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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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  1. Stefi! says:

    You’ve got a point, there, my friend. The law school grading system is baffling at best, and it is definitely misery-inducing.

    However, I think there might be something to grades as far as firms go.

    You’re lucky: you’ve been in the world, you have real experience, and you’re extremely talented, to boot. In other words, you have many things on your resume that could catch the hiring partner’s eye.

    I, on the other hand, have never been out of school. I haven’t worked a “real” job, apart from umpiring and tutoring. I can’t list examples of real-world experience that would prove that I am articulate, organized, and responsible….especially in the legal world.

    However, grades (if they’re good) do prove that a person is able to write clearly enough to succeed on exams and in writing class. Good grades show that person had the dedication to read, take notes, synthesize information, and study his ass off.

    Obviously this seems insane if one person lost a job opportunity because he answered one more multiple choice question wrong than his classmate.
    So yeah…maybe bad grades are a poor reflection of abilities and whether or not they learned. But good grades can be very helpful for someone who hasn’t done anything outside of school.

    …then again, this all deserves a grain of salt, since I’m a total Hermione Granger. =)

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      That’s a really good point Stefi. Having good grades is one way for a person to differentiate themselves from their classmates; however I think it’s given too much weight.

      Even someone like you who does not have real life experience, has one year of law school under your belt. There are many ways a person can make a name for themselves in a year. Besides your GPA, does your resume mention any student organizations, professional organizations, moot court competitions, pro bono work, awards, or blogs you’ve written?

      For people who excel in the classroom and want recognition for it, my idea about all grades being pass/fail includes the option for a school to give honors or gold stars to the students who are in the top 10% in a subject area. That way a student can highlight their achievement in an area of law if they wish.

  2. Brian says:

    “someone always has to be labeled as below average regardless of their performance”

    Hmm.. Someone always has to be labeled as below average because that’s how averages work! Granted, grading curves are only effective on a per-class basis and don’t work out on a national level (i.e. the job market).

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      I’m not convinced that this has to be situation where we take an average based on the curve. When I was in my masters program, all of us who learned the material earned an A. The point in that program was for us to learn the material so we could be proficient in our profession, not to make us compete against each other to see who could do something .01% better.

  3. todd says:

    Excellent post on the law profession. I agree with your post in that law grades dont justify performance. In the current economy, the career market in law is competitive. To find the right career path and to get an advantage for getting hired it helps to have access to the right information. While I admit I work for Vault, I must say they have an extremely useful listing of law firm salary opportunities including exclusive insider information. A lot of their information is available for free. Of course, with a Gold membership you can also get detailed reports and reviews on employers and schools. I Hope this gives you more insight. Do you guys know any other resources that do what Vault does?

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      I just learned about The Vault last week. I was surprised that that I had not previously heard about this wonderful resource.

  4. Addy says:

    I wish I had the balls to avoid looking at my grades.

    1. Ruthie says:

      Maybe you do. You won’t know unless you try.

  5. A.J. says:

    I have a couple of theories about the grading system. You addressed one of them, which is the curve is mainly for the benefit of BigLaw firms. If graduating classes were front-loaded with straight-A students, it makes it that much harder to find the “cream of the crop” as it were.

    My other theory is that the curve fosters competition. For those who care about grades, especially at top tier schools (think future BigLaw careerists), the curve creates an intensely competitive environment where everyone knows only a handful of students will get an A. I suppose you could say it helps the cream rise to the top.

    Personally, I have to keep a 3.0 GPA to keep my scholarship, which is important to me. So I do have some stress about grades with the pressure to keep my scholarship. So do I care about grades? Yes and no.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      I absolutely agree that the curve can foster competition, but when you’re dealing with a lot of really smart people, the difference between the top of the class and the middle of the pack is often negligible. I think everyone who does A quality work should get an A in the class.

      Good luck with starting law school! I love the color coded schedule on your blog.

      1. A.J. says:

        I think you’re right. It is just a theory, but again, it would benefit BigLaw only as well. For the rest of us, it doesn’t matter. And it does seem fundamentally unfair to be doing A-quality work and yet stressing about whether you’ll even make the curve.

        1. Ruth Carter says:

          I had a conversation with my school’s career services office today to discuss how I’m going to deal potential employers who ask about my grades and applying for clerkships. For the clerkship application, it asked for my rank and I had to mark “I am not ranked” since I don’t know what my rank is. We discussed ways to inform judges who want clerks about my view on grades and what skills I have to offer them (which is what really matters anyway).

          I wish the law school environment was more accepting of students who don’t want to work for a big firm and aren’t into that hyper competitiveness to see who can perform .000001% better than everyone else.

  6. Amanda says:

    I love it! Not looking at grades is such a great idea. I don’t have my GPA or class rank on my resume either. My law school send out an email that gives you your class rank…whether you’re interested or not. It’s truly awful.

    I appreciate that some firms post there arbitrary cut off percentages…it tells me that they aren’t the kind of place I want to work for.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      I would be so angry if my school told me my GPA or rank. My thought is if someone wants to know my rank, I’m sure the school will be happy to provide it.

      When it comes to firms that have arbitrary cut-offs, I assume they do it to cut down on the number of applicants. Most places that I’ve seen doing this are large firms which tend not to be a places where I am best suited. However if there was an awesome job that had this arbitrary cut off, I’d call them up and explain my situation or just apply with an explanation that I don’t know my rank. The worst thing they could do is not extend me an interview.

  7. Alex says:

    I love you. I have nothing to add, we are soul mates in our law school view.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      Thanks Alex! Best of luck to you!

  8. Jennifer says:

    Don’t know how I ran across your blog, but I have found it entertaining – in a good way. I agree with your position on grades, grading curves, and class ranks….and would take it a step further to include law school tier rankings. I graduated many moons ago from a private law school in California. I am an Arizona native, but wanted/needed to get away for a bit and with the enticement of a generous scholarship….my husband and I moved to Cali for three years. My school had a mandatory fail rate of 50%…which meant that although we had approximately 200 1Ls our first year, at least 100 of these people would fail out of law school (after paying their $25k per year). Luckily this did not happen to me. Our curve was also very strict, with 94 being the highest percentage one could earn. When some of my friends transferred from my law school to other state (1st tier schools), their grades dramatically increased. What would be considered a solid B at our school, was an A at a higher ranked school (which made little sense to me). I graduated high in my class, but wonder had I transferred would I have been that “cream of the crop.” After graduating law school, I sat for the CA bar exam (requirement for my scholarship) and passed it. We moved back to AZ and I tried to get a job….and learned the horror of the 4th tier law school. Although my law school had better bar passage rates than higher ranked schools such as Stanford, the larger law firms were not interested in students who went to schools ranked lower than 1st tier schools. Now, many years later, I laugh at the fact that I have out-smarted and out-lawyered many other lawyers (even those in large law firms) that attended 1st tier schools, graduated the top of their class, and worked for the “best” law firms (and have several more years on me). So do grades, test scores, or what school we attended dictate what kind of lawyer we are going to be — absolutely not.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      Thanks for your note Jennifer! I don’t put a lot of energy into school ranks either. Most of that is out of a student’s individual control. I also read an article recently that said people who were middle of the pack did better professionally than their top-tier, higher class ranked peers, likely because they knew coming in the door that they had to prove themselves.