ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Monday, January 17, 2022

On First Semester Grades

Report Card
Image By Clarence Denman Papers - UTA Libraries Digital Gallery, CC BY 4.0

These are stressful times for first-year law students.  They are getting grades that purport to sum up their performance in their first semester and that some may regard as a predictor of success in the legal profession or even of cognitive fitness for the bar.  There is no denying that first-semester grades are important.  They will open doors for some students, and for others the grades will nudge some doors towards closing, but for almost all students, most doors remain ajar if not wide open.  Our jobs as teachers and our institutions' function as schools is to strive for success for all of our students. 

The students who do well on exams will have an easier time launching their careers, but good grades in law school only take you so far.  Everyone faces challenges, and for most careers, law schools grades don't map very well onto career prospects.  Students should continue to get what they can out of the law school curriculum, but they may need to look for ways to distinguish themselves in ways other than with a high GPA.  Fortunately, law schools offer myriad ways to do so.

Allow me to use myself as an example.  I was a history professor before I went to law school.  I never wanted to practice law.  I wanted to return to teaching, and I thought a J.D. on top of a Ph.D. was a good way to do it.  I had always gotten very high grades, but my first-semester grades were not great -- maybe top third of my class or thereabouts.  I met with my advisor.  He said three things that have stuck with me. 

First he said, "Well, you will never have a tenure-track job at a top-50 law school."  Then, perhaps seeing the look on my face, he added, "These grades aren't bad for someone with a Ph.D."  He then proceeded to, "You will get a teaching job, but it might take a while, and you won't be driving a taxi until then."  At the time, the first comment was devastating.  The absolute last thing I wanted to hear.  It was not long before I came to appreciate that everything he said was exactly right, and I rather quickly regained my equilibrium.  I was grateful for  his honesty and comforted by my confidence in his predictive abilities.  Things turned out pretty much exactly as my advisor predicted.  I will focus on his first and third statements, but I also want to note that my experience is that students who have prior experience, not necessarily Ph.D.'s, but any experience that involves a way of thinking and writing, are at a disadvantage when placed in competition with the receptive tabula rasa of the 22-year-old mind.  Older students, take heart.  Employers know that you have skills that may not translate into high grades in the first year of law school.

I can also say that, in my case, my grades and class standing improved markedly after the first year.  However, to be honest, final exam essays were never my strong suit.  At NYU, I was able to improve my GPA by taking a bunch of seminars.  I knew how to write seminar papers.  At institutions like the unranked law schools at which I have always taught, where students need to take bar-tested subjects throughout all three years of law school, their GPAs should improve steadily, but their class ranks might be more sticky.

I would land a teaching job, and that was the career path I wanted to be on.  It took longer than I hoped (five years), but those five years were extraordinarily helpful in preparing me for teaching.  I gained experience clerking for a judge and working as a litigator that inform my teaching.  I can't imagine teaching without those experiences, even though, at the time, I thought of them as just paying the bills and padding my c.v. until I could rejoin the academy.

There have been adjustments, but I love my professional life.  I cannot imagine the life I would have lived if I had been better at law school in the beginning.  I don't know how I would have withstood the pressures of teaching at an elite law school.  Thoughts of that life unlived do not keep me awake at night.

And so this is my message to students who are disappointed with their grades.  First, the obvious.  You are not your grades.  Your grades are a component of what will determine your career, so you need to take them seriously, but there are plenty of qualities that will be far more important for your career than your grades.  Drive, dedication, the ability to work with others are all important, but the most important thing is to find the things about law that you love doing.  Those will probably end up being the things that you do best.  There will be plenty of opportunities to distinguish yourself in law school, and grades are just one of them.  Also, make friends in law school and go to alumni events.  Connect with people who share your interests, and don't be shy about following up.  You may have to kiss a lot of frogs, but you will find your prince.  

Second, you do not know now what you will find most rewarding about a career in the law.  When my advisor told me I would never have a tenure-track job at a top-50 law school, I was devastated, because I thought my most important contributions in this life would come through scholarship, and I thought I needed to be at a top school so that I would have the environment most conducive to scholarship.  I have now come to conclude that the most important thing I do as a law professor is teach, and I think that is true of most academics, regardless of where they are. 

In the past decade, I have seen senior colleagues bow to economic necessity and take buy-outs.  Many of them came back to teach as adjuncts because they missed the classroom and the connection with students.  I also experienced having my law law school close.  Some of my colleagues have not yet found steady teaching jobs, and I think they all desperately miss it, even if they are making the most of their times back in practice or in retirement.  What they miss is not the rush of being the center of attention.  It is truly a privilege to be able to help people develop into professionals, and it is a joy to watch the incredible progress students make between orientation in 1L year and graduation.  The pandemic also brings home to me how important it is to me to be in the classroom, especially during times like these, when omicron is keeping us all at home.

A law degree opens many doors.  None of us can know enough about what lies behind those doors for it to make any sense to fixate on any door in particular.  As directors tell stage actors: know your character, find your light, and say your lines.  There are things going on all around you that you cannot control, so just focus on doing your job as well as you can.  For now, that means do your reading, show up for class, think about the rulings and start to develop your own take on the law.  Eventually, that will prepare you to use your legal reasoning skills to support yourself, to contribute to your community, and to benefit others.

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