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Don’t let law school grades determine whether you make the grade

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Getting Bad Grade News
Grades are simply one indicator of your legal potential. Those little letters don’t define or determine your future.

Did you ever play that old alphabet game from when you were a kid? “A is for apple,” “B is for boy,” “C is for “car”…? You get the idea. Each letter stood for the sound correlated with a simple word—nothing more.

So when did those same, simple letters gain overwhelming power over our psyches?

Why do we need grades?

Almost everybody in law school is pretty sharp. You don’t achieve this level of academic success without smarts and a darn good work ethic.

Employers use grades as a (somewhat) objective way to divide up the law student population. Grades are a tool to help employers manage their interviewing and hiring processes.

While some employers will interview only at what they consider the “top” schools, others may hire from a wider range of campuses, provided the students they see are in the “top” percentage of their respective class.

Whatever the criteria used for making the cut, recognize that the standards are arbitrary at best.

Grades aren’t necessarily great predictors of collegiality or performance under pressure—or even raw intelligence.

Think about law school grades the way the SAT and ACT test scores were used in determining which colleges and universities would accept or reject your application. They were relevant, but in the end, they were only one component in your overall assessment. Sometimes getting an A in a life experience boosts your marketability as much as or more than getting an A on your report card.

If you’ve got ’em, flaunt ’em

Having said that, if you’ve gotten the hang of law school exams and your grades are good, play them up. A strong GPA is just one of the many ways you can distinguish yourself in a competitive legal market. Put that info right at the top of your resume.

But if your grades aren’t stellar across the board, pick and choose what you share. Maybe you have better grades in certain kinds of classes; if so, highlight your strengths.

If you routinely score high marks in your legal writing classes, state that proudly. Do you stand out in your business seminars? If so, indicate your combined GPA in your corporate courses, and don’t detail the less-persuasive parts.

Remember that a resume is a marketing tool, not a tell-all. Paint your law school “self-portrait” with the most flattering brush strokes. If your grades aren’t a strong sales point, why include them?

Perhaps you have an amazing moot court story to tell or you’re on law review because of your “poison pen.” Juggling work with school speaks volumes about your ability to balance multiple roles, and spending your limited free time handling pro bono or civic or community work tells employers a great deal about what you value.

I’ve met students whose plates were overflowing with a combination of classes, part-time work, and responsibility for caring for relatives all at the same time. Clearly, their grades are only a part of their narrative.

Start with the end game

Where you want to end up also helps determine what kind of grades you need. If you want to be a law professor at an ivy league university, you’re going to need the grades—and the law review, the BigLaw summer job, and all the other accolades. But if you want to change the world, your grades may take a back seat to clinic work you undertake while in school.

If you envision yourself as a future CEO, you may find more value in earning a joint JD-MBA degree than in acquiring a heavenly GPA in law school only. If you hope to be in public service, throwing yourself into roles within federal, state, or local government can open more doors for you in the public sector than throwing yourself into your books. And if you’re looking for JD alternative careers, your law school grades might not matter at all.

In the end, grades are basically a matter of the mind. If you don’t mind, they may not matter (at least not all that much).

Cheryl Rich Heisler Cheryl Rich Heisler, President/Founder of LAWTERNATIVES, offers individualized career consulting to lawyers and law students on exploring careers inside, outside & around traditional legal options. Her own career paths include big law, brand management, professional speaking/writing and mixology! Heisler currently sits on the ABA Career Center Board and writes for both Student Lawyer and Experience Magazine.