Charting the Course: An Empirically Based Theory of the Development of Critical Thinking in Law Students

Document Type

Law Review Article

Publication Date



skills barriers, bar passage, analytical thinking skills


Recent large-scale research studies indicate that many college students graduate with critical thinking skills no greater than those they possessed upon matriculation. These findings have sent shockwaves through the academy, calling into question the value and efficacy of higher education, particularly when it comes to equipping graduates with the advanced reasoning and problem-solving skills most in demand in the 21st Century. Many of these under prepared graduates pursue advanced education, including the study of law that traditionally has groomed citizens to assume positions of high leadership and solve society’s most complex problems using advanced reasoning and communication skills. As these students enter law school, the legal academy faces intense scrutiny for failure to adopt valid empirically based teaching approaches and demonstrate adequate educational results, prompting the American Bar Association to exercise its regulatory authority to mandate that law schools must now demonstrate learning outcomes.

Traditional law school academic support programs cannot address the fundamental deficits in critical thinking among incoming students, and a scarcity of research in legal education has left the legal academy calling for empirical guidance to inform cohesive approaches to the systemic challenges it faces. To address the daunting challenges facing the legal academy, I conducted a qualitative grounded theory study to formulate a comprehensive conceptual model of the development of critical thinking skills in law students that may assist legal educators in establishing best practices for the advancement of higher order thinking skills in law students. The resulting Critical Thinking in Law Students model provides the legal academy with empirical guidance to formulate new strategies to improve learning outcomes and comply with regulatory mandates, while also offering the broader academy insight into the intricate combination of factors that affect the ability of higher education institutions to provide their students with effective education for the development of higher order thinking skills.