Advice for Second-Year Law Students:

A reader writes: "How about offering some advice for second year law students--not making a journal, with mediocre grades, at a respected but not elite law school? I am somewhat amazed by my grades coming out of this year and little concerned that I made a poor decision."

My advice is, first, don't despair. I know many students who had mediocre grades their first-year, and wound up doing much better the rest of their law school careers. One student I recall was in the top 45% first year, but wound up in the top 15%. Many of the students who did well first-year will coast. Most of the students who had mediocre greats will be discouraged, and will reduce their effort. This gives you the opportunity to continue to work hard and get excellent grades against weaker competition.

Second, don't waste a lot of time on a secondary law review. Raising your GPA is likely to have a much greater positive impact on your career prospects than being Articles Editor for the Podunk Law School Journal of I Want to Have Law Review on My Resume. A potential exception is when the specific subject matter of the journal is directly related to your career goal.

Third, and most important, make an appointment with each of your first-year professors to go over your exams with them. DON'T look at this as an opportunity to dispute the professors' interpretation of the answers, to argue about your grade, or to carry out revenge fantasies. Do listen, attentively, and also take notes, as your professor explains what was deficient about your exam, and how it could have been improved. If the professors will let you, tape record the conversations. Most likely, common themes will become apparent (you didn't relate the facts of the question to the law, you gave a lengthy treatise providing both sides of the issue, but you never discussed which side you think is more persuasive in this context and why, so I couldn't give you full credit and so on). Then, make sure you don't repeat the same mistakes in December.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More Advice for Second-Year Law Students.--
  2. Advice for Second-Year Law Students:
I agree with all of David's excellent advice. On a personal note, I will disclose that I got my first (and only) C's ever in my first year of law school. It was initially quite devastating to me, and my poor first year grades definitely impaired my ability to get a lucrative summer clerkship. It all worked out fine, though. I volunteered with the state AG office instead of working in a firm, and probably had a much better and more valuable summer experience than my colleagues with paying firm gigs. Somewhere along the way I figured it out, and got mostly A's through the 2nd and 3rd years. I ended up graduating with a quite respectable GPA and class rank, and I've gone on to a reasonably successful career. So far, no one has ever asked me about my poor first year grades, and I'm willing to bet they never will.

One more thought -- it's much better to have poor grades at first, and show improvement in years two and three, than it is to start strong and fade. Don't sweat it.
8.24.2006 12:22pm
I got pretty decent grades my second year (top 25% at CLS), and decided to try even harder my second year (thinking it would be easier b/c other people were coasting) to make Kent scholar (top 2%). Despite my effort, I ended up doing worse and finished just inside the top 1/3. Am I getting stupider?
8.24.2006 12:48pm
1. Take easy classes (if you are really concerned about boosting gpa).

2. Network like a maniac.

Having shared a similar experience, the reader is most likely ruled out from getting a job at a firm looking for top 10%, and I think grades are far less important to the rest of the law firms. Spend time finding a job that will provide good work experience. Incidentally, a good job will polish your writing skills, and better writing skills translate into better grades. Also somewhat incidentally, my law school grades bore a perfectly negative correlation to the amount of work I put into the semester. No joke- the harder I tried the worse I did. So I did myself a favor a while ago by not worrying about my grades.
8.24.2006 12:49pm
I forgot to comment on your "Articles Editor for the Podunk Law School Journal" comment. While you shouldn't spend a ton of time on this, you should still do it. For a minimal time commitment you can become Editor of a secondary journal. I am the Managing Editor of a secondary journal, and I barely did anything for it my second year. This is a great line on your resume if you want to clerk. Also, its easier to get published if you're on a journal.
8.24.2006 12:51pm
Confused 2L:
Here's a question: I'm a 2L at a top twenty school. My grades are good, and I wrote on to our main law review. I'm not commited yet, because I haven't paid my membership dues, which have to be turned in by next Monday. I'm looking at the time commitments-- lots of hours cite checking, and a note of 'publishable quality'-- and it's clear that I'm going to be spending a lot of time on this, all for one line on my resume. Is it *really* worth it? It seems likely that my GPA is going to take a hit as a result, and that's a lot of hours. How much difference does it actually make in employment?
8.24.2006 1:16pm
Ming the Merciless Siamese Cat (mail):
As someone who interviews a lot of law students -- excellent advice, especially with respect to meeting with professors. I would add that, while a student in this position shouldn't dispair, he really should sit down and seriously consider whether continuing law school and practicing law is what he wants to do. This is particularly true if one is attending a second or third tier law school and/or borrowing significantly to finance one's eduction. Prof. Bernstein's advice may not lead to higher grades, in which case employment prospects are likely to be somewhat limited. You may not cut out for law. Think about it long and hard -- it's far better to pull the plug early than conclude, 5 years and $50,000 in debt later, that you hate a mediocre legal job you aren't very good at.

In the course of this soul searching, consider the feedback you received in your meetings with your professors. The explanation for your less than stellar performance is likely to be one of three things:

1. You simply didn't know the material well enough.

2. You didn't address the questions properly (e.g., not relating the facts of the question to the law, providing lengthy treatise on both sides of the issue, but not taking a side).

3. You didn't spot legal issues or provided poor legal analysis.

One and two are fixable. Three likely is not and may indicate a lack of legal aptitude.

As for the secondary law review, I'd advise joining it (even the Podunk Law School Journal of I Want to Have Law Review on My Resume looks better than nothing and saves explaining to an interviewer that, no, you aren't too lazy and unmotivated to even make the effort) then doing the minimum amount of work necessary to stay on, focusing instead on grades.
8.24.2006 1:18pm
Depends on what your career goals are. If you want to work at a private firm, networking is key if you can't get in through the 2L summer process. Think of things with a long term view: look to start at X, with the potential to move to Y (which opens up doors at Z). I work at a rather large firm where a number of the laterals went this route.

(BTW: Get as much advice as you can from people who have had non-accademic careers. The paths are not very similar, imho, and the skills needed [to get a job or to produce legal work] are only similar at the margins.)
8.24.2006 1:21pm
Crunchy Frog:
But revenge fantaises are so much fun!
8.24.2006 1:24pm
Is there a good definition of what a "secondary law review" is?
8.24.2006 1:26pm
Ming the Merciless Siamese Cat (mail):
Confused 2L:

The answer to your question is "Yes. It is really worth it." Indeed, not joining would likely be a big mistake.

Hypothetical: I am interviewing you this year for a summer position. I will immediately note the lack of law review on your resume. I will ask you about it. The fact you qualified but declined is going to raise far more questions for me than had you not qualified at all.

How will you explain your decision?

A response that you did not want to invest the time required is NOT going to get you a call back.

An explanation that you were worried about your grades suffering, is not going to get you a call back -- after all, your peers, who you are competing with, have joined law review, so I will rightly discount your gpa (sans law review) when comparing it to theirs.

A role of a junior associate is to take on enormous amounts of work while learning new skills. Anything (like eschewing law review) that calls into question your ability and/or willingness to do that is a HUGE negative.

Finally, although it doesn't seem so at the time, law review really does teach some useful skills.
8.24.2006 1:32pm

Law reviews can be a lot of work, but you have a bit more time on your hands as a 2L because you "get" law school by this point, particularly so if you have good grades.
Also, I don't mean to be cynical, but Law Reviews have essentially no oversight. At my school we almost kicked someone off of the journal for doing absolutely nothing, and he wound up doing some minor makeup work to avoid being kicked off. I say this just to note that if law review is interfering with studying, it's time to slack on law review. Grades are everything in law school (at least for those on the traditional track).

8.24.2006 1:39pm
Steveo987 (mail):
Is there a good definition of what a "secondary law review" is?
Yes. Anything that isn't the "[School] Law Review," "[School] Law Journal" or "[School] Law Quarterly." If the journal name includes a specialty area, it's really just "Junior Varsity Law Review."
8.24.2006 1:54pm
James Ellis (mail):
David's advice is great. My lowest grades in law school were first semester of first year. They improved each semester all the way to the end of year three. There is always room for improvement.

Assuming that you're going to class every day, doing the reading and trying to digest the material, the thing I would add in year 2 is practice exams. Take them again and again. Take the same ones repeatedly if you have to. Read the model answers, and do this for other professors teaching the same class, or at other law schools if you can. Learn how to write a model answer. Do it until you get it right, with no time limits. Then, start working within the time constraints of your exam. Practice makes perfect.

Look at it this way: you go to lectures three or four hours a week that teach you to analyze the distinguishing factors of various fastballs, curveballs, sliders and knuckleballs. Then the day of the final comes, and you find yourself in the batter's box with the clock running and your professor rapid firing pitches at you.

You can't possibly expect to hit the ball if you haven't been going to the batting cages.

It always comes as quite a shock to the bright law students that you don't score many exam points for your perfect description of the pitch you just failed to hit.

The other advice I would give a 2L is to start specializing. Seek out classes and areas of the law that really interest you. Maybe take clinical classes that give you hands on experience. This can lead you toward niche firms or boutiques that don't typically recruit from the same pool as the bigger full-service firms. Also, if you do interview at those big firms, you'll have more defined interests and lots more to say. My experience at a large downtown LA firm was that the corporate and litigation departments tried to coopt every recruit, so when somebody came in with a real interest in real estate, environmental, employment, bankruptcy, etc., the attorneys in those departments got pretty excited.
8.24.2006 2:08pm
James Lindgren (mail):
Some of the comments here have added excellent advice.

For my own suggestions, you might look at my post: "More Advice for Second-Year Law Students."

Jim Lindgren
8.24.2006 2:18pm
Confused 2L:

I'll likely be in the minority here, but I don't think law review is the end all be all. I attended a top 20 school, didn't do law review, finished top in the class (possibly because I didn't have to deal with law review, but who knows), interned with the White House Counsel's office, had a federal appellate clerkship, and am now at DOJ. Honestly, I don't remember anyone ever asking about it, except for the judge I was hired by: my answer was that I felt I could get good experience taking more seminars where I was able to write papers, and by doing internships that also permitted paper writing.

Having said that, your experience may be different since you would, if asked, have to explain being invited and declining. I would also point out that I have never pursued working in a firm, where, I agree, partners seem to take more interest in law review. So, at the end of the day, it may come down to your intended career path.
8.24.2006 2:21pm
As for normal 2Ls- take smaller sized classes, including seminars. Seminars let you work on research and writing, and about topics that interest you instead of the scripted 1L program. Smaller class sizes, for me, were just a more comfortable environment after being stuck in 95 person sections my first year. Smaller classes also permit better interaction with professors.

I'd also look into internship opportunities- valuable experience, but also valuable network tools, particularly if you're fearful you're grades are not top-level.

In terms of studying, my habits were awful, so I won't offer any suggestions, other than to try to mix 2-3 exam classes with 2-3 paper classes so that finals week doesn't seem as daunting.
8.24.2006 2:24pm
To Ming the cat: If a student gets asked "Why didn't you do law review, or any journal at your school?" in a law firm / clerkship / whatever interview, it's perfectly reasonable to say "I wanted to devote the time instead to: [independent research and writing / clinical work / teaching undergrad classes / etc.] " However, if you just say "I didn't feel like investing the time", I agree, that sounds lame.
8.24.2006 4:13pm
DaveN (mail):
My first year of law school, I had the distinction of getting one of every possible grade, from A to C (1 A, 1 A-, 1 B+, etc.). As a result, I was in the exact middle of my law school class at the end of my first year.

In large part, those grades reflected two things: 1) "figuring out" law school; and 2) working 3/4 time in a non-law related job. I realize my law school wanted me to be a full-time student, but my family also wanted food on the table and shelter over our heads, so it wasn't a matter of having much choice.

By the time I graduated, I was somewhere in the top 15% of my class (though I have no idea exactly where, since my law school did not give class rankings, but did use bar graphs to show the number of students within a certain range--and then it was merely a matter of arithmetic).

My grades were such that for the last two years. for 3 out of 4 semesters I was in the top 10% of my class, and received the AmJur award in Remedies for having the top grade in my class (I received the only A given).

I was not on law review, but I was on the staff of the "secondary" journal as a 2L and Executive Editor as a 3L--where I learned to appreciate good writing and editing much more than I ever had in the abysmally taught Legal Writing and Reseearch class.

As a side note, legal writing and research are what attorneys do most, so it is mystifying that law schools leave the bulk of this necessary training to typically incompetent 3Ls. I have always wondered why this is so--but the disdain law schools show toward legal writing is amply demonstrated in the AWFUL legal writing to which I am constantly exposed.

But most important, as a 2L I learned to relax and go with the flow. My wife accompanied me the begining of the year mixers all three years and could readily spot who was a 1L, a 2L and a 3L, even though she was not around the law school much and I did not socialize with my classmtes:

The first year students looked scared; the second year students were engaged in passionate (though pointless) discussions of obscure legal issues; and the third year students appeared to be looking for a few beers and a chance to relax.

So bottom line: Relax, have fun, and take a class or a clinic because it looks interesting. Remember, good or bad, unless you become a law professor, once you are done you are probably done with law school forever.
8.24.2006 5:48pm
Ming the Merciless Siamese Cat (mail):

From my perspective as an interviewer, I'd rather see law review on a resume than any of your proposed alternative explantions. Teaching undergraduates as an excuse for not pursuing law review is not going to sway me at all. Indeed, it calls into question the student's commitment to being a lawyer and teaches him nothing that is going to be useful to my firm. Clinical work is almost as unlikely to sway me bacause: (i) I don't think it teaches skills I need in my junior associates and (ii) much of what students do learn in a clinical program I will have to reteach, because big law firm practice is quite different. Besides, I see plenty of applicants with both law review and clinical experience on their resume, so it's a false choice.

As to independent research and writing, if that's a student's explanation, I'd expect the student to be able to show me a significant published article, otherwise, again, I'm unlikely to take that explanation seriously.

In short, I don't expect an interviewee to answer my question as to why he blew off law review with an admission that he's lazy. However, I'm going to assume some variation of that to be the case, unless he can provide me with a very good alternative explanation, supported by solid evidence. That may not be fair, but I've got many times more applicants than I can hire, they all have impressive resumes and I have only a limited time to talk with each one. At the initial stage I'm as much looking for reasons to axe names as I am for stand outs. Blowing off law review gives me a very good excuse to toss one in the discard pile -- hell, if he can't multi-task and handle what passes for a brutal law school schedule, there's no way you can handle what a top law firm has planned for him.
8.24.2006 9:33pm
I also posted on Lindgren's thread, but I just wanted to cast my vote here for the idea that getting a good editorial position on a secondary journal can be helpful, at least for clerkships. Of course, if you view it as a tradeoff with grades, then it is a more complicated issue. But if you can multi-task and both improve your grades and handle an editorial position, then I think it can be worth it. And basically, that is because at least some people (judges, other employers, and so on) think it represents something valuable, so even if some don't, you have improved your average standing.

Finally, just to give one random example: Cass Sunstein was not on LR, but rather was Executive Editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. Of course, that is one of the most famous secondary journals around (arguably THE most famous), but still.
8.25.2006 8:39am
Good advice all of it. I finished first year at the 51% mark, and passed half of those ahead of me during my 2nd year so it's definitely possible. One more year to go, I think I'll catch a few more yet.
8.25.2006 11:57am
Federal Dog:
"1. Take easy classes (if you are really concerned about boosting gpa)."

This is pretty dangerous. I knew several people who were desperate to raise their grades, and therefore took the easiest courses available and courses where there was no final exam (only a paper that could be repeatedly rewritten before being graded). Not one of them ever passed the Bar because they simply lacked the rigorous training and experience answering questions that students who had taken more challenging coursework had. The funny thing was that at least two of them raised their GPAs enough to graduate with honors. Despite that fact, they still couldn't pass the Bar and never did gain admittance to practice. They made the school look like a real dive.
8.25.2006 4:14pm