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10 tips for recovering from a bad grade

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Grades

I’m a writer. That’s what I did for a living before I went to law school, and that’s my career now.

But nearly 20 years after graduating from law school, I still remember my reaction to my grade for the first assignment in my first semester of legal writing—I was stunned.

Today, I can’t remember the grade—it was maybe a B-, maybe even a C+. But I remember my instructor telling me, “You write for a living, right? Well, legal writing is different from every other type of writing.”

I even remember the instructor predicting that building my legal writing skills would destroy my skills for writing outside the law. Luckily, that didn’t turn out to be true. I figured out how to swallow my pride long enough to eventually toggle between two writing styles—one for the law and another for the nonlegal world.

I’m not the only person who’s ever been shocked by a law school grade. Many, many other lawyers have been similarly gobsmacked and were forced to figure out how to dust themselves off and learn from it. “As a person who holds a law degree and a master’s degree in health law, I can say that recovery is survival,” stated Remi Alli, CEO of Brav Online Conflict Management in Grosse Pointe, Mich.

That, however, isn’t as easy as it sounds because the law is different from your other studies. “As a professional school, law school grades are distinguishable from grades received in other undergraduate and graduate academic programs,” explained Cameron Clark, a civil rights lawyer and law school admissions consultant. “Because the law is an amorphous body of constantly changing rules and regulations, very seldom is there a ‘right’ answer to questions posed by law professors.

“Indeed, much of the training students undergo in law school focuses on preparing students to see multiple sides of one issue and to parse out the contours of the law as it is and as it should be,” added Clark. “As a profession and as a professional school, lawyers and law schools find great difficulty in evaluating work when the rubric considers ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ answers. As such, students have to self-evaluate in a different way.”

Here, Alli, Clark, and other lawyers share their best advice for responding smartly to a bad grade and achieving huge improvements the next time around.

1. Don’t doubt yourself.

Armando Edmiston, a personal injury lawyer who mentors law students and law students to-be and operates his own firm, Ask2Amigo Law Firm, in Tampa, Fla., is often asked what to do about a bad grade. “The answer is that law school teaches you a new language and a new way to think and problem solve,” he said. “The faster you’re able to adapt to the new way of thinking and writing, the better your grades will be. Don’t let one bad semester scare you from law school. Get help understanding how to read cases and extract the law and think like a lawyer.”

2. Check your work and score.

Professors make mistakes, too. “While in law school, I received several marks off followed by a comment from the professor that stated, ‘We already went over this. You were supposed to change it,’” reported Alli.

“I was frantic,” said Alli. “It turned out that my professor had graded the previous paper twice without realizing it. Upon realizing that, the flustered and apologetic professor bumped that grade up significantly.”

3. Ask for a meeting with your professor.

“Immediately speak to your professor and find out exactly why you did poorly,” advised Thomas Simeone of Simeone & Miller in Washington, D.C., who’s been an adjunct professor at The George Washington University Law School for more than 20 years.

“Many years ago, I taught legal writing to first-years,” he recalled. “When I returned graded papers to the students, I’d put a ranking on them, with 1 being the best and each successive number being the next highest graded. I did this confidentially— no one knew anyone else’s ranking; just their own.

“One student, who graduated from Harvard undergrad, received the lowest ranking on her first paper,” he said. “She came to see me and was upset. I met with her and explained exactly what she could have done better. From that moment on, every one of her papers was either the best in the class or close to it. She ended up with great grades in the class and eventually became a law professor at a highly rated law school.

You’re paying a lot of money for a legal education and grades matter, so be persistent and obtain individual feedback as much as possible.

“The best thing she did was to confront me—with a little anger—to find out exactly how to improve,” said Simeone. “Then she followed through and improved. Law professors are busy, and many don’t relish meeting with students, so you may have to be persistent to meet with a professor out of class. However, you’re paying a lot of money for a legal education and grades matter, so be persistent and obtain individual feedback as much as possible. This is discouraged by the lecture approached used my most law schools, but it’s well worth the effort if you truly want to improve.”

Simeone says this advice also applies when you bomb an entire class. “When I taught legal writing, it was a pass/fail class, but I was able to give grades of ‘high pass’ and ‘low pass,’” he said. “Throughout the years, I gave only one low pass. That was for a student who simply didn’t make a good-faith effort to hand in decent assignments on a timely basis. It wouldn’t have been fair to give her a pass when she didn’t try anywhere near as hard as the other students who received that grade.

“After she received the grade, she came to meet with me, and I explained that she handed in insufficient assignments by the deadline, but then would supplement those with what she wanted to be her graded assignment,” he noted. “I always graded the first papers handed in, which were merely placeholders, and they were very poor. I also explained that she had the talent to get good grades—judging by the final assignments she eventually handed in—but part of being a lawyer was meeting deadlines.

“A high-quality assignment was necessary, but not sufficient,” Simeone told her. “It had to be on time. She understood and learned a valuable lesson that I hope made her a better student and lawyer.”

4. Don’t meet with a professor without doing your homework first.

“The most helpful thing you can do to recover from a disappointing grade is to meet privately with your professor,” agreed Tina Willis, a personal injury attorney and owner of Tina Willis Law in Orlando, Fla.

But Willis added that you must be prepared for that meeting before you walk in the door.

“If possible, get a copy of both the test questions and your answers, and then make a list of questions to discuss with your professor,” advised Willis. “Spend as much time as the professor will allow going over each answer while asking the professor what type of answer would have led to a higher grade.

“I credit a lot of my first-semester success with a pre-law program I attended the summer before law school,” added Willis. “During that program, we were given a mini law school course, complete with a mid-term and final exam. My performance was only average on the first mid-term, and I was extremely disappointed.

“However, I went to the professor, asked for help, and had him explain what answer would have been better,” she recalled. “His advice was invaluable in helping me ace his final exam, and that experience taught me everything I needed to know to ace my first semester law school exams.”

5. Ask for meetings with professors even when you don’t bomb.

Even if you’re doing pretty well on exams, approach your professors for feedback. “I never missed an opportunity to speak with any professor about missed exam questions, sample exams, or the like,” said Willis. “My learning about law school test-taking continued throughout law school.

“One of many examples was my civil procedure exam,” she explained. “We had a professor who was notorious for asking ambiguous questions. But I followed his advice to review old exams, which he had made available in the law school library. I’m pretty sure I was the only student who reviewed those, at least in my class. That careful, lengthy review helped me tremendously when an extremely perplexing question that definitely would have otherwise stumped me appeared on his exam.

“I don’t think I’d have been able to answer the question—at all—without that prior prep, which is what happened to many of my classmates on the exam,” recalled Willis. “But my answer was nearly perfect only because I’d seen the exact same question on a prior exam and spent days thinking what a good answer would be.”

6. Engage with other students about the exam after grades have been released.

“Law school students are notoriously tight-lipped about their grades, often because students assign undue weight to their own value and skills based on their performance,” stated Clark. “Create a core group of colleagues with whom you can discuss exam questions, argue answers, and better understand how your answers compare to those by others in the course.

“Personal ego or fear of relative failure shouldn’t prevent you from seeking resources to improve your argumentation and overall lawyering skills,” added Clark. “Working with others to understand your weaknesses is a crucial skill in the legal profession and one you can learn while in law school.”

7. For the next round, know better what’s expected of you.

“Understand what the test is examining,” advised Clark. “Professors use exams to test a number of different academic and professional skills. The traditional issue-spotter exam, for example, evaluates a student’s ability to identify factual and legal questions that arise out of a given fact scenario.

“In this case, your grade depends less on an analysis of various issues and more on the ability to see what legal questions are posed by the specific facts of the case,” he noted. “Issuespotter questions usually require you to apply relatively concrete legal rules and concepts that have been discussed throughout the course; as such, a firm grasp of those concepts is required for success.

“A policy-based question, for example, may involve much more significant legal analysis on topics with fewer concrete legal foundations,” he added. “Policy questions often test your ability to develop and defend a policy position, whichever you ultimately choose.

“In this case, you should focus less on identifying multiple sides of an argument,” suggested Clark. “Instead, you should feel comfortable committing to a policy position and arguing for why the law should ultimately be shaped to meet this standard.

“Many law professors offer final term papers in lieu of proctored exams,” he continued. “In this case, you must work independently to develop a well-reasoned, thoroughly researched paper with a clear thesis and supporting analysis. Poor performance on an essay is less likely to be a critique of your issue-spotting or policy analysis skills; instead, it may speak to your difficulties in crafting a coherent argument that’s defensible.

“Understanding the type of evaluation is crucial to preparing for the test and evaluating your performance after its completion,” he argued. “You may realize, for example, that you spent more time developing policy positions when you should have thought deeply about the many positions you could have taken in the first place.”

“Just like lawyers must amend their arguments to be as palatable as possible for judges, so too must students identify their professors’ philosophical interests and consider those in writing an exam.”

8. Account for any political and philosophical leanings of your professors.

“Because the law is such a subjective practice, it’s inevitable that legal practitioners, including professors, will have their own strong views on the way the law is and should be,” contended Clark. “Professors’ beliefs are inextricable from their teaching methods and grading styles.

“This isn’t to inspire skepticism about your grades; rather, it should guide you in crafting your arguments to best persuade the audience for whom you’re writing,” explained Clark. “Just like lawyers must amend their arguments to be as palatable as possible for judges, so too must students identify their professors’ philosophical interests and consider those in writing an exam.

“Professors often take time to express their own views about the law during a course—be sure to note these with particular emphasis,” he advised. “Don’t be surprised to see these topics in exams, and have a thoroughly reasoned response—regardless of your personal position—to your professors’ beliefs.”

9. Ask your professor if you can do extra work.

“Remember high school?” asked Alli. “Some professors allow you to write a policy paper or research on the law to make up for a bad score.”

10. Neutralize the grade with clinical courses.

“If you’re unable to raise a bad score, another way to recover is to round out your GPA with practical courses that offer experience and a higher potential to do well,” suggested Alli. “Often these courses provide you with certificates that make you competitive after graduating, too.”

G.M. Filisko G.M. Filisko is the editor of Student Lawyer Magazine. She earned her law degree in 1998 from Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She practiced civil litigation at two large Chicago firms until 2005, when she became a freelance writer and editor.