“To those of you who are graduating this afternoon with high honors, awards and distinctions, I say, ‘Well done.’ And as I like to tell the C students: ‘You too, can be president.’”—former President George W. Bush addressing the graduating class at Southern Methodist University in 2015.
Grades. They strike fear deep into the heart of every law student. They define your time in law school, but do they define what happens afterwards?
The common narrative from every career services office would have you believe they do. However, many people struggled in law school and went on to become extremely successful. Notably, Bush and President Joe Biden were both absent from their respective law schools’ top 25 students’ lists. In fact, Biden ranked 76th in a class of 85.
So just how much do your law school grades affect your long-term career prospects?
Read on to hear the advice of three successful attorneys who shared information on their past academic struggles to help you today.
If it matters, you try harder
During his first year of law school, Reginald A. Pacis, a shareholder at Butzel Long in Detroit, struggled with his core courses and was briefly on academic probation. However, his desire to become an attorney was so strong that he pushed through.
“You really have to want it” he said. “When you do something you really care about, you try harder. I had to relearn how to study.”
During Pacis’s second year, things became easier for him as began to see how concepts he studied in his first year connected with each other, as well as with courses he studied in his second year.
Pacis recalls watching his grandparents stay up all night before their naturalization ceremony because they were so excited they couldn’t sleep.Knowing how hard they’d worked to become U.S. citizens and seeing the joy it brought them to finally be naturalized inspired Pacis to pursue a career in immigration law. He believed becoming an immigration attorney would allow him to help others achieve the dream of American citizenship that had been so meaningful to his grandparents.
Pacis was challenged again when he failed the bar exam on his first attempt. He said the experience helped him relate to his future immigration clients; it made him understand what it was like to want something so badly but be denied.
His advice to those who fail the bar? “Go out the first night,” he suggests. “Drink. Cry. Do whatever you need to do to get it out of your system. When you wake up the next morning, get to work.”
On his first bar attempt, Pacis felt his weak spot had been his essay answers. So he began an aggressive study regimen that focused on essay drafting. He also rewrote all his outlines and shortened them so they focused on key concepts. On his second attempt, Pacis passed.
Different path, different worries
Like Pacis, Matthew Dolan also encountered challenges in law school. He’s now the managing partner at Dolan Divorce Lawyers, a family law practice with four offices in Connecticut.
Dolan was inspired to attend law school by his father, who was a lawyer and later a judge. “I always wanted to be like him, which influenced my decision to go to law school,” he recalls. “But I also saw how much he loved his work, and I wanted something similar for myself.”
During law school, Dolan struggled with core classes like constitutional law and torts, graduating in the bottom 20 percent of his class. He believes the importance of grades depends on what you want to pursue immediately out of law school. Dolan knew he didn’t want to work for a large corporate firm where his grades would be scrutinized as part of the hiring process; he was more focused on his long-term goal of starting his own firm.
Dolan knew the bar exam would take a serious commitment. While studying for the bar, he woke up every day at 5 a.m., went for a run, and then studied for five to six hours.
Dolan also believes mental health and finding positive activities to engage in to avoid excessive burnout or stressis critical in both law school and studying for the bar. Personally, he found that taking long walks after study sessions helped him stay motivated and engaged when it came time to return to his studies.
“It’s all about how you treat people and how hard you work after school,” Dolan said of his success after passing the bar. “Just because you struggle in law school doesn’t mean that you won’t be a success after law school. Having a law school degree opens up so many doors that will allow you to shape your career into whatever you want it to be.”
Grades matter for a second
Joseph Guthienz, founder of the Gutheinz Law Firm in Friendswood, Texas, encountered a problem all too familiar to today’s law student—too many commitments.
When he started law school, Guthienz had accumulated five college degrees. At age 14, he graduated high school and started attending college. Despite an impressive history of academic excellence, Gutheinz said his grades in law school were “a long way down from not the best.”
He attributed some of his struggles in law school to a hectic schedule, juggling the responsibilities of parenting a large family of six and a demanding full-time job. He started his day at 5 a.m., began work at 7 a.m., then later left for law school at 5:30 p.m., frequently ending his day around midnight. After four years of this grueling schedule, he passed the bar exam on his first attempt.
Today, Gutheinz heads his own firm along with two of his six sons, who also became attorneys. He’s been admitted before 10 courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. He has taught at three universities and one law school and now holds six degrees and eight teaching credentials.
“Good grades in law school may open opportunities for a new attorney, but that advantage fades quickly,” he said “What’s important is how new lawyers handle themselves in court and with their peers. Honesty, tenacity, knowledge of the law, street smarts, and integrity are what other attorneys take note of, not grades.”
Give yourself a break
So what’s the secret sauce for a successful legal career? Grades matter, but they’re not everything—and they don’t define your future. In fact, you can do downright poorly in law school and still go on to run the free world. At the very least, as Pacis, Dolan, and Gutheinz show, you can struggle in law school and still go on to be successful in practice.
However, you must remain committed. All three attorneys never stopped working toward their ultimate goal in practice, and they worked extremely hard the entire time.
Eugene Parker, an astrophysicist who discovered solar wind in 1958 and for whom the NASA Parker Solar Probe is named after, faced heavy criticism after he published his doctoral dissertation. I asked him how he handled that criticism. He responded with a smile and said, “If you’re going to do anything worth doing, you’re going to get kicked in the teeth a few times. That’s just the way it is.”
More on grades from Student Lawyer
Get the grades, avoid the burnout
Whether you’re just finishing up your first semester or getting ready for the bar exam, you know that “once in a while” doesn’t usually cut it. Still, too much studying can cause burnout. By adopting small changes in study habits, you can develop the skills you need to get the grades without the burnout.
You’ve started a law school study group—now what?
Members of the strongest study groups agree to set ground rules and take studying seriously—and become friends along the way. Here are five tips to hit the ground running once you’ve formed your law school study group.
How to ace legal writing
You may be adjusting to your first legal writing course, where you’re expected to learn to research and write like a lawyer all in one semester. It’s daunting. Don’t let reaching for an A get in the way of mastering the writing skills you need to be a good lawyer.
Tips for success for neurodiverse law students
Law school can be a melting pot when it comes to the student body, and one way students differ is in neurodiversity. So how might the law school journey change for someone who’s neurodivergent? Are there additional obstacles and challenges for these students that neurotypical students wouldn’t usually encounter? Read on.
Don’t let law school grades determine whether you make the grade
Law school grades are simply one indicator of your legal potential. Those little letters don’t define or determine your future. 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).
The Five Horsemen of the (Law School Essay Exam) Apocalypse
The original Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were harbingers of doom. When an apocalyptic grade is assigned by your professor, it can often be attributed to one of what may be called the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These five horsemen can sometimes be heard riding past as you draft your response to an examination essay question