For the second time in less than a month, I bring you a post about grades. However, as I’ve said before, the topic has been a pretty strong under current since starting. So, as I wrap up my 1L experience, I share with you the two things I wish I knew before starting, and the one question we all still have.
Disclaimer: You will not believe a word of this post until after you have finished your first year. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t have either.
Grades are arbitrary.
Ok, so that’s not an entirely true statement. After all, there are people who get straight As. Since most of us (for example, me) don’t get straight As (in fact, we consider ourselves lucky if we get a single A), the students who can get an A in every single class are clearly better at law school than the rest of us. Also they are mutants. So don’t let it bother you.
For us mere mortals, however, there is general agreement that 1L grades appear to be entirely randomly assigned. For first semester, despite putting in pretty uneven amounts of study and effort into my classes, I pulled my best grade in the one class where I did the least amount of work. In part, this may be because I studied the most for the classes I found the hardest, and less for the ones I found more intuitive (read: the ones where the courts just make up the law). So, perhaps, that offers some sort of explanation.
But, other people I know faced the opposite situation, where their “most intuitive” class was their worst grade. Others felt they studied equally for all their classes, yet got very different grades. Some studied equally for all their classes and got three of the exact same grades. Some people who worked way harder than me earned worse grades. Some who studied harder did better. And some, annoyingly enough, barely studied, and put me to shame.
I could go on, but to make a long story short, grades are arbitrary. Beyond the few demi-gods who magically “get-it” and manage across-the-board excellence, there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the whole grading process. This is no consolation, and you won’t believe me until you get your first semester grades, but consider yourself warned.
You will feel exactly the same about your law school grades as you have about every other grade you have ever received.
This one is huge, and something that I wish I would have understood better my first semester. Law school is really not that life changing, and I think most of the myths that surround 1L are due to the self selecting nature of law students as a group. Yes, there are gunners, there are people who view grades as life or death, and there are some people who will give anything for the validation of that A. But those people aren’t that way because of law school; they are that way because it is their personality. It is possible that law schools tend to attract these personality types in greater numbers than the general population, giving rise to the myths, but law school itself will not change you. Really.
For my first semester finals I put myself under a huge amount of stress and worrying, convinced that all the studying would pay off when I got my grades. Then, when I got my grades, I felt… nothing. Not happy, not sad. It probably helped that my grades were good enough that I didn’t have to feel ashamed, but not good enough to really brag. So maybe my lack of reaction was simply a matter of doing well but not great. Yet, all that stress and hard work didn’t suddenly feel justified. If anything, I was pissed that I wasted a whole holiday season as a miserable hermit.
This is not to say that I don’t care about my grades at all. I’ve never failed a class (before or in law school), or even done that badly, and I do study. But I’ve also never cried over a missed A. Law school did not change that.
Realizing that, I took it easier this finals season. As per my first point, I have no idea how this will affect my second semester grades. But, as long as I don’t actually fail any classes (fingers crossed), I think I will be ok with however it turns out in the long run.
So if you are the sort that has always cared about your grades, then you will probably still care. Go work your ass off, and good luck. On the other hand, if you didn’t care before, you are not going to suddenly start caring. No matter what the myths claim. If it’s at all possible, try to remember that and keep stress to a minimum.
Do grades matter?
I’m still not entirely sure on this one. I will say that there are certain career paths where grades definitely matter more than others. Want to clerk for the Supreme Court? Hope to work for a top five law firm? Then you probably want to err on the side of caution, and work like a maniac. Also, for things like Law Review and earning random honors, it is better to be in the top half of the class than the bottom.
On the other hand, if your life goals are more along the lines of politics, public interest, or a private law firm where your employers don’t own your soul, grades seem to matter a lot less. So far, I have not actually had a single situation where my grades were even requested, let alone where I was judged according to them. Yet, at the risk of leading all ten of my readers astray, I want to make it clear that I still have a long way to go until I have graduated and am gainfully employed. I could be wrong. So take this information with a grain of salt.
One thing I will say, though, is that there are other ways to distinguish yourself besides grades. If you are good at debate, there are moot court teams. If you are good at writing, there are legal brief competitions. If you are compelled to volunteer, there are public service awards. Again, I can’t say how these decorations will play out in the long run, but it gives me faith that there is at least a chance that we will be seen as more than a GPA as we progress toward graduation and gainful employment.
So, I thank you for joining me on this long journey of largely unintelligible reflections on the 1L experience. As always, while you prepare for your 1L experience, be sure to keep any questions or comments coming. All in all, I’m just glad to have made it out alive.