Wednesday, January 23, 2019
Late January is the time of difficult discussions.
Some students spent fall semester declaring "I'm happy as long as I get C's and can keep in law school;" a larger number (far more than 10% of the class) expected to be in the top ten percent. Quite a few never thought they would care much about their grades, one way or another. Then, suddenly, with the release of first-semester grades, 1Ls start having a different view of themselves and their place in the world. Within days, sometimes even hours, they start defining themselves, and others, in terms of GPA. This is the road to alienation and despair.
Let me be clear. Grades convey a lot of useful information to students, law schools, and potential employers. High grades do indicate that the students who earn them are mastering written legal analysis. Because of this, high GPAs open up more opportunities for those students who earn them, such as federal clerkships and positions at large, prestigious firms. Statistically, top students have higher bar passage rates. And there are obvious consequences to having very low grades -- loss of scholarships, constrained course selections at some schools, statistically lower bar passage rates, and even academic dismissal for extreme low grades.
In contrast to top grades, the message conveyed by lower grades can be complicated to parse. It can range from "You need to pay attention to the call of the question rather than plunging into a non-responsive answer" to "Studying a grand total of seven hours a week isn't cutting it" to "It's hard to do your best during exams when your best friend just got a cancer diagnosis." Because the possible causes of low grades are so varied, academic support professionals spend a lot of time trying to help our students figure out what is keeping them from being more academically successful. Every once in a while, the solution is blindingly simple: the smart but lazy seven-hour a week student pulled out of the danger zone when he doubled his study time; a driven but fearful 1L rocketed to the middle of the class in second semester when she allowed herself to put her books down and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Most often, it takes working on several fronts to effect a lasting change, as we help our students implement multiple time-effective ways of practicing the work that goes into being a lawyer -- making the mental switch from "learning the law" to "doing what a lawyer does."
Through all of this, it's vital that we model the behavior that our students are not defined by their GPAs, so they can believe and act that way too, knowing that the passions and skills our 1Ls brought to law school are part of the package that will make them good lawyers. It's heartbreaking to see top students become so consumed by maintaining their class rank that they lose their intellectual curiosity and spirit of adventure; in pure career terms, it's counterproductive because the hyper-competitive loner can cut him/herself off from success. It's equally heartbreaking to see fourth-quartile students, already working hard to improve their ability to do legal analysis, slide into the slough of despond because they falsely believe they are less valuable and less worthy of respect solely because of a GPA. The small firms that employ over half the American attorneys in private practice are less impressed by GPAs than by passionate, hard-working, and caring people with fundamental skills in problem solving, communication, negotiation, rainmaking, and time management, to name a few. Success comes in many forms: let's help our students celebrate the whole package of what will make them good lawyers.