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A Few Thoughts on First-Year Law School Grades:
'Tis the season in which law school grades are announced, which means that tens of thousands of law students around the country are trying to figure out what their grades mean. The VC has a lot of law student readers, so I thought some comments about grades from the other side of the podium might be helpful. In particular, I wanted to address two questions that I suspect are on the minds of lots of law students: First, how important are first-year grades, and second, are law school grades random? Both are big topics that are hard to cover well in a blog post, but I'll at least try to touch on a few ideas and hope an incomplete answer is better than no answer at all.

  I'll start with a few thoughts on the importance of law school grades. Yes, 1L grades are important in the short term. There are so many law students and so many employers out there 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, in part 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 many legal employers hiring people out of law school.

  With that said, fall 1L exam grades are less important than most people think. This is true for a couple of 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. Second, your law school GPA is much 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. Third, the fact that a) judges are hiring clerks later, and b) law review at most schools is becoming less grade-based and more write-on based is tending to make 1L fall grades less important than they used to be. If law review at your school is based on a write-on competition, your grades don't matter for it; and if judges are hiring clerks based on more than their 1L grades, your 1L grades are comparatively less important than they used to be.

  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. Grades don't do that, though: all they can 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. Too many students think that grades are destiny, and begin to take steps to readjust their expectations to what they think is their destiny. 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. The problem is that it's just this kind of attitude that makes it less likely your grades will improve; by tuning 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; the profs must just throw them down the stairs and see where they land.

  Not quite. To be sure, 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. Given these differences, and the great difficulty (if not impossibility) of turning essay exams into a reliable and precise numerical score, some amount of the process will seem and in some cases be a bit random. 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 a course or an exam. Consider exams. 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 aced it. If you see all of the big issues, you will think that the problem is impossibly hard and consider yourself a 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. The same goes for courses, too: the more you understand an area of law, the harder it seems to be. Of course, the student who sees all of the hard issues in a course and on an exam and grapples with those difficulties gets a high grade; the student who misses the issues and wrongly thinks the hard questions are easy does not.

  The second reason grades may seem random when they are not is that grades are almost always 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 grade won't necessarily correlate to how much you knew, or how well you answered the questions on the exam. 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 spent way more time mastering crim law than studying civ pro. (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 on the exam than most of your classmates. Again, perceptions of your performance won't always match the curve-induced reality.

  Anyway, I hope this helps. I have enabled comments, in case others have additional thoughts.

Phillip Carter (mail) (www):
Orin-
Thanks for posting those thoughts from your side of the podium. As a recent escapee... err... graduate of law school, I think they provide a lot of insight.

I'd like to add my perspective regarding the psychological game of law school grades, and the need to prevent 1st semester grades from becoming a self-fulfilling process. I earned slightly below-average grades in my first semester at UCLA Law, based on what I know of the school's mean GPA. I attribute this to not practicing law school exams beforehand, and to not playing the exam game well enough. But I then engaged in a detailed "after action review", much as I did in the Army after any training exercise, to see what went wrong. I identified my shortcomings, fixed them, and did substantially better (a .4 increase in GPA) during my second semester. In the end, I secured the job I wanted, and I now look back on the first semester as a fantastic learning experience, notwithstanding my grades.

There is also substantial risk for any law student who does too well his/her first semester, and fails to learn the appropriate lessons from that good performance. In the curved-law-school-grade game, performance is all relative. If you become complacent, or you think your study methods are sufficient when in fact you're really just lucky, then you can easily find yourself on the other side of the grading curve in just one semester. This is especially true for 1Ls because you tend to compete against the same section pool during both semesters of the 1L year (at most schools I know, at least). It's especially important for students with good grades to identify the reasons they got good grades, and to seek even more improvement. As the business gurus say, if you're not getting better all the time, you're falling behind.

--Phil
1.28.2005 1:19pm
Crime & Federalism (mail) (www):
OK wrote: "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."

Yup - and exam writing is a game. Despite my studying long and hard, my 1L grades put me somewhere in the bottom 1/3 of my class. I didn't give up and ended up earning the top score in four classes (including an unprecedented "100" in con law) and numerous other very good grades. But it's better to learn the game very early. Even though I did well during 2L and 3L, my overall class rank is unremarkable.

For me, using "Law in a Flash" (or whatever they're called) helped tremendously. I would read the flashcard and then type out my answer in IRAC form. Since the flashcards would frame their answers using IRAC, I could see my essay skills improve.

When I did every flashcard once (and important cards, e.g., piercing the corporate veil for corps, multiple times), I never missed an issue on an exam.
1.28.2005 1:21pm
Dirtyfingers (mail):
During my 1l first semester exams I wrote answers in a free-form manner and got decent grades but wanted better grades. So after that I started writing them in the IRAC or IRAAC method, and my grades generally suffered after that, no matter how well I knew a subject. By my third year I said screw it, I'm going back to the free-form method, and my grades improved substantially.
1.28.2005 1:50pm
Lance McCord (mail) (www):
Law school grades can also seem random because of the nature of law school grading. The complete absence of formative assessment in most classes means the student's "how'm I doin'" questions will be answered elsewhere - usually by the non-representative subset of peers which which the student associates with. Also, reliance on a single test necessarily make extra-academic factors (family and social circumstances, physical and mental health variations, etc.) more important than they need to be. Can anyone point me to a good defense of why law schools treat us (students) this way?
1.28.2005 1:52pm
New Chicago Lawyer:
I would add that the legal job search process is much more random, in my view, than law school grades. As Orin says, many firms value School A over B because the big shot partners attended A, and partially or wholly without regard to the quality of the individual applicant. This school snobbery is widespread, and fairly indefensible, but used as a cheap proxy for legal ability, whether accurate or not. It can really be an uphill battle to find a good job in a bad economic year, if you (like me) had excellent grades but attended a good, but not top 20 or so school. Is there really likely to be a qualitative difference between, for example, students at the very top of the class at NYU versus at Wisconsin? I don't think so, but you can easily predict which one is more likely to get hired at Cravath or Wachtell. Some unfairness is part and parcel of a massive decentralized economy. My advice to the law student disconsolate about grades or job offers is to not take it too personally and not give up hope.
1.28.2005 2:14pm
ardbeg78:
While I tend to agree with your comments generally, and appreciate your insights as to factors involved in grading, I can not emphasize enough how important first year grades are to obtaining a job in a large firm practice. As you described, although first year grades are not meaningful in a substantive way, they do provide a useful screen to differentiate among candidates of otherwise equal abilities. I have sat on employment committees at two large firms and they do use grades as a determining factor, all other things being equal. Your comment regarding the long term is true; after you have put in about 2 years in practice, no one looks at your grades anymore, but it is also important to remember that it is virtually impossible to enter large firm practice if you are not lateralling in from another large firm. My experience is that it just doesn't happen with any frequency worth reporting. Accordingly, even if one wants to spend a short time in such a practice before moving to a small firm or to one's own practice, the first job is crucial to open up other opportunities, and therefore first year grades assume an importance out of proportion to their intrinsic value. I am not defending the system or saying that it's fair (it isn't), I just want students to take a realistic view of how the short term summer job can affect long term practice options.
1.28.2005 2:15pm
LizardBreath (mail):
I don't have the same broad overview of the system that you probably do, but from my perspective (law firm associate, class of '99) grades are still very important. Even in write-on law reviews, grades are still usually a major element, as far as I know, and not being on law review comes very close to closing off some career options — academia, prestigious clerkships, etc. Further, I just changed jobs a month ago. Every firm I interviewed with wanted a transcript. Maybe grades don't matter after you're a decade out of law school, but at the associate stage of your career, they do.

I have a maddening story in this regard: the old firm I worked at had a summer associate last year who was wonderful. We had a big trial, with all the attendant craziness and she worked like a dog, put in the twenty-hour days, and was doing useful work at the level of a third-year associate. She did some part-time work for us in the autumn, so I kept up with her job hunt. For some reason her grades, at a good but non-elite law school, were terrible — lots of B minuses, and a C or two. (She had problems with her mother being ill and having to do a lot of caretaking of her teenage siblings). I don't know how she's going to find a job — despite the recommendations we wrote her, saying that she glows in the dark she's so good, no one has yet offered her an interview after a couple of mass mailings.

Even despite the (literally) spectacular quality of her actual work, even my old firm isn't thinking about hiring her on a level basis with the rest of its associates — they're considering offering her a job for about half of what they'd pay someone from a better school with better grades.

Now, she's a freak case, in that I really can't reconcile her grades with her work product — I don't understand how she could have done so badly — but even a firm that has directly experienced the quality of her work is going to be ruled by the grades rather than the work when offering her a job.
1.28.2005 2:21pm
CRL (mail):
Your post was interesting. It would have been more useful a few years ago when I was just starting law school. I do have to disagree with you on one point. Some Profs are random with their grading. It didn't happen often, but on a few occasions, I had a few professors who could not explain how or why they graded the way they did.

I would like to add to what Dirty Fingers said above: I also had more success when I dropped the strict CRAC/IRAC method. My Ad Law Prof wrote a book on CRAC; I followed it religiously for his exam and got an A. However, I suffered average grades in a few other classes. Finally, by my third year, depending on the Prof, I went to big time issue spotting and a loose form of CRAC/IRAC (free writing if you will) and made the Dean’s List both semesters. I kicked myself for adhering to the so called “rules” of proper test taking.

For my wills and trusts class (4 hour exam), I had a three page single spaced fact pattern. I didn’t even follow the call of the question. Rather, I wrote about every issue in order from the first paragraph to the last. I got an A. The only reason I did it this way was because I had this professor before and realized the “conventional” way did not work.. Looking back, I think by writing about each issue in order, I was writing along with the grading sheet.

This is a fabulous blog. Keep it up!!!


Regards

CRL
1.28.2005 2:28pm
Kelly:
This is a very informative post - and students would benefit from hearing this information BEFORE exams. I would also agree with the other comments that first semester grades may actually be more important than other semesters' grades, because they are critical in securing summer employment. A 1L summer law firm will only have the first semester grades and a 2L summer firm will only have the grades from the first year. Of course, summers are asked to send firms their grades as they become available, but I can't even remember sending grades to my current firm (3rd year assoc) once I graduated. Students with poor first semester grades can often explain that they were getting used to the law school exam, but that explanation can only go so far when there are so few grades and other factors upon which to judge summer associate and new grad applicants.

Thanks for the insight!
1.28.2005 2:44pm
jkh, nom de plume:
From my perspective (as a gw student) it seems that most law school essay exams get graded on a point system that goes something like this - you get a "point" for every issue that you bring up, and often a "point" for citing cases. To get a good score, you have to get more "points" than your classmates. To get more "points," you have to cite more issues and more cases. Also, most professors don't deduct points for incorrect responses, they just ignore them.

I spent my first year at GW trying to write well, trying to really "learn" the material, and I didn't get a single "A." My second year, in contrast, I didn't do much reading and I approached the exam with a "get more points" mentality - before the exam, I would go over old exams and construct detailed lists of "points" to hit on for each topic, and would try my best to find a case to cite for each. During the exam, I was barely thinking at all - instead, I was simply copying down items from my note sheet. The result: My grades dramatically improved, and I scored lower than A- in only 2 classes the entire year.

Ironic, really, since I feel like I know a lot more from my first year classes than I do from my second.

Law professors often say that their exams test your ability to "think," and in most cases I think that's dead wrong. Not that I'm saying that reasoning ability isn't necessary to do well on an exam, but it stands to reason that at any particular law school the students are going to be equally skilled in the 'ability to think' arena. These tests aren't ferreting out the "best thinkers."

Given a particular subject, there are only so many things that you can test on. It's easy enough to spend time constructing a roadmap for almost any type of question. As I said, I've done it. It wasn't until I gave up trying to "think" on exams and spent more time regurgitating what was written on my attack sheet that I started getting A's.

Given that these exams are all curved, and that they all pretty much come down to a simple "point" grid, why isn't a well crafted multiple choice test is a much more fair and accurate way to test actual knowledge? Having to pick A, B, or C forces a student to come up with an answer, and by doing so prevents him from hedging his bets by coyly and indecisively answering "sometimes this, but in the alternative, it could be this, etc." Maybe many law profs actually believe that their exams measure "reasoning ability" - as I've stated, I disagree. Or maybe it's that they give essays because they themselves had to take essays, "and gosh darn it, I hated taking them and now you're going to hate taking them too!" In law, especially in academia law, there seems to be a lot of "paying your dues" mentality.

I know of one media-friendly GW prof who gives a torts exam fact pattern that contains some 500+ individual torts, and says "list as many as you can find." Really, what is this if not a simple speed typing test?
1.28.2005 2:45pm
Dan Simon (www):
I don't understand--haven't almost all law students already gone through four years of undergraduate education? Any serious undergrad will very quickly pick up at least this basic understanding of the grading system, its workings and its significance, provided he or she has a modicum of intelligence and good sense....

Oh, right. Never mind. :^)
1.28.2005 2:49pm
frank:
IRAC throws people off, because they think all the letters are the same. It's a good structure, but the vast majority of the points are usually on the A.

Multiple choice exams in law school are tough. I gave a part multiple choice/part essay exam. One student wrote an A+ essay but had the worst grades in the class on the multiple choice (worse than random). After talking to him, I found out that he simply outthought the multiple choice questions. I.e., the correct answer was too straightforward and he identified some possible exception to the general rule that made it wrong. In other words, he was so good at lawyering that it clobbered him on the multiple choice questions.
1.28.2005 2:52pm
LizardBreath (mail):
But coyly and indecisively answering "sometimes this, sometimes that" is right! The practise of law is all about coy indecision! (Well, not really -- but if you don't develop the habit of looking at the strength of all the alternative theories, you're in for a world of hurt.)

Seriously, issue spotting may look artificial, but it is something that you must really do when advising your clients. A client comes to you with a situation, and if no one has filed suit yet, that situation is a law-school-exam fact pattern, and your first task is to figure out all the possible ways all the parties might be liable to each other, whether from an offensive or a defensive point of view.
1.28.2005 2:56pm
Jen:
Although I enjoyed your post, whether law school grades are slightly random or not is not the root of the problem. One thing I've observed after a couple years of law school is that legal academia (and perhaps the profession in general) is completely resistant to change. Just as they feel that they have to go through the motions of pretending to engage in ‘socratic’ dialogue, which consists more of embarrassing students than probing their minds, professors believe that they must give the three-hour issue spotter at the end of the semester; because Harvard has done it for ages, it must be the most effective way of teaching. For example, last year, there was a huge outcry at my school because a visiting prof. gave a 250 question multiple choice exam instead of the standard issue spotter. What do law school professors have against periodic exams? Why not have us also write memoranda, briefs, and research papers? Many of my friends are smarter than I, but, because they write slowly and methodically or like to thoroughly outline, have not mastered the art of vomiting as much and as fast as humanly possible in a 3 hr. period, and are at the bottom of the class. Although I’ve got the class rank and the mega firm job (which I suspect I’ll leave for business school in a few years if firms are susceptible to the same inefficient B.S.), I'm becoming increasingly bitter toward this whole "game." A $30,000/year game.

Prestige whoring is a whole other problem. Within my group of college friends, I the sociology and English majors with 4.0s like me went to Stanford while the chemical engineers and economists with 3.0s ended up at Santa Clara, even though our LSATs only differed by 1-2 points. When will lawyers stop being so blind?
1.28.2005 3:13pm
jkh, nom de plume:
I Quote LizardBreath: " Seriously, issue spotting may look artificial, but it is something that you must really do when advising your clients. A client comes to you with a situation, and if no one has filed suit yet, that situation is a law-school-exam fact pattern, and your first task is to figure out all the possible ways all the parties might be liable to each other, whether from an offensive or a defensive point of view."

Well no kidding -- my point is that 3 hour law school exams don't test your ability to do any that. If 100 of your similarly qualified peers are working at doing the exact the same thing, do you really think that the person who gets the best grade was the "best" at issue spotting?

At any good law school, most of the exam answers are going to be pretty darn good. What then makes the difference as far as grades go? Serioulsy, I've taken at least one exam where the A answers scored in the range of "28-31," and my "B+" answer was a "26." That means that the entire A- range must have been "27." How is that justifiable?


And really, I don't see that your comparison to what lawyers do in the "real world" is relevant at all. As a lawyer, a client comes to you with a fact pattern, true. So as a lawyer, what do you, whip out your outline and start talking as fast as you can?
1.28.2005 3:16pm
UVA Alumni:
It definitely makes a difference as to which school you attend. At UVA, grades from your 1L year take on much more importance than at the average law school. The school mean is a B+ in every class (no exceptions). The law review size is relatively small given the size of the school (25-30 members per 360 person class). Of those 25-30, only 5 "write on." Another 5 slots are for diversity. That leaves 20 slots for "grading on." Given that the journal tryout is unified and that there are no restrictions on being involved in multiple activites, to "write on," you have to be in the top 5 out of about 320 "write on" entries. You might as well play the lottery. As a result, if you want to make law review, you have to hope you are in the top 20 students. They say an A- average is usually enough which speaks to how incredibly compressed the curve is at the school. As a result, the law review selections are often a bit random at the margins (depending on whether you had prof's who give almost all B+'s, how competitive your small section was, etc.).

And since law review matters a lot in hiring and for certain career choices, I would say UVA is a school where you don't want to mess up your 1L grades at all.

Of course, they may have changed things, but I only graduated a few years ago, so I don't expect it is all that different now.
1.28.2005 3:26pm
Jerry McCusker (mail):
Certainly, grades might seem random, even if they aren't. But play devil's advocate: how can you say they're not random? Let's suppose some professor (not you, or any of your friends) decided to grade strictly on the basis of length, still turning in a nice bell curve grade distribution. Who would ever know? What disincentive would the professor ever face? Why should a professor break her neck poring over every phrase, when she could save hours and hours over Christmas by just doing a half-assed job of grading?
1.28.2005 3:30pm
LizardBreath (mail):
No, of course not, but that's a problem with tests generally, not with issue spotters. My point was that if you're going to give a test, it makes sense to reward the student who sees all the possible issues, rather than merely the single best answer.

There is a very good argument for making grades depend on written work or on multiple tests rather than one monster final exam -- I was merely defending the monster issue-spotter over the monster multiple-choice exam.
1.28.2005 3:30pm
Eric (mail):
Regarding randomness, the grades I and others I know received throughout law school tended to be quite consistent. Some were consistent B students, some consistent A students, and a few, consistent bottom-feeders. As stated, though, being a consistent A student doesn't make a good lawyer. Nor does being from one of "the" schools. I've seen plenty of Harvard grads that just can't cope with the fact that not every litigation issue implicates constitutional considerations, and plenty of grads from so-called lower-tier schools that are just plain brilliant lawyers. Grades get you in the door -- they will not keep you there.
1.28.2005 3:35pm
haznut (mail):
Another myth pertinent to 1L fall grades is the relationship between 1L fall and the possibility of transferring to a 'better' law school.

I had a 2L intern (first in his class at a 'third tier' school) that said he hadn't put in an application to transfer schools because he had felt that the pressure to make the transfer decision was solely after the fall grades came out. I was sorry to hear him say this, because this relationship between 1L fall grades and transferring is a myth that should be put to rest.

I transferred from a 'second tier' school to one of the top five after my first year, and had I relied on my fall grades to make the application decision, I would not have bothered applying. (I should note that my spring grades came out quite late in the summer after my 1L year, and it was still time enough to put in the applications).

Certainly, transferring is an extremely personal decision, and is not the right choice for everyone. For me personally, however, transferring is unquestionably one of the best decisions I ever made. I would hate for anyone to think that 1L fall grades govern that option.
1.28.2005 3:42pm
jkh, nom de plume:
I see where you're coming from Lizard, it just seem to me that too often the deciding factor isn't a relevant issue, but is instead too tangential. For instance, I've grown accustomed to making up way more facts than are in the problem in order to get an A. For instance, I've said "Interestingly, if the facts here were instead that Mr. X did Y and Z, not R and S as stated in the facts, this would come out more like (case from the notes)." Do I get a point for it? I don't know; I don't often look at the exams after they're graded. But I can tell you that I do it a lot, and since I've started, I've been getting A's. It's ridiculous, IMHO. What I write is completely irrelevant - I _change_ the facts just to work in a cite to a case mentioned in passing the notes. (And it's not like I know the case off the top of my head or anything - it's just on my "attack sheet" as "the next thing to mention.")

I've seem some very well written MC tests, and I've seem some poorly written ones. They are hard to write, I understand that. While they have their drawbacks, as do all tests, as you point out, I have to think that they are a much fairer way to test actual understanding, especially considering that most essay grades are based on getting a certain # of available "points."
1.28.2005 3:58pm
The General:
I appreciate the comments on first year grades and agree with your conclusion. What you didn't address to my satisfaction at least, which goes to the question of the randomness, is the purpose of the curve/grade normalization. At my law school, Santa Clara, the curve for first year students was especially strict (8-12% A/A-, A through B- is no less than 45% and no more than 55%). I understand that most other schools have less restrictive curves. So far as I know there is no set ABA standard and each school can make its own determinations.

Given your comments on how misleading curved grades can be, in terms of "how am I doing" in any particular subject, what are the benefits of the system and couldn't a more straightforward grading system still provide those benefits, while ridding students of the negative aspects mentioned?
1.28.2005 4:01pm
UVA student:
I just wanted to comment on UVA Alumni's post above. Actually, the Virginia Law Review now takes about 40-45 students per year, and about half are based purely on the write on process. As mentioned, there are still over 300 who tryout, so the odds are about 1/15 or so of writing on. (Actually, the odds are a little better technically, if you assume that some of the people who end up grading on would have written on, but that's not a big factor.) In any event, writing on the law review with grades in the bottom of the class doesn't necessarily make you stand out when you go looking for a job.
1.28.2005 4:09pm
Richard Fagin (mail):
The post was interesting and insightful, but to me just as uninformative as having visited my torts professor after getting a C+ fall semester. He showed me "A" graded answers, but was not able to articulate clearly what made them better than the B or C answers. That and a C in contracts almost made me drop out of law school. I was genuinely worried that I might be too dumb to pass the bar exam. Fortunately, I stuck it out, and next semester my con law professor had the unbridled common sense to distribute example essay questions on the material at various points in the semester along with what he considered to be good answers. Then, and only then did the "game" become apparent.

I agree with the assertion in the post that different professors weight various aspects of answers differently, but it was my observation that nearly all my professors had the same basic underlying expectation about what was a good exam answer. To summarize how the game is played, a good exam answer 1) states what substantive claims and defenses appear to be raised by the presented facts; 2) restate what the elements need to be proven to prove each such claim and defense; and 3) show how the presented facts do or do not tend to prove each element. Some professors will give extra credit if ambiguous facts with respect to certain elements are supplemented with the type of information needed to prove or disprove the particular element. If you haven't memorized all the elements of all the claims and defenses from the semester's materials, you cannot give a complete answer.

Some will recognize what appears to be the good answer format - they should be drafted like a well written court opinion in deciding a law suit.

In support of my statements, my fall 1L GPA was 2.3. My final law school GPA was 3.46. I twice won a scholarship from the school for "most improvement in law study."

Professors - any comments?

I hope law student readers find the foregoing advice to be helpful.

Respectfully

Richard A. Fagin. J.D., University of Houston 1999
1.28.2005 4:53pm
JamesT:
Ardbeg78 hit the nail on the head. Your first year grades pretty well define where you are going to be in the legal profession. Of course, a student might be able to pull a major class rank jump in next two years, like Mr. Fagin, but the odds are pretty slim. It is very easy to say that grades don't matter when you get good grades, but it is a different stroy for the other half of the class. I graduated in the bottom 50% of my class, and I can tell you that five years later my GPA and class rank are still a giant academic and professional millstone around my neck. Despite being general counsel for a state regulatory agency, my GPA has handicapped me in moving on to the private sector. To be quite honest, had I know exactly how important my 1L grades were going to turn out to be, I think I would have dropped out of law school. It is very important for law students to understand this and frame their expectations accordingly to avoid some serious soul searching in the future.
1.28.2005 5:30pm
Kris (mail) (www):
To be honest, I found law school to be quite similar to undergrad exams. They were slightly more demanding, but, compared to undergrad, there was no tremendous difference between how the effort I put in correlated to the grade I received.

What's so shocking about IL exams, I think, isn't the exams but rather the weeks of buildup to the exams. Students purposely try to pysch each other out. Professors bragged about how difficult their exams were. Books are written on the subject. But the exams themselves? Not that bad.

What is bad, in my opinion, however, is the emphasis on grades in the law profession. It makes no sense for firms to choose associates based just on grades. They can certainly find enough time to interview interested students and then pick the students that will best add something to their firm. You say:


There are so many law students and so many employers out there 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, in part because there isn't much else to go on when the applicant is only a student.


But every field is like that. I assume law student resumes include other jobs, undergrad info and future interests. Are law schools and law firms just being lazy when reduce individuals to an easy-to-rank number, whether it's a GPA or LSAT score?

--Kris@dummocrats.com
1.28.2005 5:39pm
A Blogger:
Kris,

There are some differences with law. There are tens of thousands of graduates every year, most without any specialty interests, and thousands of law firms. Individual firms can be quite small. How many hundreds of students can a firm interview before it's no longer worth it?
1.28.2005 5:45pm
A.S.:
I'd also like to second ardbeg78's comments. If you are looking at working at a top tier, large law firm in New York (and elsewhere, I presume, although I am only personally familiar with NY), your 1L grades (together with your law school) are EXTREMELY important. I'm sorry to say it, but if you don't get stellar grades or go to a top-5 school, your chances of working for Sullivan or Simpson are pretty low. Now, I understand Orin's point regarding importance for a SECOND job. But your likelihood of moving to Cravath from that small suburban NJ law firm which was the best your low grades could support as a first job is STILL LOW.

I know, I know, there are people who say "why would you want to go to Cravath in the first place, with those 80-billable hour weeks?" But these jobs, too, are stepping stones.
1.28.2005 5:47pm
OrinKerr:
A.S.: Stepping stone to what?
1.28.2005 6:00pm
alfred tripplebakker (mail):
If they had only TAUGHT instead of making such poor use of the Socratic Method, then their grades might have meant something.

My instructors, all except one elderly gentleman who taught secured transactions, had great difficulty answering student questions with anything other than a question in return, even when the student was stumped.

When I did poorly on my first law exam, I went to the professor to ask why. His answer was, "Well, why did you think?" I wish I had answered honestly with a question of my own, "Who the fuck do you think you are -- a teacher?"
1.28.2005 6:02pm
jkh, nom de plume:
Many people, i.e. JamesT, are of the impression that "Your first year grades pretty well define where you are going to be in the legal profession."

As a student with no personal experience in the area, I have to say that I think that is an inaccurate statement. A more accurate statement would be "Your first year grades likely define whether you will work at a 'top level' or 'elite' law firm."

There are a number of large law firms, I'll call them "elite" firms, that only hire people with top grades from top schools. For them, grades will always be the be-all-end-all and this is why: because they have to be able to tell their clients "we only hire the best people from the best schools." For that reason, many who don't have some sort of "cum laude" after their name will never get a peek in the door, much less a foot. The decision to hire laterals at these places has very little to do with actual ability, it's more about keeping an image up and catering to a specific clientele - namely, a clientele that wants the best and the brightest.

As they say - if you want to work in international law, go to Harvard, not Yale or Stanford. Why? Because Japanese businessmen "know" that Harvard is the best.

And we should all keep in mind the relatively low % of people that work at these types of firms. What is it, maybe 5%, if that? Really, if people are going to guage their own "worth" or position in the profession by whether or not they will ever "make it" at one of these firms, well, I don't know quite know what to tell them.

According to JamesT, and some others here, as far as "where you are in the profession" goes, you're either "in" that very small %, or you're "out" of it. I think that is a very warped view.
1.28.2005 6:15pm
Some Jarhead:
Before I started law school, I knew I wanted to be a Marine JAG...

At the beginning of my first year, I knew I was going to OCS that coming summer...

While at OCS, I knew my first year grades might end my Marine career before it started...

Today I chuckle while my classmates look for jobs (suckers)...

And then I challenge them to pull-ups.
1.28.2005 11:13pm
pittspilot (mail) (www):
My grades in my 1st year and beyond were utterly random. How well I knew the material, how well I liked the material, how well I liked the professor, and the size of the class were utterly irrelevant to my grade. And my grades fluctuated badly. I ended up being a middling student.

I knew I wasn't an idiot in law because I did well in some really tough classes on some really tough exams. But then again I blew some tough ones. I also aced some easy ones, and blew some easy ones. IRAC sometimes worked and sometimes killed me. How hard I worked on the subject was also irrelevant. Sometimes I coasted and did well, sometimes I coasted and did badly. Sometimes I worked hard, and got bent, sometimes the reverse. Multi-Choice sometimes was great sometimes horrible. Utterly random.

And that is a morale destroyer. I got so that I didn't care.

The upside, and what I want to pass along to anyone in my position, is that forget about the grades. I practice a very narrow field. I work in a firm with some of the brightest folks I have ever met. They asked me once about my grades, and never for a transcript. I have a great job. It's not big firm, and I am glad of that.
1.28.2005 11:18pm
Prahbakar (mail):
I don't think law school grades are the end all be all for a successful career after law school. If you're not of the top students at a top five school you won't be working for Cravath, but most students don't, and it would be ridiculous to judge yourself by those standards. For any current law students, networking is one of the most overlooked strategies for securing a quality job. There are plenty of great 100-300 attorney firms and reaching out to friends, family, and acquaintances may lead to a contact to get your foot in the door. Use all your resources, work hard, and be personable.
1.28.2005 11:57pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
The students with high grades are headed for $90,000/year academia. The B student will find a good associate's job, and will be hired by the C student. This is from the Bar review CD, or some such.

Presumably, the C student did not bother learning obsolete, fantasyland, nowhere to be found in this, the real world, law. He focused on finding and filling the unmet need of the public.
1.29.2005 1:49am
Bruce Hayden (mail):
One thing that has to be remembered is that first year in particular, it seems like many of the profs model themselves on Paper Chase.

In my experience, first year was a disaster - and it was mostly the profs' fault. For example, in contracts, the prof gave one point for citing a case, one for the jurisdiction, and one for the date, or something like that. Not being a good memorizer, I did badly. Also, he gave points for citing cases that were at best only peripherally relevant (some not even that). In other words, memorization of case cites was rewarded, not issue spotting, etc., as you would expect. Partnered that summer with the guy who had the highest grade the year before. His answer for how well he did was that he had a photographic memory. My torts wasn't much better - the 2nd final was entirely about a no-fault automobile law. My brother's contract teacher refused to grade his final because on one question he asked that it be answered totally from the UCC. My brother made the mistake of then contrasting this with what would have been the result under common law.

Starting my second year though, the profs seemed to start giving and grading tests as I would have expected them to, and I started getting a lot of As. But, of course by then, no grade-on law review slot or summer associateship.

What has to be remembered is that the relationship between large firms and grades is incestuous. They all got good grades their first year, did a summer internship at a big firm that first summer, graded onto law review, etc., and thus pretty much only hire people with similar credentials.

But then, besides the money, why would anyone ever want to go that route? I spend about half my time in a resort community in Colorado. This time of year, I am on skis 3-4 days a week. Summers, I get out midday most days and either bike or skate, alternating days. My brother is even worse - we say he practices law to ski race. Last year, year round, he probably didn't go more than a couple of weeks without skiing.

So, do you really want to spend your life creatively billing to get to the ever increasing targets? Billing $100 for a quick phone call? Or even $50 or so for leaving a voice message? How would you feel if you got such a bill? Just keeping track ofthis level of minutia is exhausting. Life is too short.

So, in the end, I am not that unhappy that I got a brain dead contracts prof first year, who should have been limited to teaching arbitrations, where he was good, and a torts prof who was spending too much time working outside on divorces. I didn't end up in the large firm that is the goal of so many law school students, and I think my life is richer because of that.

Got to run. Last chair before the ski area opens in the morning is 7:45. Sometimes a pain, but on powder days, we are the first on the mountain.
1.29.2005 3:57am
Dru Stevenson (mail) (www):
I really appreciated Orin's post, and agree with every thing he said - and I write as a fellow professor. Some of the comments here are very dependent on the law school. I attended a law school where almost no one used the socratic method, and now I teach at one where most instructors do. At the school where I teach, some students have multiple-choice exams in most of their 1L classes; at other schools this is quite rare. Students tend to assume that their experience is universal, though.

I wanted to respond to some of the commenters who complained about profs who always asnwer questions with another question - including questions about the exam. I don't teach this way, but I know people who really believe this is the best way to teach students, and that's why they do it. And every prof is somebody's favorite.

I agree with the original post that nobody cares much about your grades after your first job (I suppose one's first job, though, can make a difference for the next opportunity thereafter). I also think first-year students underestimate the value of writing onto law review. My anecdotal observations were that law review membership could offset mediocre grades more often than the reverse. Firms know that different schools have different curves or levels of grade inflation, or that one section of the 1L's might have gotten a bad mix of classes; and I suspect that they see law review as more of a universal indicator, something akin to the "Big Mac index" in the Economist.

A degree of randomness is unavoidable in grading - even my multiple-choice exams that are graded by machine require a tough decision about the curve and cutoff points between letter grades. That is why it is surprising how consistent most students really are, at least within a given semester (although there are always a few exceptions whose grades vary a lot).
1.29.2005 4:01am
D. Levene (mail):
If you ever read the exams for a typical 1L class, you'll find that a few stand out as brilliant - the student understood the question, and the nuances, and made coherent arguments on point, including some arguments that the professor hadn't even thought of; a few totally missed the point and flailed around aimlessly; and most got it to some degree and made a few points but not all that could be made nor as well as possible. The time consuming part is in grading those exams in the middle because there are not always large variations between them.
1.29.2005 7:54am
eric (mail):
A.S. is dead right. I'm in D.C. and, if you're not top 10%, the first tier (A&P, W&C, Howrey, C&B, etc.) won't bother. There's no need to summer at a big firm, though, to get hired by one out of law school, and, frankly, I strongly favor hiring new associates who have never summered at a big firm. The summer associate experience is about as representative of big firm life as a Ferrari is representative of a common car. It can take 6 months to beat out of a former summer's noggen the notion that life at a big firm is supposed to be all wine and roses. Fundamental point that A.S. makes is just plain true -- if you want to go big law via the summer associate route, 1L is the ballgame, and top 10% is what it takes.
1.29.2005 8:43am
beautiful idiot (mail) (www):
This was an interesting post. I'm a 1L still waiting for Fall grades. While I tell myself that a grade is just a grade, it's going to be difficult to put these first grades in perspective. After all, it's the only individual feedback a student gets on their performance first year.
I think the system itself is antiquated. It makes little sense pedagogically to have only one graded assignment at the end of a semester.
As for the IRAC stuff, it must vary from school to school. My opinion at this point is obviously not too informed, but I think that if I used an IRAC approach on my exams at HLS, I would not have done very well. I chose instead (in theory) to focus on what I thought were the actual issues in each hypo, and to discuss them.
I worry, however, that I kind of forgot that while writing my exams and got too conclusory; this I atribute to an over-reliance on study aids. Anyway, I'll see how it turns out in a couple weeks, then try not to take it as prophecy
1.29.2005 9:50am
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Thanks for the perspective. I wish I could have read this a month ago while I was waiting for my grades... would have made things easier.
1.29.2005 10:21am
A.S.:
Orin: "Stepping stone to what?"

A.S. responds: Associate positions in large law firms are stepping stones to top level legal positions in corporations, for example. I only have my personal experience to go by, but virtually all of the GCs of public companies that I work with have been associates at large firms. Also, if you are thinking of going to financial positions - investment banks, hedge funds, etc. And, of course, partnership in such firms. Look, I know people don't want to mention money, but partners in my firm (in NYC, and NOT one of the top 10, BTW) start in the mid 6 figures and many make 7 figures. Is it crude to mention that? Dunno, but it is obviously a factor to take into account. And most of the partners here either began here or moved here from another top firm.

Many of my friends from law school are very happy were they started their legal career, even if it wasn't a top firm. But a friend who went back to Illinois to, e.g., begin as a local prosecutor in Peoria simply is not up for partner at Baker &McKenzie now, nor is he Assistant GC at Allstate.

At least, that's my experience.
1.29.2005 12:37pm
TMigratorious:
A few more observations from the professorial ranks

1. I second Phil Carter's advice not to let your grades become self-fulfilling prophecies. It's been my experience that many successful students--I'm not opining on whether or not they'll ultimately be successful as lawyers--rebound in the spring semester. And because a lot of students who do well after only one semester are flukes or become complacent, there really is a lot of room to move up the curve in the spring.

2. A number of posters commented on their prof's inability to explain what they'd done well or poorly on an exam as a justification for believing that grading is random (or at least arbitrary). In partial defense of my colleagues, it's hard for someone who's been "thinking like a lawyer" for 20 years or more to get back into a first-semester mindset sufficiently to explain how to do something that has become second nature to them. (Can you explain how you learned to read?) In my opinion, it's the prof's job to do just that, but some colleagues don't think that way.

But let me give it a try. Students often come to me about their exams and say "But my answer has everything in it that the A paper did, but I got a C. It's not fair." The differences between the A and C papers are, in fact, real and are usually one or more of the following--

a. The C paper doesn't reflect any perception of the difference between a decisive argument (e.g. one that would dispose of the case at summary judgment) versus a collateral one (e.g., an elegant argument of questionable strength on a minor point).
b. The C student is mentally filling in details that simply aren’t on his or her paper. In other words, the student went through the correct mental process but didn’t show the work on the page. To get full credit, the logical proof for a conclusion needs to be spelled out.
c. The student did cover most of the issues, but they are discussed in an almost free-association manner. (This is somewhat excusable given speeded exams, which is one of the reasons I prefer take-homes.) Part of thinking like a lawyer involves approaching problems in a systematic and disciplined way—and this isn’t it. If everyone wrote in the same style, it might not matter, but given the curve the better organized paper will indeed get a better grade.

3. I didn’t notice anyone talking about becoming successful in law school in ways other than grades. A lot of my students who don’t have stellar grades are able to secure prestigious jobs by excelling in moot court or mock trial competitions. (And there’s often a synergy between advocacy and improving the kind of thinking that produces better grades.)

And, finally, a bit of a pep talk based on personal experience. My first-semester grades would have put me in the middle of the pack but I did the same kind of self-assessment that Phil described and finshed high enough in my class to grade on to law review. So there is a second act in the first year--don't let it pass you by.
1.29.2005 12:47pm
therisingjurist (www):
There is a fundamental problem with the system in that it seeks to serve two groups with incompatible needs. It cannot simultaneously serve both groups well and ultimately fails to serve either group in a meaningful way.

Students, coming from at least 16 consecutive years of formal education, look to their grades as an indication of their mastery of the subject. But the grades are no such indication; they are relative, not absolute.

This is meant to be useful to employers looking to find the "best" students. After all, that's why the curve exists. To force outliers. But even this is misleading. When the difference between numbered grades can hinge on one extra sentence, that higher grade is artificial. The higher grade exists because the system requires it. The system is a way of forcing differentiation where no functional difference exists.
1.29.2005 2:13pm
AD (mail):
I rarely attended class in law school and studied even less. I waited until the last week or two to read the material for all of my classes. My grades were not good but I graduated and passed the Bar Exam on the first attempt. Obviously, the exams call for a good line of bullshit and, as an English major, my credentials were apparently superior. This, I think, speaks volumes about the importance of law school and its training model.

In the practice of law, bullshit may not fly you quite as far or as easily. No, what I found was most necessary was a complete disregard for ethics or justice. I know there are some exceptions out there but, generally speaking, there are good reasons for the animosity expressed by the public. And I think this situation has a great deal to do with the training (or lack thereof) in the schools. There's a big difference between "thinking" and "rationalizing", as there is a big difference between being smart and being simply a smartass.

I went back to school and am happily in another profession which makes me proud.
1.29.2005 3:04pm
Will (www):
Why don't many of you just go to business school? A top level MBA program is a much more direct and logical route to careers at large corporations, investment banks, or investment management firms. Putting up with the pain of being a Cravath drone only makes sense if you actually enjoy practicing law.
1.29.2005 3:04pm
B-average 2L (mail):
I am a 2L, and look back on my first year grades with some regret. I'm certainly not obsessed with them, but I do think in retrospect I could have done better. For any current 1L's, here is what I learned (for what it's worth). Hopefully you can apply this in subsequent semesters if it strikes you as worthwhile advice.

In both my first and second semesters as a 1L I received all B's and one C. The exception was an A in Legal Writing, which was assignment-based rather than exam-based. The B's were almost all in the 80's. Only one B was in the low 90's. Again this was my entire first year, not just the first semester.

My experience was exactly the same as what has already been described above: My two favorite classes (one each semester) were my two lowest grades. Although this was very frustrating, eventually I ascertained that this was really my fault, and was not some fluke or random occurrence.

There was one class I loved to death. The professor was incredible, the subject matter was endlessly fascinating, the class time was stimulating, and I felt like a kid in a candy store. But because of this, I didn't take studying for it as seriously as I did for the other classes that didn't interest me. Frankly, I received a low grade because I was way too cocky. I just assumed that my interest in the subject, and my participation all semester long in class discussions, somehow would prepare me for the actual exam. This was very stupid, because the people who didn't like the class knuckled down and actually learned the material. And worse, on the exam I became passionate about the main essay, and argued one side with strong assurance. But the actual question called for a detached objective consideration of both sides of the argument. So my enthusiasm actually became my undoing (which is a good lesson to learn early-on, and will always stay with me when I'm a lawyer).

The second class in which this happened (i.e. it was my favorite but I scored low on the exam), I made the mistake of not paying close attention to what the professor actually cared about. When I was studying I thought the topics and all the issues were equally stimulating. I missed the fact that this professor had made it more than clear what his favorite topics were. There was one particular topic that was his specialty, and I simply didn't emphasize it while preparing for the exam. The main essay on his exam was entirely on that specialty. So no matter how well I did on the rest of the exam (multiple choice and short answer), it couldn't make up for that lack of specific preparation.

If any 1L's are reading this, my point is that there are smart ways to study which go beyond learning the subject matter, and these skills can be mastered with practice. In each course you take, constantly ask yourself: What does the professor really care about? What is he/she looking for? Not only what is the favorite topic, but what is the preferred style of reasoning? If you think this way all the time, you can pick up certain realizations about how you should best prepare for the exam, sometimes even long before the semester is over.

I should mention something else. Because my exam scores were not impressive, and I wasn't sure I could improve too dramatically, I devoted a substantial amount of time and energy to my assignment-based courses (Legal Writing, and then Appellate Advocacy). I achieved high A's in both of them. That first A allowed me to get on journal (not the main one, but a topical one). Now I can at least say that I'm in the top 10% regarding legal research and writing classes, which is one way to remedy the appearance (perhaps genuine) of relative mediocrity. So 1L's, don't throw in the towel psychologically if you're in the bottom half of the class. Life goes on...
1.29.2005 3:34pm
Holdfast (mail):
Doing well on First Year Exams isn't necessary to have a good career, but it can make it an awful lot easier to do so. If you can do really well on the 1L Exams, you WILL get a good summer associateship after 2L - do well there and a good job is yours to lose.
1.29.2005 4:03pm
Crime & Federalism (mail) (www):
"Students, coming from at least 16 consecutive years of formal education, look to their grades as an indication of their mastery of the subject. But the grades are no such indication; they are relative, not absolute."

I've met "A," "B," and "C" students from just about every law school. As a group, "A" students are much quicker on their feet and they have a deeper understanding of the law. They are generally smarter and more fun to talk to. (Well, if we're talking law. "C" students generall make better drinking buddies). Also, most of the best lawyers I've met were top law students.

Granted, a few lawyers with so-so grades make it big, although even many of the big PI lawyers did well in law school. Let's not forget that the "humble," "country lawyer" Gerry Spence graduated #1 in his class.

But most lawyers don't need to be very sharp to perform most legal work. Garden variety cases require garden variety intelligence. Most areas of law are, quite frankly, not that challenging. Thus, if a person's goal is to live a "decent" life (re: white picket fences), but never to achieve excellence, then there won't be much of a correlation between grades and a reasonably successful career.

But when you meet a DOJ prosecutor, or a litigator from Williams &Connolly, or the top criminal defense lawyers (Barry Tarlow and John Keker come to mind), chances are they did very well in law school.

So the answer is, so-so lawyers did so-so in law school. So-so is good enough for most people. But if you aspire to achieve the greatness of, say, Edward Bennett Williams, then you had better figure out how to write a law school exam, since exams do correlate with the abililty to quickly spot legal issues, find out which facts matter, and to see how a change in facts might affect your answer.

This is what the best trial and appellate lawyers do. A criminal lawyer has to quickly figure out his client's exposure to liability, then determine what facts should be marshalled to negate that liability. A private investigator is hired to find facts that matter (re: will make a difference at guilt or sentencing). The facts that matter are then presented to a jury or appellate panel. "Clever" arguments touching non-issues don't move judges or juries. They also don't move professors grading law school exams.

Everything that is required of a person taking a 3-hour exam will be required of him or her in practice.

Also note the popularlity of the Volokh Conspiracy. The conspirators all did very well in law school. Most of the popular bloggers also excelled in law school. So it's kind of silly to pretend that grades don't matter, when it's undeniable that people with good grades end up being more successful in the "real world."
1.29.2005 4:07pm
Tom Hynes (mail):
First, grades follow the principle of "regression to the mean". The distribution (bell curve) of first semester grades is much wider than that of your 3 year GPA. Batting averages have a wider spread in the first month than over the whole season. Therefore, if your first semester GPA is less than the school mean, it will probably get better. If it is better than the mean, it will probably get worse. If you hit .400 in April, I will bet against you hitting .400 for the season.

Second, some professors just throw the tests down the stairwell and give those that land on the top steps an A, middle steps a B, etc. The legal term for this is Stairy Decisis.
1.29.2005 7:05pm
Cody:
"Crime and Federalism" states in his first post that he personally did poorly his first semester of law school, and that he then "learned to do well" by using flash cards and other techniques.

He then goes on, in his latest post, to say that A students are much more intelligent that C students, and to insinuate that C students have "garden variety intelligence." According to him, everyone doing well in pretty much every field, from law to blogging, did very well in law school.

To think, had he not purchased those flash cards and bothered to take the time "learn" to do well, it would have had a profound effect on his IQ. Who knew?

Someone above made the point that the whole hiring process is a self-perpetuating cycle. I give you Exhibit A.

:-)
1.29.2005 8:22pm
Max (mail):
I think a big part of the reason 1L grades don't matter that much is because of increased opportunities for practical training in the 2L and 3L years. I go to a school with a large number of clinics and with a large externship program. These experiences allow students who may not have great grades to do real legal writing and to develop references from influential people such as judges and professors, people who will know the student's real ability to function as an attorney, not just the abstract of a student's grade performance.
1.29.2005 8:23pm
noah:
it seems to me, after reading many of the comments (but not all, so please forgive me if this is repetative) that you are all forgetting one thing--while it is true that 1L grades are, to a certain extent, random and not demonstrative of the student's intrinsic/applied intelligence, the same can be said of college exams, and high school exams, and the SAT and the LSAT. in other words, the entire house of cards falls or stands together.
1.30.2005 4:08am
GailG (mail):
This post is quite encouragning, especially since I got a 2.6 average last semester and one of my worst grades was in my favorite subject, but it leaves out one thing that makes grades important in the short run, at least at my school: scholarships.

I have a partial scholarship which requires a 2.85 GPA at the end of the year to keep. That means that I need a 3.1 average in the Spring to make up for my Fall average.

I am confident that I am a good student, and if exam grades reflected class participation, I'd have gotten As. I also know that I knew just about everything I needed to know when I went into my exams, and I didn't run out of time (I had time to go back, read through the exam, and add details before time ran out), so it must be that my weakness was issue spotting. How do I fix that?
1.30.2005 7:04pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
C&F: How many 737's you got? If money is the sincerest form of valuation, then the C student is often most valued by the public. Your salary the true worth of what you do for others. SC Justice is worth even less than the sum those government slackers steal from the hard working public. All other considerations are hobbyism. The A is a wide path to the $90,000 academic job, or worse, the bench. Grow up. You don't have to please your parents anymore.

Gail: It's a foreign language, sweetie. Best way to learn it is to take many practice exams, test conditions, and pacing, over and over. Get the old ones. They may come around again. Do all your flunking on your own time. Have low grades out of your system by the time the real exam comes around. Also, start with the bar review book, PMBR and such. Once you have mastered the topic, then tackle the lawyer propaganda gibberish in your assigned reading. Those PMBR tapes, used and cheap on EBay, cleared up mysteries that stymied for months, doing so in minutes. Oh, yeah, that's how to figure out the rights of the fifth assignee in line. Start with Bar review in 1L, day one.
1.30.2005 10:28pm
JamesT:
In response to JKH:

I don't think my view is warped, but shaped by my personal experience. I did not go to a Top 25 school, I went to the University of Kansas School of Law. A very good state school that provides an excellent legal education and has produced many excellent attorneys, but not a Top 25 school. At KU, my first year grades prevented me from joining law review, law journal, being a writing TA, participation in clinics and the added punch of Order of the Coif on my resume. By not being in those activites coupled with class rank, things such as clerking for judges, summer internships with federal agencies, summering with Big Law firms and the like where out of my reach. As a result, certain professional opportunities upon graduation were intially out of my reach, and very well may stay out of my reach. I would argue that as a result of my grades, I will never (well, the odds are at least long at best) sit on the bench, teach law school, argue before the Supreme Court, be counsel for the govenor, work for DoJ or major policy institutes or pay my student loans off early. So, yeah, my grades have pretty much defined the path of my career.

I came out of the bottom 50% of a state school, I would state that my first year grades carried far more future weight then those first year grades of a Chicago grad from the same year, as it would be only my grades (and those activites high grades enabled) being looked at without the added weight of a Top 25 school name.

I am not saying that this is unfair, to complain about that would be the same as complainig about the tides, but it is reality. When a firm gets 5,000 resumes for one associate position, you have to do something to start the winnowing process and grades are a good place to start. But if you are/were in my position of bottom 50%, you need to be realistic about your chances for certain professional opportunities. Sure, still apply, but don't harbor any illusions. If you want those positions, then you need to take steps to bolster your skill package to make one more attractive. I have tried to counter my class rank with becoming an approved mediator, brushed up on my Russian and am taking American Sign Language classes. Realizing that my grades were not going to be an automatic ticket forced me to seek other routes for professional advancment.
1.31.2005 10:50am
JamesT:
PS- It is also my experience that those who say 1L grades don't matter all seem to come from prestiege name schools. It is all good and well for a Harvard grad to tell me that my 1L grades aren't that important, but I think that a Harvard grad is insulated from certain realities middle pack school grads face.
1.31.2005 10:54am
LizardBreath (mail):
GailG-

SupremacyClaus's advice is all good, but here are another couple of points. First, on an issue-spotter, spot issues -- don't think of yourself as finding the right answer, think of yourself as spotting each rule that affects the answer, and for each such rule give the rule, give the facts in the question that bring it into play, and how it affects the answer. If there's some rule that really seems related to the question, but you can't quite find facts that bring it into play, mention it anyway -- maybe with some additional hypothetical facts.

Second, read the professor's mind. You've spent a semester listening to her -- you know what her focuses are, her quirks, what things she thinks are important. Where it's relevant, focus on her interests, not yours. (First year, I had a Crim Law professor who, while otherwise an excellent professor, had a hobbyhorse on the incredible injustice of DWI laws. There was a drunk-driving question on the exam, and my answer included all the arguments for why criminalizing drunk driving is a bad thing. Do I believe this? No. Did I feel skeevy answering the question as if I did? Yes. Did I get an A? You betcha.)
1.31.2005 1:24pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
JamesT: As a mediocrity myself, I am curious about why my appalling academic record should prevent me from arguing before the Supreme Court. They work for me. I may address my employees anytime I please. Where is the academic grades question in the application for admission. You just need to know someone.

http://www.supremecourtus.gov/bar/barapplication.pdf

You may be correct about the other opportunities, but they are truly heinous. For example, in law review, do you want to spend 50 hours a week reviewing other people's footnotes for errors? Or, do you prefer writing the articles that need to be checked for errors by these simps?

If money is important, try helping people. Find an empty niche of need. Fill it. Once again, you're an adult.
1.31.2005 7:44pm
Headhunter:
I am a legal headhunter in New York (previously a practicing attorney with top grades from a top-five school) and I can assure you that grades DO matter to certain firms no matter how long you have been out of law school, no matter where you have worked previously. Every large firm we recruit for insists on our submitting a law school transcript together with each resume, and those firms take the grades on that transcript very seriously, even though the typical candidate is currently employed as an associate at another "elite" firm in New York.

EXAMPLE: A candidate of mine was once rejected by a large New York firm because of a SINGLE grade in his first semester of law school (his other grades in his first year, and in subsequent years, were all significantly better -- in fact, he had been a Law Review editor). This firm was so offended by my submission of this candidate that the head of personnel at the firm (who typically had no dealings with headhunters at all, leaving such affairs to underlings) called me -- not merely to reject the candidate, but to chastize me for having submitted him. (I am glad to report that I eventually placed that candidate at a firm that is more prestigious than the firm that rejected him, so there is occasionally some justice in the world.)

At one national firm (I will not name names in this forum, but it is a firm NOT based in New York), even a lateral partner applicant with 20 years of practice experience, an excellent reputation in the profession, and a huge book of business, will not be considered unless his law school grades meet the firm's standards.

Do all employers in the legal profession attach such irrational, lasting importance to law school grades? Fortunately, no -- but some do, and it is therefore inaccurate to make the blanket statement that grades no longer matter after one has been practicing for several years.
2.1.2005 8:07am
Ethesis (mail) (www):

At one national firm (I will not name names in this forum, but it is a firm NOT based in New York), even a lateral partner applicant with 20 years of practice experience, an excellent reputation in the profession, and a huge book of business, will not be considered unless his law school grades meet the firm's standards.


They were discussed in The Texas Lawyer, which led to quite some interesting comment. It was the five million dollar book of business part of the lateral applicant that amazed people, but some firms insist on grades no matter what else.
2.1.2005 12:25pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
Head: Those firms insisting on perfect grades, after the applicant has 20 years of experience, and brings his own business, how many 737's they got?
2.1.2005 5:38pm
1L student:
The comments above address concerns about whether grades are random and even if they are not, whether the usual system of grading with one exam and a harsh curve is fair. What about exams which don't actually correlate with the material which was taught?

My contracts class, for example, spent half the time discussing common law and half the time discussing the UCC. All the old exams had one question on each. Our exam, however, had no questions on the UCC.

My civ pro class discussed only the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, but the exam set the hypothetical case in state court. All of the old exams were nearly identical, and involved hypothetical cases set in federal court. The prof. told us, in class, that the exam would be exactly like all the old ones. Given the circumstances (all of which I won't go into here), it was obviously a typo on the exam ("trial is brought in the such-and-such-state district court" instead of "trial is brought in the fed. district court in such-and-such-state"). Based on the grades people got, the prof. gave A's to those people who said, "I assume such-and-such-state's rules of civil procedure are the same as the federal rules," and then pretended the exam was the same as the old exams. Those of us who actually tried to pull out the tiny scraps the prof. had mentioned about state law, did poorly.

This is somewhat akin to the comment someone made above that she got points for making up facts and analyzing them. I've heard stories such as that quite commonly.
2.1.2005 6:48pm
Crime & Federalism (mail) (www):
I'm pretty sure no one is still reading, but since Cody read both of my comments (which must have been separated by 40 or so others), I should respond.

Cody writes: "To think, had he not purchased those flash cards and bothered to take the time "learn" to do well, it would have had a profound effect on his IQ. Who knew?"

I should have been more clear. People with a base level intelligence (probably anyone with a 120 or above) will almost certainly figure out "the game." Thus, "A" students are generally brighter because, by definition, an "A" student had the requisite intelligence to figure out the game. Of course there are many exceptions. But for every exception, I can show 9 others to prove the rule.

Let me also say that the legal method probably did make me smarter. It certainly taught me to focus on discrete issues. Learning how to focus on discrete issues has made me a clearer writer, since it encourages me to avoid becoming sidetracked by other interesting, but peripheral, matters. I think that intelligent people write clearly, but I also think that that learning clear writing also improves intelligence. (This last statement will be controversial only to the liberal arts majors).

Anyhow, I stand by my position that grades matter. They are relevant evidence of legal ability. Proving this is simple: If you had to choose a lawyer, and all you knew about the lawyer was his GPA, would you pick the lawyer with the higher or lower GPA?

Of course a blind reliance on grades is foolish. Some very bright people lack social skills, and thus might not be someone you would want handling a trial for you. Some bright people can't remain focused, and thus make terrible lawyers. Etc.

Again, I'm not saying grades are determinative. They are merely something we can - and should - rely upon. And as thinking people we should look to ALL relevant evidence.

Does this mean that I've never meant a brilliant person with poor grades? Of course not. I worked for a woman who is an undeniably brilliant white collar criminal defense lawyer. As you know, cohesively theming a complex white collar cases require a lot of intelligence, which she has. That she did so-so at an unaccredited law school does not mean she isn't brilliant. I would still put her up against a top Harvard grad. (Hey, she regularly kicked AUSA ass).

I'm not sure why what I am saying is controversial. How can people argue that grades are not relevant evidence of legal ability? In the same vein, I don't think anyone can persuasively argue that grades, standing alone, determine legal ability. We have to look at everything.
2.1.2005 11:09pm
Brian Sheppard (mail):
This may sound like something Bentham would say, but I believe that the most accurate definition of "grade" in this context is "what the law professor believes is the relative merit of a particular exam". When viewed in this way, the notion of random grades is nonsensical (with certain highly improbable exceptions).

To be sure, this notion of randomness is worth discussing if one associates other content to grades. In other words, one connects various grades to analogous quantums in some other quality. In this discussion, these other qualities have been largely left unspoken. I suggest that the most common content applied here is (the graded individual's view of) the level of comprehension of the taught material, or perhaps simply intelligence. This expansion of the concept of grades is understandable; as there is some romance in the view that the comprehension of legal material is what makes a good lawyer and in the view that the world is a meritocracy based on intellect. As to the former view, I would suggest that the ability to impress a reviewer of your typed submission (qua exam) is even more valuable than the comprehension of legal material. As to the latter view, suffice it to say that one will be far happier if he or she stops associating intelligence with grades.
2.2.2005 2:39pm
sliver:
Could be that this post is now dead, but I will ask for direction anyway. I just finished the first semester with a very disappointing C average at an average law school. I am an evening student with family and do fairly well in the computer industry.

I like studying law, for the most part I like law school (more before grades came back). However, I am hard pressed to see a profitable future in law for a student with my credentials. I am still attending classes, but I am really torn between dropping out and staying in for another semester.

Any advice?
2.2.2005 4:36pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
CF and Brian: We'd all appreciate some facts instead of a steady diet of puff pastries. What are the 5 reliability coefficients of law school scores and grades? For example, test-retest, inter-rater, split half, so on. If any is below 0.7, we are done. The scores and grades are a tort. This includes a constitutional tort because of unjust, unjustifiable racial disparities. As super-employment tests, they violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the schools need to be enjoined, all of them.

Assume the reliabilities are superb (ha!), then select some lawyer career outcome. I like measurable outcomes, money in practice, citations by others in academia. How do these grades and scores correlate with these simple measures of validity outcomes?

This is the standard of due care in test making and grading, indeed, it has been for the past 40 years. Why is the law school privileged and immunized from these minimal standards of competency?

I am not giving the answer here.
2.2.2005 4:36pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
Sliver: Your other professional skills are highly valuable to the helpless, Harvard grad, senior partner type. If you are a lawyer he can hire for cheap due to your grades, he gets an inhouse computer expert at a fraction of retail. Imagine what this partner does not know if there is a lawsuit against a computer company.

It's a foreign language. You are a new immigrant. If you failed to speak great English after 6 months, would you decide to leave the country? No. You would practice it more.
2.2.2005 4:47pm
J Janssen (mail):
Hey Orin,

Its been a long time since Tower Hill. Unfortunately, I would take issue with your characterization of 1L grades. Achieving high grades as a 1L clears certain paths which make it easier to progress in the long run, at least for certain legal careers. First, at some law schools, high grades permit walk-ons to law reviews, which, for some reason (I still hear it when screening 5th years with the managing partners of my firm) still carries strength, particularly for litigation and appellate fields. In addition, as one attorney mentioned above, 1L grades are invaluable in achieving a clerkship in a top tier firm (or with a Judge n'est pas?), which carries weight in terms of starting salary and obtaining a position in a top tier firm.

Now, top tier firms are only for those who seek to practice in certain areas, and other excellent firms tend to shun those who "overachieved," (preferring those who write well, but whose personalities gel with the firm and appeal to a judge and jury) because these individuals sometimes present problems in firms that work in a team capacity. However, for those who are entering their first year, an important point to advise them is that this is merely one year out of their life, work as hard as they possibly can to get the best grades that they can, and they can hope to enjoy peace once in private practice (don't tell them that it gets much worse).

Great to see you on this website.
2.2.2005 9:35pm
Matt (mail):
Silver: As far as I can tell grades are related to brute force than anything else. I go to a top 20 law school and I improved my grades dramatically 2nd year by memorization. I got A's in the classes where I memorized caselaw/statutes. Clarity and organization probably do matter but brute force and fast typing matter more.

For example, my law school gives out 1 or 2 A+'s in every class. The person who has gotten the most A+'s studies from 7:00 am to after 12:00 am almost every day. I cannot speak for every school, but the correlation between brute force studying and grades is pretty high at my school.

I also do not think grades or even law school help much in actual practice. Admittedly only have one year of summer work experience, but I did not find lawschool very helpful. Lawschool showed me where to start, but that was about it.

And I also agree somewhat with SC. I am not on law review, but I am on an top 10 journal that is internationally known in its area. Every professional article I have worked on has been high on plagerism and mischaracterization and low on just about everything else (grammar, readability, citation, originality).
2.2.2005 10:52pm
Brian Sheppard:
This is a response to Supremacy. First, I am not entirely sure that you are criticizing what I said (I admit that I had a little trouble understanding your post, plus I am a novice on analytical or empirical methods). Nevertheless, I agree that once a connection between grades and some other quality is agreed upon, such methods should be employed to prove whether the posited correlation exists.

I suppose that your main target was my guess that the ability to impress a reviewer with a written submission could be more helpful in a legal career than legal comprehension in law school. I agree that this point is shaky (though I stick to it). Yet, this is a minor premise of my post at best. My initial point, and the more important one, was that we need first to be forthright about the quality we associate with grades, as there may be disagreement about this. Indeed, I felt that the most accurate definition of grades, and one that is most difficult to disagree with, is one that views grades alone and not in conjunction with another skill, etc. (e.g., making a lot of money, intelligence, or making partner). If you accept my definition and stay within it, then your analytical methods appear to be of little consequence (unless you can use them to show that there are say x percentage of transcription errors after the professor determines what she believes is the merit of an exam and writes in the grade). Why? I suppose it is because the definition places brackets around the hermeneutical act of grading, which results in making incorrect grading very rare (like in the case of transcription error). My analysis considers only the paper interpreted and the professor's interpretation of how it translates to a scale of grades.

Certainly your analytic methods would be helpful in PREDICTING what exams would get certain grades with that particular professor(think Holmes' Path of the Law). But I'm not sure that's what you meant; as such an analysis would take into account things quite different from the coefficients and measurable outcomes you suggest: it would consider the individual professor's preferences and history, what he ate for breakfast, the patterns of human behavior during that time of year, and the like. It would not correllate this act to whether the student will perform some further act in the future after grades are in.

But your post has made me do more thinking on the subject, and I now realize that at least in the prediction side of things, there is a possibility of randomness (although I think that it is harder to sell that one's preferences are random). I would instead say that the concept of incorrect grades does not easily follow from my definition rather than the concept of randomness.

Also, the puff pastry comment was funny but a little harsh, no?
2.3.2005 10:20am
JamesT:
Silver:

You are luckier then many law students in one respect. You already have a skill with which to bolster your appeal to employers, your experience in the computer industry. If you enjoy the computer industry, perhaps you should aim twords that field with a legal bent. In house counsel for a tech firm or the like, given your practical experience in the field I would think would be within your reach. And don't forget, you have five more semesters to pull the GPA up. If you are finding the load slightly overbearing, think about taking one or two summer classes to reduce your class load in the fall and spring. You should also seek out those opportunites that will grant you the ability to improve your skills package that grades don't factor into. For example, you may not be able to make law review with a C average. But what about Moot Court or some other in house writing competition? Are there other ways to gain experience that don't have the grade requirement? Research assistant? Is there a mentoring program at your school with established attorneys? You are sucessful in the computer industry, are there opportunities for you to write for a trade publication? Perhaps you could approach a professor and discuss writing a paper for publication combining your industry experience and an aspect of law you find interesting? Grab a copy of the state bar journal and find out what their article requirements are, see if you can co-author an article for them with an established attorney, professor, upper classman or try it on your own with editing help from a journal classmate or professor.

Grades are not a bar to success as an attorney. They may be a bar to the tradtional prestiege aspects, but not a bar to sucess. You may not be able to follow the sterotypical path as you may find some blocked by academics, so figure out way around those roadblocks to achieve what you want.

-thaddeusjd@excite.com
2.3.2005 10:22am
SupremacyClaus (mail):
Brian: Apologies for not defining terms. Reliability is repeatability, Repeatability is a synonym for justice. If a result is not repeatable in several ways, there is no point in trying to measure its validity (does it measure what it is supposed to?).

The most validated test of all the IQ was banned by the 9th Circuit, in 1984 (Larry P v Riles). It was being used to obtain more special ed services for minority students, to include, get more services, and justify a 4 fold increase in the tuition. To include. To help.

It is ironic that law school and bar exams are not a problem, despite their disparate impact on minority students. These tests are designed to injure, exclude, and damage the chances for employment.
2.4.2005 12:54am
Brian Sheppard (mail):
Supremacy,
I see what you are saying now, and I agree. Perhaps I was caught up in the conceptual side at the expense of the practical side, which is of obvious importance. Reminds me a bit of what Robert Cover criticizes in "Violence and the Word" (an incredible article).
As an aspiring academic, I was hoping that my positivist definition of grades would assist professors in getting dissatisfied students off of their backs. I realize, however, that these dissatisfied students often have a valid reason to be angry, given the powerful costs and benefits conditioned upon grades. And I think you are right to find the devil in that conditioning.
2.4.2005 11:17am
kfm:
Lawschool grades are fairly subjective, I think we can all agree as to that point. It is beyond argument that grades are very important. Whether they should be given the weight they are given is another question. I have worked with graduates of many of the top lawschools, and I will say that where you went is fairly unimportant in my opinion. A graduate of a top lawschool is no more intrinsically talented in the law than someone who graduated from a lower ranked school. Quite often the top tier lawstudent learned almost no practically useless substantive law. Where you went is far less important than how you did. Its important for a lawstudent to learn the game. Once you get out into the real world, you will see that most law graduates are roughly equivalent.
2.6.2005 1:37pm
WantToKnow:
Help! Can someone tell me what is a good or bad 1L fall grade? I feel like I have to be in top 10% in my average-quality law school or drop out. After receiving one B-, I am seriously thinking about it. Our school has a B curve. My GPA is somewhere between A- and B. Also I want to do IP law for my scientific background. I never took an essay test before law school.
2.10.2005 8:52pm