Law Students: Law School Grades Will Not Define Your Career

Over the long New Years holiday, I found my law school’s “Lawyers of the Future” picture book in a box while cleaning out my basement.

This was a booklet all University of Tennessee College of Law students were given at the start of a school year, with pictures and biographies of all the law students.

My plan had been to throw all of this stuff away, but I just couldn’t. Instead, I strolled down memory lane, looking at all the faces of the people who I’d assumed would be part of my professional life forever, as opposing counsel, judges, and law partners.

Twenty years ago, though, I looked at those faces with less sentimentality. Back then, I looked at those people and their prestigious backgrounds, mainly, as competition. Competition for grades. For law review. Moot Court. Summer Jobs. Clerkships. Associate positions.

Lawyers, do you remember how much you agonized over your first semester 1L law school grades? I mean, it felt like everything in your life depended on Criminal Law, Contracts, Civil Procedure, Legal Writing, and Torts.

Law school grades just absolutely consumed our lives.

Based on what I’m seeing this week on Twitter, today’s law students are still freaking out.

What a stressful time. It definitely was for me.

I don’t have any lawyers in my family. I was the first generation in my family to go to college. My mother was a grocery store check-out clerk at my hometown Piggly Wiggly, and my dad was an assembly line worker at an elevator factory.

If our family ever had to deal with lawyers, well, that wasn’t something we would have talked about at the dinner table. If we had, it probably would have been very bad news.

Even though I got a full scholarship to college, my parents still didn’t understand why I would go to college, when I was smart and could have, otherwise, just gotten a job after high school. You can imagine their confusion when, in college, I studied English Literature (19th century American writers were my specialty).

When I graduated, I went to law school because, for me, college wasn’t just an education–it was a path to a profession. A master’s degree in literature wasn’t that path. I needed a path that ended with good pay.

My success in the English Department, though, didn’t fully prepare me for a legal education. When I arrived at the law school campus, other than knowing that speeding and murder were against the law, I didn’t know much–if anything else–about the law.

When they handed me that Lawyers of the Future during orientation, all I saw were the faces of the people who were going to do better than I was.

That first semester was harder for me than I expected. The transition from William James’ philosophical texts to federal civil procedure was a big jump. About a month in, I seriously considered quitting law school and taking the GRE for grad school. Not much in that first semester made sense to me.

So, when they posted those first year grades on the wall, I was a little surprised to see that my first year grades ended up being pretty much average. In fact, I was sort of relieved to have achieved “average.” Not bad enough to chase me away to the English department; good enough to keep on with law school.

But, in the hyper-competitive world of law school, “average” doesn’t get you any on-campus interviews. And none of my classmates seemed excited to get average grades.

The grades you make in your first semester feel like the only objective measure of you as a law student. They will be, if that’s all you have to offer. If you are interviewing at a big law firm and they don’t know anything else about you, then, yes, grades are the only thing that matter.

It’s your task to find other ways to show your potential. You can volunteer at legal clinics. You can get active in a law student organization. You can show sincere interest to an area of law far beyond making an “A” in the class. You can attend bar association CLE for free and meet lawyers who practice law in the areas you hope to work in.

As a lawyer with 20 years experience who is always looking for prospective hires and mentees, law school grades are part of the conversation, but I’m generally looking for more. I’m looking for hustle, drive, commitment, and fuerte.

Great grades are just one of the many ways to tell if a student is going to be a good lawyer. If your grades don’t show it, then you need to figure out how else to show it.

In the real world, your grades help get you in the door, but your success depends on everything else.

For me, my one shining grade was Criminal Law. I made an A in it. (Years of watching Law and Order paid off.)

For my summer clerkship, I networked and cajoled my way into a $4.25 an hour clerkship with the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, where I worked my tail off. It led to a job offer a few years later, which I didn’t take (that’s a story for another day).

But that summer also showed me that I belonged. That I could do this. That I wasn’t average.

That I was going to be a very good lawyer.

In the end, I got a little lucky too.

I ended up getting the hang of law school that second semester. Some of the things that made no sense to me at first started to click.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t turn into Elena Kagan overnight (spoiler alert: She made a single B- and then overcame that by making all As). (Side note, geesh, New York Times, thanks for the encouragement.) But, I did make Dean’s List second semester. And every semester after that.

In the end, that first semester taught me that there’s so much more to my eventual success than grades. Grades were big, but they weren’t everything.

Doing good, real work in the legal profession mattered. Impressing practicing lawyers with my work and passion, that mattered just as much as my transcript.

A few years ago, a professional reference described a potential hire to me as “an adult.” Well, of course, the attorney is an adult, but what he was suggesting was that she was responsible, trust-worthy, mature. And that really spoke to me.

Because, no matter how good your grades are, you’ll be a terrible hire (for me) if you aren’t those other things.

If you are all those other things that go into “adult,” honestly, I may never ask you about your grades.

The hardest part about being disappointed with law school grades was the secrecy. Back then, they’d assign you a random number, and, when the grades were publicly posted on the wall, you’d find your grade in a class via your anonymous number.

Nobody knew anybody else’s grades, which, in a way, created its own paranoia and isolation. Nobody talked about the disappointment. I never told anybody that I was considering dropping out of law school. If other people were scared, they didn’t tell me.

So, if you’ve found this post by googling “first semester law school bad grades,” I hope something I’ve said helps. If I can offer advice or answer any questions, feel free to email me.

First year, first semester law school grades only matter if you let them define you.

Author: David

I am a creditors rights and commercial litigation attorney in Nashville, Tennessee.

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