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June 22nd, 2010:

Law School: My Grades Can’t Tell You Who I Am

Law school grades baffle me. I don’t understand the purpose of the “forced curve.” If a class has more than 20 students, the professor can only give a limited number of A’s and must give a certain number of C’s. The difference between the best and worst student in a class could be 5 points, and the professor would still be required to adhere to this grading system. Therefore, law school grades give no indication of what a student actually learned. Apparently many industries operate this way, where someone always has to be labeled as below average regardless of their performance. This makes no sense.

When I realized that this was how the school operated, I stopped checking my grades. I cannot tell you what my GPA and class rank are. This has lowered my stress level considerably and made me a happier person. Ignoring my grades keeps me focused on developing my skills and learning about the law as I hope it will apply to my career. The only thing I do at the end of the semester is check with the assistant dean to verify that I passed all my classes.

I have been lucky to have six different jobs, internships, and externships in my short legal career thus far. Each position has been unique, yet they all required similar skills:

  • Thoughtful, concise writing
  • Research skills
  • Good listening and communication skills
  • Professionalism
  • Dedication
  • Determination
  • Knowing when to ask for help

A person’s GPA, class rank, or grade in a particular class can’t tell you whether they possess any of these skills. Given that most legal jobs require these skills, most applicants will have them. It seems what matters most is finding the applicant who is the right fit for the company.

I get frustrated with the legal profession when I see job postings where firms only want applicants who are in the top 25% of their class. What if the ideal applicant is in the top 26%? The firm just shot itself in the foot. I have heard that hiring partners put these arbitrary limits in job postings so that they are not bombarded with dozens, if not hundreds, of applications, but I would think that that would be a good thing. When I see firms limiting themselves in this way, I worry that they are pretentious, that they are too busy or lazy to find the person who will be the best fit for the job, or that they don’t care about the other qualities an applicant can offer.

If you don’t know my grades, I have to give you a reason to look twice at my resume. The pressure is on me to set myself apart from the other applicants. Perhaps my involvement in student organizations will suggest that I can take on a leadership role. My community involvement outside the law school will tell you that having a work-life balance is important to me, or maybe it will speak to my abilities to prioritize and manage my time, or that I intend to stay in the area after graduation. The quote from my cover letter might suggest that I’m a great big geek and a confident genuine person.

Perhaps that’s the real message here: law students aren’t numbers, we’re people. If you have to evaluate us, use a system that gives you the information you need, not an arbitrary system that doesn’t even tell you how we inherently performed in our classes.

EDIT (added July 23, 2010): To anyone who is reading this because they are wondering if they have to put their law school GPA on their resume – my GPA is not on my resume and it has not kept me from getting interviews for the jobs I’ve wanted.  If the interviewer wants to know your GPA, they will ask.

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