Nothing generates more anxiety than 1L grades. For most students, preparing for class, not missing class, outlining, and studying hard for exams will yield successful results. And, students who do poorly their 1L year usually know exactly why they did.
1L grades aren’t unsettling because good grades are so hard to achieve, but because most students don’t know enough about what 1L grades mean. This post will shed some light on: 1) how grades are determined; 2) why your first year grades are so important, 3) why your school’s reputation matters, and 4) what to do if your 1L grades suck.
This is the source of a lot of the stress surrounding law school grades. In most 1L classes, your entire grade is based on your final exam (which is then curved against your peers). Exams are usually essay tests, with some multiple choice, true/false, or short answer questions thrown in on rare occasion. Some professors also include grades from a midterm exam, or class participation, but this is rare.
Tip: You already know the enemy here—it’s your abusive best friend Procrastination. Keeping up with assignments and outlining will do wonders for your chances of 1L success.
Seminar classes usually determine grades based on a paper or presentation instead of an exam. However, you will take few (if any) seminar classes your first year. Your 1L research and writing class will likely be your only 1L grade determined by writing assignments.
Tip: Because it’s usually worth fewer credits than your final exam-based classes, you’ll be very tempted to blow this class off. DON’T DO IT. Putting effort into your 1st semester writing assignments can set you up to write clear, well-reasoned legal essays quickly (which, incidentally, is exactly what you’ll want to do on your final exams).
Keep your options open. If you don’t know what you want to do after law school, then the best way to keep your options open is by getting good 1L grades. First year grades matter to differing degrees if you are considering any of the following:
- Transferring law schools. If you want to make the jump up in the law school rankings, then 1L grades are the top criteria. You typically need to be in the top 5-10% of your class to make a significant jump.
- Law Review. Journal membership is usually determined by a combination of 1L grades and performance on the write-on competition. Getting on Law Review, the most prestigious journal, typically requires the best combination of the two and is preferred by many law firms (and is almost a requirement for judges looking for clerks and students looking to get into academia).
- Judicial clerkships. Students typically apply for judicial clerkships after their 2L year. Thus, 1L grades are half the battle. The most prestigious clerkships (particularly for federal courts) are highly competitive, and every tenth of a point in your GPA matters. These positions can open up opportunities in private practice and academia.
Job Opportunities. Let’s face it, employers care about grades. Unfortunately, because of the current recruiting system, many of the top firms care only about 1L grades. Here’s a quick list on how grades can affect your job search:
- Your first internship. Your 1L grades likely will be the most important (if not the only) criteria employers will consider when evaluating you for a summer job right after your 1L year. This applies to associate/intern positions at law firms, judicial externships, and internships at nonprofits and governmental organizations.
- Law firm hiring. Most major law firms fill their full-time positions with students that participated in the firm’s summer associate program after their 2L year. Recruiting for these positions, however, occurs at the beginning of the 2L year, leaving 1L grades as the sole metric of academic achievement. Indeed, many prestigious law firms have “hard” GPA cutoffs for hiring law students for their summer positions: the most elite firms like to hire students with a 3.7 or higher, while firms right behind them typically consider students at top law schools with a 3.5 or higher.
- Other job opportunities. Non-firm organizations like nonprofits and governmental agencies aren’t quite as regimented about hiring, but grades are still important. Employment in federal government is a prime example. Positions at government agencies are highly competitive and applicants with experience clerking for a federal judge, which requires a high GPA, are preferred. In short, starting off with high 1L grades is pretty crucial.
Before 2008, attending a top school was enough. Law firms had huge budgets and matching summer classes, so attending a top 20 law school almost guaranteed at least one offer (and usually several).
As you probably know, the legal job market hasn’t truly recovered and may never recover to pre-2008 levels. While many elite firms still concentrate their recruiting at the top law schools, summer classes are much smaller. It’s no longer enough to have a top 20 school on your resume.
3L Recruiting. If you finish your first year sub-par 1L grades, then 3L recruiting can be a viable option. Firms that have unexpected needs or didn’t get all their positions filled through their 2L summer associate programs will look for select 3Ls during on campus interviewing.
This is prime-time for students who did really well their 2L year and want to retest the recruiting waters. But these positions are far less plentiful than 2L summer positions so if you didn’t do well your 1L year, then it’s going to weigh down your GPA. You’ll still have to make up for the numerical gap with killer 2L grades, personality, and more aggressive job hunting tactics (i.e., network your ass off).
There are also many small to mid-sized law firms out there that are looking for good associates, but many of them don’t typically interview on campus. Networking will be your only way into these firms.
You can also maximize your chances of getting a job by looking at certain markets that are less grade-sensitive. While New York, DC, San Francisco, and Boston are very competitive markets from an academic perspective, other smaller markets will provide additional opportunities.
Note, however, that you must have meaningful, genuine ties to whichever market you are targeting. Your geographical ties are probably the second thing employers consider after your grades.
Schools with No 1L Grades. If you attend Yale, Harvard, Stanford, or Berkeley, then you don’t have numerical grades. Instead, you have some combination of “Honors” and “High Honors” with the grading policy at those schools requiring that many (or all!) students receive a “Pass” or some other non-Honors grade. This can make it hard for employers to evaluate a student who received all “Pass” grades; you may have done strong, mediocre, or just barely passable work.
So if you’re worried that having all “Pass” grades means firms will pass you over, here are a couple helpful suggestions to let firms know that you’re a strong candidate: provide letters from your instructors documenting your performance in classes where you have done well; even encourage firms to speak with your professors. Also, highlight journal or moot court participation, and provide writing samples.
Unless you failed every class, probably not. Doing poorly in your first semester shouldn’t be cause for absolute panic. That being said, you need to understand your own financial situation and circumstances. Depending on your options, it may not be a bad decision to get out. If you’re seriously thinking about dropping out, then make sure you talk to your school’s student affairs office.
Remember: You can re-evaluate your study methods and double-down on your effort in the second semester. While a bad GPA in your first semester might hurt your job search, you can recover a lot of ground if you put together a solid second semester.
Tip: Get advice—doing more of the same thing isn’t likely to yield different results. Talk to your professors to find out exactly what you did wrong. Then talk to friends and upperclassmen that did well to find out exactly what they did right.
The path to success starts with preparation.
Maximize your chances of doing well early on by knowing what to expect. Get an insider perspective of your law school from upperclassmen.
Check out our other posts, too. We’ve talked to a lot of top students and can walk you through the best ways to:
It’s also a good idea to pick up some skills before school starts. Our case briefing app can show you how to prep for class and save time when you start getting all those reading assignments.
Bottom line? Your first year matters more than any other year, and you’ll never get a second crack at it. So work hard (and learn how to study smart).
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