The Legal Beat
So You Got Your Grades, Now What? (Part II — The Bad News)
Posted on Friday January 11, 2019
Last week, I discussed how 1Ls should react, and capitalize, on a strong Fall academic performance. For those students who are regular readers of this column who fit that description, feel free to skip this week’s iteration — rest assured Above the Law corporate overlords, anyone who is reading this sentence has already clicked on the article, so we already have their page view — because I will be focusing on the other side of the Fall grades coin: students who had a weak academic showing.
Not surprisingly, a 4.0 Fall GPA — or for those students in the Yale/Harvard/Stanford tier where grades do not exist, a bunch of smiley face stickers? — results in feelings of ecstasy for students, but in my experience, that level of excitement is surpassed by the feeling of despair that overwhelms students who find themselves at the bottom of the class, perhaps speaking to an inherent pessimistic nature among law students who are doubtful that a strong performance can endure over time, but are confident a weak one will. A law student’s 1L Fall exam period is an all encompassing endeavour which wrings out every drop of effort and determination and represents the first chance most have to gauge their legal abilities vis a vis their peers. Finding out that you did not measure up can be heartbreaking and leave you questioning the rest of your planned professional life.
But I am here to tell those current students, and even those who have been in that position before, not to despair. Why? Well first, understand what a single semester worth of grades does not prove. Not being at the top of your class does not mean you are incompetent and will be unable to practice law in the future. For many law students, especially those at the most selective schools, academic success has been the standard throughout their lives, to the point where a transcript that does not contain all As can generate some . . . odd reactions.
Due to the nature of the bell curve used in most, if not all, 1L classes, the simple fact of the matter is that someone has to do poorly. At many schools, if first-year professors were allowed to deviate from the curve, everyone would get a high mark because they all know the material. But on one day, over the course of a few hours, you were not able to express your mastery of Torts as well as some of your classmates. That is ok. Now, this does not mean that you should not change any of your studying or exam habits for the next semester, doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is a definition of insanity. Ask your professors to review your exams with you, so you can get a sense as to where and how you erred. But recognizing that a change in studying strategy is necessary is not an indictment of your lawyering ability. And also, take solace in the fact that after the Fall semester, and especially after 1L, your ability to pick and chose courses that not only align better with your interests but with your preferred grading system (i.e., a long paper versus an exam) increases exponentially.
While there are macro concerns that underachieving law students must address, there are also micro issues as well. When it comes to summer jobs, a weak Fall semester might require some reevaluation. If your plan was to land a Biglaw position in a hyper competitive geographic market, that might not be possible (though there are some exceptions as discussed below). Remember that while Biglaw is increasingly embracing 1L hiring, for the most part, it is the 2L summer that is still the most important for post-graduation Biglaw employment. Explore the variety of non-firm opportunities for summer employment, which will still give you some great experience while also not being as grade dependent. Each and every year at Vanderbilt, we have scores of students who work for judges, district attorneys/public defenders, and even in-house departments who spend their 2L summer in Biglaw and work for those employers after graduation.
Also, keep in mind that there are numerous ways to get into a private firm for 1L summer. Many employers have robust programs for underserved populations and these programs are often less dependent on grades than more traditional recruiting methods. And make sure you read the fine print on these programs. While you might not consider yourself a diverse applicant, many firms are looking for a variety of diverse candidates including socioeconomic diversity as well as students who are the first in their family to attend college. If you fit such a description, apply.
Finally, if your grades are truly poor, be willing to have a realistic conversation with yourself, and those closest to you, about your future in the law. If you came to law school with dreams of clerking on the Supreme Court, recognize that is going to be very difficult to achieve at this point. That does not mean you cannot be a competent attorney, but make sure your more realistic goals are worth, to you, the next two and a half years of economic and emotional investment.
The first semester of law school is a time unlike any other in a lawyer’s life which can end in jubilation or dispair. But while the latter category is understandable, it should not be the norm for underachieving students. If you find yourself at the bottom of the class, realize this is not a permanent indictment of your abilities. Just have an honest conversation with yourself and if you want to go back into the ring, dust yourself off and start again.
Nicholas Alexiou is the Director of LL.M. and Alumni Advising as well as the Associate Director of Career Services at Vanderbilt University Law School. He will, hopefully, respond to your emails at [email protected].