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What you’ll wish you had known about law school – grades

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What you’ll wish you had known about law school – grades

The ABA has graciously invited me to write for its law school audience. In the first post, I wrote about why the law school you choose to attend matters. Without further ado, here is the second thing many of us wish we had known before starting law school:

Your Grades Matter, Just Not Equally

People often say “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” I’m not so sure that saying holds true for law school. Of course, all your grades matter. And you want to finish law school strong. In a perfect world, you will get all As. But in reality, a lower grade may hurt you a lot more in the beginning of law school than in the end. I don’t know any firm that has rescinded an offer to a student because he or she received a B+ or B in a course, but feel free to email me if this has happened to you.

Again, all grades matter, but I would contend that starting strong is of the utmost importance in law school. This doesn’t mean if you start slow, do badly in the beginning, or eventually learn the game you can’t succeed in law. Starting slow doesn’t mean you won’t succeed in your legal career.  Many people who aren’t at the top 10 percent of their class do just fine and have stellar law careers. In fact, 90 percent of law students are not in the top 10 percent of their class. Crazy right? Many would contend that networking, soft skills, and other factors are just as critical as grades are to one’s career. I wholeheartedly agree.

This is what I mean when I say your grades matter, just not equally. Some firms, agencies, and judges offer 1L summer clerkships for law students. Even fewer firms do so without your first semester’s grade report. Thus, recruiters and judges only have your first semester’s grade report as initial evidence to judge you as a potential candidate. Now the interview process can be grueling and quite competitive, but often times, the only way to secure an interview is to earn good marks. Good grades are the baseline metric firms, agencies, and judges use to filter through candidates and decide which students to interview.

While many students aren’t able to secure a summer associate position or clerkship during their first summer, a fair amount of students are able to find a legal position in their second summer. Because the majority of firms conduct their interviews for 2Ls in the August or September following a student’s first year of courses, first year grades are the only grades that matter for the 2L summer associate position or clerkship.

Your first two semester’s grades are all recruiters have to go on to initially analyze you as a potential candidate for their 2L programs. Of course, firms interview you to better capture a holistic picture of your application. And once you secure an interview, you will have to compete against everyone else who has received high marks. However, grades are often the first filter firms will implement in deciding whether to grant you an interview. There are exceptions to every rule, but grade cutoffs are a common initial metric used by recruiters to screen students.

Often times, especially in the case of law firms, students will work post-graduation where they were employed as a summer clerk. A law student’s summer experience is often based on his or her first year’s grades. This is why I believe the weight of your grades is extremely front-end loaded. On the other hand, there are a ton of students who secure legal employment with no prior summer legal experiences.

As I previously mentioned, everybody who comes to law school possesses a different mindset, background, and network. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another. Legal studies are a lot like golf. You can’t worry about what everybody else is doing. For the best results, you have to focus on your own game and what works for you.

For some students, good grades will assist them in their pursuits. For other students, networking will be the skeleton key. Still for other students, well-rounded resumes will get their feet in the door. Just as law school grades often will not matter equally for everyone, so too law school grades often do not matter equally for any one.

Renwei Chung Renwei Chung is the Diversity Columnist at Above the Law. You can contact Renwei by email at renwei@footnote4.com, follow him on Twitter, or connect with him on LinkedIn.