provided resources and to choose one strategy they will use in the course.

The key to using positive psychology in law school courses is creating constructive and positive emotions in students. Emotions such as fear, anger, insecurity, and dissatisfaction should be replaced with passion, love, meaning, hope, and optimism. These are the critical ingredients not just for success but for happiness itself. In the case of Black law students, this means taking time to understand and acknowledge their unique circumstances rather than assuming that their situation is precisely the same as that of other students or being indifferent to them.

Equally important is that these students should receive emotional support tailor-made to their unique situation. Acknowledging the emotional challenges students may experience allows them to develop the tools they need to overcome whatever challenges they may face and become the best version of themselves.

In the long run, this will help their academic pursuits and future law careers.

Assistant Professor of Criminal and Constitutional Law at Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School.