Vol. 42 No. 6
Erin Binns is director of career planning at Marquette University Law School.
Grades—they don’t matter as much as you think they do. Despite all the hype (especially at this time of year for 1Ls) most employers don’t rely exclusively or even heavily on academic achievement when making hiring decisions. Yes, some employers are persnickety about grades and use class rank as a threshold factor when building applicant pools. And there will be instances when you aren’t going to get over the GPA hurdle to get an invite to the interview table.
The fact is that employers value a whole lot more than grades. So as you build your spring job search strategy, keep your academic performance in perspective. Grades sometimes impact whether you get an interview; they rarely impact whether you get an offer. Moving from interview to offer has little to do with grades and a lot to do with your skills, traits, and motivations.
Don’t believe me? Read what the lawyers and recruiting directors with whom I spoke identified as important traits. I asked what they value in the candidates who receive offers and none mentioned grades. These professionals focused on other indicators of success, including attitude, leadership, time management skills, and a sense of humor amongst the others detailed below.
Writing and research skills. “First a candidate has to show me he can do the legal work and do it exceptionally well. Once I’m convinced of that, I move on to evaluating whether he’s a person I want in my office.”—Lawyer, government agency
“Can they research? Can they write? That’s what I rely on my law clerks to do and to do well.” —Lawyer, small firm
“Researching, writing, analyzing, persuading—these are the skills young lawyers and summer associates will use every day at work. I look for evidence of these through moot court, law journals, and advanced writing courses. I put weight on writing samples.” —Lawyer, mid-sized firm
Good judgment. “I spend my day a few degrees shy of malpractice. My legal team and I make quick decisions as we advise the many entities and interests of the company worldwide. Making smart decisions in the moment is paramount to our success and that of the company. Every law clerk and attorney I hire has to prove to me they can evaluate the situation and make the best call in the moment, even without all the pieces of information in place.” —General counsel, international corporation
“Practicing law requires judgment calls supported by law and entrenched in common sense. My best law clerks are those who are smart enough to know when to ask for guidance and eager enough to know when to figure it out on their own.” —Lawyer, nonprofit legal service provider
Practical, creative problem solving. “The only thing I can rely on in my day is that clients are going to throw me unexpected, complex situations. It’s how the associates who work for me handle these situations that matters. Everyone who goes to law school is smart enough to do the work. Their learning curves may differ, but everyone is smart enough. I need associates who can react quickly and effectively for clients. I need people who solve problems in creative and practical ways.” —Partner, large law firm
Poise and confidence. “You don’t have to be poetic like Bob Dylan. In law it’s not just about what you say, it’s about how you say it. Are you confident? Will you command the respect of a client, the opposing counsel, the court? Do you project the values of our firm and expectations of our clients in how you conduct and carry yourself? Can you sell the client’s position convincingly? I like to throw tough questions out in an interview to challenge candidates—not because I care about what they say but because I care about how they react. They win me if they stay composed.” —Partner, large law firm
Commitment. “We hire people with the expectation they will stay. If a candidate isn’t prepared to tell me in an interview why they want to work specifically for my firm for the foreseeable future, I’m not prepared to give them an offer. It doesn’t matter if it’s for an associate position or summer position. I want to hear about a commitment to my firm.” —Lawyer, mid-sized firm
“I need to hire someone who is all-in on this town of thirty thousand and fully prepared to embrace the community, its people, and my practice. I expect that candidates are ready to convince me they know what it means to live and practice in this town, and that they’re excited about it.” —Sole practioner intending to mentor and hand over practice
Passion. “I want to hire people with passion in their bellies. Passion for something, for anything. The practice of law is long days and demanding clients and you need to be passionate in and outside of the office. If a candidate wants to talk to me about their passion for running or for volunteering at animal shelters, I don’t care what, I just want to see fire and interest and commitment.” —Recruiting director, large law firm
Client focus. “Students need to realize that in an interview I don’t want to hear about what they want. It’s a big mistake for candidates to make it all about themselves. ‘I’m interested in this. I want to practice this. I’m hoping for this experience.’ Stop! Tell me that you get that there is a client at the end of this process and what you plan to do for them.” —Hiring lawyer, mid-sized firm
“Where’s the client-perspective? That’s what I’m looking for. The law is a service profession. Quality service is how we build a reputation and generate referrals. When I’m interviewing you to be an associate attorney, talk to me about your plans to serve clients and to develop business.” —Lawyer, small firm
Genuine interest. “We’re going to give the job to the person who convinces us they really want it. We expect the students we interview to know a lot about our firm, and not just the information that’s easily available online. We want to see that they’ve done their homework, that they’ve made an investment of time before they interview.” —Hiring lawyer, small firm
“I don’t want to know why a student wants to work in a firm like mine. I want to know why they want to work in mine. Tell me what you know about my firm and how you’re prepared to contribute to it. Ask me questions that highlight the depth of your understanding about what we do and how we do it. I have my pick of smart, hardworking students. I want someone who really wants to be here . . . working with our team in this firm.” —Hiring lawyer, mid-sized firm
Moxie. “The practice of law is demanding, and I need people working for me who will take initiative and demonstrate that they have the mental acuity and drive to get the job done. Wallflowers aren’t welcome.” —District attorney
There you have it—directly from interviewers and decision makers—grades don’t dictate every aspect of your job search. Love or hate your grades, they are and will remain a single component of your candidacy. Take inventory of your strengths and skills. Know what you offer employers beyond or in spite of your class rank.
Look for and create opportunities to develop your professional brand in a manner that evidences the skills and attributes employers’ value. Seek out chances to interact with clients, demonstrate initiative and creativity during internships, research organizations and lawyers before interviewing, and prepare to talk about your experiences and skills in a manner that shows an excitement for the profession, the employer, and your future.
For additional advice read “Above and Beyond Will Set You Apart” published in Student Lawyer, Vol. 40, No. 6, February 2012, and available online at http://americanbar.org/publications/student_lawyer.