Moving Past Law School Grades

Receiving my first-semester law school grades was one of the most gut-wrenchingly disappointing experiences of my life.

arkansas, bowen, law school

I vividly remember the day (well, actually the horror was broken into two days because of one habitually late instructor). I remember confidently logging onto the student portal expecting to be welcomed into the top of the class. Instead, I had been rejected by law school—relegated to the middle. I blankly stared at my grades. I’ve never seen anyone analyze the stages of law-school-grade announcements, but for me it must have been shock, then disbelief, then frustration, then depression. I was incredulous—How did this happen? I was indignant—Clearly the professor had not paid attention to what I was saying. And then I was sad, unconsolably sad—I can’t be a lawyer.

My arrogance hadn’t helped things. I had put in the time to understand the material and expected to be duly compensated for it. I expected high grades because I deserved them. After all, my mom always told me that I was smart, and smart people who try hard get good grades.

Then the second semester’s grades came in. More of the same—mediocrity. And more of the same throughout law school, with some notable highs and notable lows. I couldn’t even be consistently mediocre, and I never was able to figure out what the heck I was supposed to do to take a law school exam. I never “Got to Maybe,” I guess.

The sad, sad fact about law school is that this reality is repeated every semester for most of any class. On a mandatory curve, there are simply going to be winner and losers. But the wonderful, wonderful reality is that law school grades are but one factor to use to gauge success in law school, and they are not the most important factor.

This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, really. Think about it. When have you ever (or will you ever) have someone demand that you tell them everything you know about a subject in three hours without the aid of outside materials? Yeah, it’s never going to happen.

Unfortunately, however, this message is never told or simply gets buried in the rush of highlighting-then outlining-then finals-then grades-then buy a suit-then OCI’s-then job offer-then success. That is a fine model, if that’s what you want. But what about the other 75% of the class?

The point of all this is that law students have got to think about success more broadly than good grades=good law student=good life. Here are some other things you might consider emphasizing:

1. Cultivate Good Relationships with Other Students.

I’m not talking about people you can drink with; I’m talking about people that you can lean on for support. This will not happen automatically. You have to be deliberate with relationships. Approach your fellow students with “open hands”—listen to them and share their burdens. If you’ve got a good outline, share it. If you’re got good notes, share them. Invest in the people around you, but don’t be superficial and use people.

If this sounds cheesy, think again. I can attribute much of my post-law-school success to relationships with my peers. I didn’t build those relationships to get ahead, but that is exactly what has happened.

2. Know your professors.

This isn’t as hard as you might think. A lot of what you learn in law school is boring, I’ll admit, but a lot of it is interesting, too. Think about what you’re reading so that you can come up with thoughtful observations about the material. If you’re shy, send an email. Keep abreast of what is going on in the legal world and share any interesting information you find. You can survey most of the important legal blogs in about five minutes each morning, and it is a rare day that there’s not something there to share.

This stuff is easy. Just act like you care (or, better yet, actually care) and let the professor know that you care.

I have multiple former professors who would bend over backwards to write me a glowing recommendation despite the fact that I got average (or below average) grades in their classes. Yes, it is worth it to know your professors.

3. Volunteer with Legal Aid

This is another easy one. Many of the people who have leadership positions within the legal aid organizations in Arkansas are incredibly well-connected. Because they are outside the terror of the billable hour, they are easy to get to know and will remember you.

You should volunteer because it’s the right thing to do—period. It is deeply rewarding experience and will allow you to use what you’ve learned and, hopefully, ignite a passion to take your tools and serve others. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about material success. I can also directly trace many of the profitable opportunities I have had since entering private practice to my service at legal aid.

Takeaway: Do Something!

This list might have been much longer; these are just the three most important non-grade factors that I used to gauge my success as a law school student. Yours may be different, and that is fine. The point is that you’ve got to think more broadly about success and actually do something about it.

Law school is not set up to encourage the students with lower grades to flourish. If you want to flourish, you’ve got to figure out a workaround.