Thought on First-Year Law School Grades

[Adapted from previous years– Ed.] Grades are being released at law schools around the country, and I thought I would offer some some comments about grades for our many law student readers (especially 1Ls). I wanted to address two questions: First, how important are first-year grades, and second, are law school grades random?

I’ll start with a few thoughts on the importance of 1L grades. Yes, 1L grades ordinarily are very important in the short term. There are so many law students and so many employers that employers tend to rely on proxies to to determine which law students will make the best attorneys. The most obvious proxies are an applicant’s school and GPA, largely because there isn’t much else to go on when the applicant is only a student. The basic problem is limited information. Employers need an easy way to screen candidates down to a small enough group to interview, and the school/GPA combo is a quick and easy screen. Different employers look for different combos: some employers favor school A over school B, others B over A (generally depending on whether big shots at the firm went to school A or B). And some employers focus more on grades than others. In general, though, the school/GPA combo is used as a sorting mechanism by legal employers hiring people out of law school.

With that said, I suspect that fall 1L exam grades are often less important than people think. This is true for two main reasons. First, lots of people find that their first-semester grades are pretty different from their later semester grades. It takes some students more time than others to get “the game” of how to answer a law school exam question, and when they do their grades go way up. that certainly was true fr me. Second, your law school GPA is less important — and in many cases, completely irrelevant — after your first job. Once you’re out of school for a bit, people care whether you are a good attorney, not your law school GPA.

Finally, it’s important not to let lower-than-expected grades become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Recognize the psychological game going on here: many students expect their fall 1L grades to give them a lightning bolt of insight about their future in the legal profession. Too many students think that grades are destiny, and begin to take steps to readjust their expectations to what they think is their destiny. A student who gets a B+ in Torts and a B in Contracts just might think to herself, “Well, maybe I should practice tort law, because I’m better at that.” Some students react to the sting of lower-than-expected grades by tuning out, by deciding law is dumb, and by concluding that they just aren’t good at it.

I urge students not to take that path. All grades do is measure how well you did relative to your classmates on a few 3-hour exams taken at a particular place at a particular time. They’re a snapshot of the judgment of one particular professor, rather than a Scarlet Letter sewn on for life that reflect your ability in that field. (I say that as someone who earned a B+ in his fall 1L Criminal Law & Procedure course and now teaches and writes in the field.)

Plus, a negative attitude only makes it less likely your grades will improve. If you tune out, you’ll only make it more likely that you won’t do as well as you should next time. My advice is to stick with it: Get your old exams back, review them, and make sure you know what you did wrong. Then have faith in yourself and your smarts that you can improve your grades in the spring.

Okay, on to the next question: Are law school grades random? Many students think so. They usually reach this conclusion after getting back their grades, and finding that they had better grades in the classes they hated and expected to fail than in the classes they loved and expected to ace. There’s no rhyme or reason to these silly letters, the thinking goes.

Not quite. To be sure, grades are at least a little bit random. For example, different professors have different approaches when they grade. Some pore over exams for hours, others read them pretty quickly. Some use a point system that gives you credit for mentioning an argument, others focus more on how skillfully you make the arguments. Some take off points for incorrect answers, others just don’t add any. Some care about how well you write, others don’t. Plus, it is by nature extremely difficult (if not impossible) to turn essay exams into a reliable and objective numerical score that accurately measures legal ability. The process requires judgment, judgment brings discretion, and discretion can be unpredictable.

But there are two important reasons why grades may seem random when they are not. First, in law it’s hard to know how much or how little you know. It’s surprisingly easy to have a false sense of security, or a false sense of insecurity, about an exam. Most law school exam questions are “issue spotters,” and it’s quite hard to gauge how well you answered an issue-spotter. If you miss all of the big difficult issues, you will think that the problem is easy for you and that you totally aced it. If you see all of the big issues, you will think that the problem is impossibly hard and consider yourself a miserable failure for being unable to know for sure how to resolve all of the difficult questions. The more you know, the more you see the difficulties of the problem and the more you know how little you know. Of course, the student who sees all of the hard issues on an exam and grapples with those difficulties gets the highest grade. The student who misses the issues and wrongly thinks the hard questions are easy does poorly.

The second reason grades may seem random is that grades are curved. You are graded not on how well you did in an absolute sense, but rather on how well you did relative to everyone else in your class. This means that your grades won’t necessarily correlate with the quality of your answers: Instead, they correlate with the quality of your answers relative to your classmates. If you totally clicked with crim law, but hated and never understood civ pro, you may get a higher grade in civ pro than crim because lots of other people in the class felt the same way. (And as a crim law prof, I have to say, who can blame them?) Similarly, if the exam in a particular class was unusually hard, you may end up with a top grade in the course simply because you were less lost than most of your classmates. Self-perceptions of performance won’t always match the curve-induced reality.