An Introduction to Law School Grades for New Law Students

In a previous post, I mentioned that the law school grading system is very different from the one that students experienced in undergrad. In reality, one of the least understood and most feared aspects of the law school experience is the grading system. Misunderstandings and fear primarily occur for 3 reasons: (1) law school grades are calculated much differently than your grades were in undergrad; (2) students expect that the same amount of work that it took to get an “A” in undergrad will work to get an “A” in law school; and (3) many law students believe that the only acceptable grade in any course is an “A.”

The Grading System: Let’s start with a discussion of how the grading system works at many law schools. Although not all law schools follow this approach to grades, the majority take an approach similar to what I will describe. Many law schools have a policy for how grades are distributed in each course—in other words, how many As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs that a professor should assign, and what the median grade should be for each course. For example, the grading policy at Law School X might direct the professor to assign approximately 15-20% As, 35-40% Bs, 30-35% Cs, and 5-10% Ds and Fs. Not all law schools have the same grade distribution, and the policy may be different for 1L classes than it is for upper-level classes. Regardless, the end result is that not everyone will get an “A”—or even a “B”—in each law school class.

Student Expectations: New law students’ expectations about grades are generally based upon their experiences in undergrad. If you’ve been successful in the past and earned high grades, you generally expect that you will earn similar grades in law school. Some law students view the grade system I’ve just described as unfair because they believe that they’re being penalized by the limits on how many high grades can be earned in a particular class. In reality, the requirements for earning an “A” are much greater in law school, and the same amount of work—or quality of work—that you did in undergrad to get an “A” does not get you as far in law school. It is much more difficult to perform at an “A” level in law school classes, and the grade distribution is usually a pretty fair estimate of how students actually perform. The end result: you will have to recalibrate your expectations about what is required of you for “A” work as a law student.

Although High Grades Have Value, They Should Not Be Your Most Important Goal in Law School: Don’t get me wrong. Grades are important. There are certain types of jobs that require high grades, like judicial clerkships and associate attorney positions at BigLaw firms. But even the people who ultimately obtain those positions have generally not made straight As, and the vast majority of legal jobs do not require that you graduate in the top 10 percent of your class. Instead of obsessing over grades, you will be better served by focusing your attention on learning the law to become the best lawyer you can be. (In fact, there are studies that show that people who have these kinds of internal motivations tend to be more successful than those who are motivated by external goals such as grades, money, and fame.)

Finally, You’re Not Defined by the First Grades You Earn in Law School: Sometimes, students believe that if they earn a “C” in a law school class their first semester, they’re just not cut out to be a lawyer and should quit law school. Although a “C” may indicate that you don’t understand the material as well as you should or don’t yet have exam skills required for long-term success, a “C” grade does not usually signal that you can’t be successful in law school and the practice of law. As I’ve discussed before here and here, grades provide helpful information that you can use to improve your performance in law school in the future. Even if you don’t earn the grades you hope to receive in your first semester, you can improve your performance in subsequent semesters, especially if you work with the academic support professionals at your law school. Sometimes it just takes students longer to perfect their personal approach to learning in law school—if you’re disciplined in your approach to your studies in the long-term and strive to constantly improve, you have the ability to reach your full potential as a law student and future lawyer.

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Filed under General, Grades, Pre-Law

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