Your 1L Grades Don’t Matter

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on May 29, 2011 in Unsolicited Commentary | Subscribe

The first batch of 1L grades got posted Tuesday here at NCCU Law… in turn prompting the first batch of telephone calls from panicked 1Ls worried about their performance :beatup:

First, breathe.

Second, repeat after me: “My 1L grades don’t matter.”

Yeah I said it. Your 1L grades do. not. matter.

I’ve mentioned before that NCCU Law is one of the few law schools that still follows a strict-C median, and also academically dismisses any student who falls below a 2.0 at the end of any year (all the way up through 3L/4LE). Although I’m not a fan of the dismissal policy, my personal $.02 is that the low C-curve helps produce better-prepared attorneys; apparently I’m part of an “old school” worldview that looks at grades as providing feedback primarily to the student, not to the outside world.

Unfortunately the C curve also means folks who coasted through undergrad with no serious criticism and near-perfect GPAs (often thanks to B+ curves that are becoming the norm nationwide) are only now learning they can’t be superior at everything (cue the :eek:  faces).


“But TDot, you don’t understand! I made the top 10%!”

Congratulations! I really, truly, seriously am proud of you (seriously)… and it still doesn’t matter ;)  Yes, you now get to grade on to law review without having to do these agonizing BlueBook exercises. But they don’t give out bonus points in 2L and 3L classes just because you did well as a 1L. The material you’ll be learning is more expansive, the training wheels are taken off, and in the electives you’ll be taking as a 2L you’re going to be held to the same standards as everyone else — including us 3Ls in class with you :*


“But TDot, you don’t understand! I’m only at [some number ≥2.0] and I will never get into BigLaw and my life is ruined and omg omg omg!”

A few points here: (1) it doesn’t matter; (2) 90% of us didn’t make the top 10% either (and are doing just fine might I add); and (3) if the blawgosphere is to be believed, there are Ivy League kids with perfect GPAs who still can’t get into BigLaw… yet we’ve got several classmates and graduates doing just that, including at least one out West whose 1L GPA was below mine. The position was advertised on the jobs board, she submitted her résumé and an impeccably-edited writing sample, snagged an interview and took it from there.

While some firms will ignore applicants below a certain threshold GPA, many provide interviews based on factors beyond raw metrics.1 If you really do want to work in BigLaw (I’m judging you for it, jsyk :P ) then your work experience over this summer, coupled with your willingness to network and prepare an immaculate writing sample, will play a bigger role in the 2L job hunt than your 1L GPA.

Oh, I forgot: you also have 2 more years to bring your GPA up ;)


“But TDot, you don’t understand! I’m only at [some number <2.0] and I will never make it through law school and my life is ruined and omg omg omg!”

OK so in your case your 1L GPA will have a bit more of an impact, something I saw first-hand as most of my good friends during 1L year didn’t make it back for 2L year. But, if you still want to become an attorney and you’re dedicated to making it happen, these 1L grades still don’t matter.

First, figure out what happened; some of you had difficult personal or family situations that were beyond your control, some of you dug a hole in the Fall that was too deep to climb out of, some of you just had a bad day. Whatever the reason, use this upcoming year to get things squared away. Pick up your exams from your professors and see where things went wrong; if writing was a weakness, work with a writing coach. If it was something personal, do what you can to resolve the situation(s) or at least minimize the impact they’ll have on you in the future. Tie up loose ends. And generally position yourself to make a compelling case to the Admissions Committee when you appeal for readmission next year.


The main thing to remember, regardless of which of these categories you happen to be in, is that nothing is impossible. You’re reading a blog written by a guy who was booted from college as a sophomore, boasting a 1.x GPA and a $16K-ish debt to my future alma mater. I got back, got graduated, got into law school — and had an almost-criminal amount of fun along the way once I stopped fearing failure :D

And I still found a (well-paid) law job even after my 1L grades were safely below the Top 10%. Don’t believe me? Check my transcripts for yourself:

There’s nothing any of us can do to change any of our grades — so why stress about them? :P  Instead of letting your grades run your life, do what needs to be done so you run your life.

Trust me: if I can do it you can too ;)  Good night y’all!

  1. As counterintuitive as it sounds, this is particularly true in a bad economy. It’d take a whole ‘nother entry to explain the rationale, but the short version is that information asymmetry between applicant and employer gets worse as the ratio of applicants-to-jobs goes up, pushing employers to rely on non-quantitative criteria like recommendations from existing employees or other people of trust. []
  2. More F’s than A’s: 13 A’s, 12 B’s, 11 C’s, 4 D’s, 16 F’s. Plus a 4:3 pass/fail ratio in my credit-only classes. And I still had a trio of options for law school. []

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I could not agree with this more.
I wish I would have read it after my own batch of 1L grades, actually.
Care to look into the future and write an inspiring post about bar passage? :)

What's in a Name?!?
May 31, 2011 at 4:56 PM

One of the most relevent things I’ve ever read. There is probably someone thinking that it may not be viable to their success as an academician or legal scholar, but the applicability to life and practice is immeasurable as sound and solid advice. Excellent Mr. President!!!

May 31, 2011 at 7:19 PM

Although I have yet to receive all my grades, I have a feeling this is going to make me feel better about Civ Pro! :)

Jun 2, 2011 at 1:42 PM

I’d agree if you said poor 1L grades weren’t the end of the world, but it’s obvious they do in fact matter.

If you are trying to go the big law route, they are in fact the only grades that matter. Your second summer gig will be based largely on your 1L grades (the only grades you have at the time of interviews) and your first summer job, which is largely influenced by your first semester grades. Law review is, of course, also based mostly on 1L grades, and getting on LR can help you land a job later, especially if you want to clerk for a judge or enter academia.

Saying 1L grades don’t matter in legal job hunting is like saying having feet doesn’t matter in running a marathon. Sure, amputees with prosthetics have run and done well, but that just means that feet are not the only factor; that’s different from “does not matter.”

Jun 2, 2011 at 1:48 PM

BL1Y – anyone banking on a big law career is 1) not reading this post, and 2) already the gunner on top of the curve.

What's in a Name?!?
Jun 2, 2011 at 2:21 PM

I sat in class and watched some of fellow Legal Eagles surf the web or maintain their social connections ala Facebook. I also watched these same people do extremely well on exams. Erstwhile, I watched some struggle and fight and made marginal albeit passing grades. All of that leads to this premise. If I have to be a party of some contest, whom do I want as my advocate? If you think I want the social facebook butterfly, you’re grossly mistaken. The ability to regurgitate back what is written or parrot an outline or study guide is not what I consider to be adequate. Under the guise of fiduciary success and how it’s defined, yes, in context, 1L grades matter. After the bar exam is passed, does it matter whether you had a 4.0 or a 2.0? To some it does. Just like it matters to some from where that J.D. was obtained. But the end result is still the same; you’re both lawyers. Practice is built on reputation, not GPA. Your skill in the courtroom and your ability to successfully negotiate and represent for your client far surpasses your transcript. To that end, Greg is spot on in his assessment.

Jun 2, 2011 at 4:52 PM

If you’ve got no shot at a decent job anyways, then yeah, your grades aren’t that important.

But if you want to be somebody, you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention, because …hold on, …sorry, I was summoning Whoopi there. My bad.

What's in a Name?!?
Jun 2, 2011 at 10:48 PM

Well, when you get Whoopi on the line, tell her it’s all moot at this point. 1L is over and it is what it is…or isn’t, as the case may be. Nobody, I don’t think, said, “get in there and don’t try to achieve, strive for mediocrity.” Who, indeed, sets out to fail? But once you’ve given it your all, is fretting going to change it? Think not.

Jun 4, 2011 at 7:31 PM

Bad 1L grades are not the end of the world. Life can turn out OK. Fair enough. And obviously if you have bad 1L grades, an upward trend in 2L & 3L year are better than continuing a trend of bad grades.

But T Dot… as a biglaw associate, I’ve gotta disagree on your assessment re: biglaw jobs. You’re talking out of your ass on this one, buddy. This statement is flat FALSE: “If you really do want to work in BigLaw (I’m judging you for it, jsyk) then your work experience over this summer, coupled with your willingness to network and prepare an immaculate writing sample, will play a bigger role in the 2L job hunt than your 1L GPA.”

(1) They are still pretty much just looking at grades and an ability to sit through a series of 20 minute interviews without saying something racist or sexist. And in a bad economy, they have gotten only more selective.
(2) My law firm NEVER saw my grades (other than my 1L grades) before I got a permanent offer. And then I sent them my transcript when I graduated. And they just checked to make sure that I actually did graduate. 1L grades are far more important THAN ANY OTHER YEAR for the biglaw-bound.
(3) Most biglaw firms do NOT look at any writing samples. I don’t even recall submitting one for any of those firms. Grades are their proxy for ability to write, and your summer work product as an SA is usually the only written product they evaluate.

It is fine if you don’t want to go into biglaw and don’t know much about it, but you should probably not give advice on the biglaw hiring process. More deluded people with bad information out on the biglaw market thinking they’re going to make $160k starting is not helpful to them or the people that have to throw all their resumes into the trash.

Jun 4, 2011 at 8:10 PM

Also the crap about “Who do you want as your lawyer?” (as though Facebooking in Bioethics was at all relevant to how good of a lawyer you’ll be):

Rational clients want an attorney who can achieve the objective (winning the case; or, here, getting a good grade) as efficiently as possible (because time=money). Nobody cares if their attorney is doing it for the love of the law and listened intently to a professor ramble on about Blackacre. If not-Facebooking helps you do better in the class and achieve whatever your own objectives are, then carry on with your not-Facebooking. But the moral superiority is probably undeserved on that one… Do your own thing and don’t worry about what other people doing.

What's in a Name?!?
Jun 5, 2011 at 12:17 PM

Duly noted. And thank you. I’m beginning to understand why there is a continual morals and ethics emphasis more and more.

Jun 5, 2011 at 2:19 PM

You must have missed the continued law & economics emphasis in the law school curriculum . . . and must not have excelled in the ethics classes either . . . .

There is no moral valence to liking the law or not or THINKING you will be a good lawyer or not. Similarly, there is no moral valence to Facebooking or not-Facebooking in a class. In fact, you’d be committing malpractice if you actually relied on anything from a lecture in “real life”.

Professional ethics are inherently action and outcome-focused and NOT based on your subjective motivations. For example, you are still committing malpractice even if you love the law and work really hard at it but still get the answer wrong in the end to the detriment of your client. It matters more whether or not you are objectively good at lawyering, not whether you subjectively WANT to be good at lawyering. Reputation is based on skill and outcomes, not passion. Passion can certainly be an asset, but one can be diligent and effective without it.

What's in a Name?!?
Jun 5, 2011 at 10:05 PM

Yes, I kinda figured it was going to something like that.

Jun 9, 2011 at 12:04 PM

@Va: Your assertion that I’m “talking out of my ass” notwithstanding, you and BL1Y both essentially conceded my point when you started with agreeing bad 1L grades aren’t the end of the world :)

The simple reality is there are NCCU Law alums in the halls of AmLaw100/NLJ250 firms, including at least one — likely more, but at least one whose transcript I saw — who had 1L grades lower than mine (and mine of course were nothing to write home about). I’m not sure that can be attributed solely to diversity given that the list of our recent BigLaw alums encompasses both blacks and whites, women and men; that includes my classmate, who went through the regular app process instead of the separate program for minority applicants.

Maybe they didn’t req a writing sample from you (or even most of their associates), but let’s also take into account our respective law schools; I’m pretty sure there’s a strong presumption that Duke Law grads know how to write, and I’m equally sure that presumption doesn’t exist for those of us in Tier IV ;)

I’ll comment on the other stuff later, gotta run to the USPS to drop off a passport app. To be continued… :)

Jun 9, 2011 at 12:51 PM

I think we’re also using different definitions of “biglaw” FWIW. The Vault100 is the only law firm rankings anyone in biglaw looks at (other than our PR people). The “Biglaw” moniker is not just about size.

NLJ250 is based solely on # of attorneys (and in any event extends down to firms that have about 150 attorneys . . . there is no way that there are 250 “biglaw” firms in the US). But more importantly, it doesn’t figure in national presence/salary/prestige/client quality/firm finances/practice group rankings, so you could be doing insurance defense and churning out bankruptcies for a dude with TV commercials making below market pay and still be on the NLJ250. I don’t mean this with any sort of value judgment (I have worked at small-law & mid-law firms that I loved, and my pops was in solo-law), but there are many firms on the NLJ250 list that are very good firms but are definitely NOT biglaw. (There are several firms on there that are regional at best, some with a presence only in one state, and many, many that have zero national name recognition.)

I also didn’t mean to give the impression that there was probably a diversity bump for your grad. Beyond first-year summer associate programs, there’s not that much of a diversity bump in biglaw.

However, I am honestly very skeptical that a biglaw firm hired someone with lame grades from a Tier IV school, but if they did I would imagine it would be based on the person’s kickass previous work experience or would NOT be through the normal hiring process. I really do not believe that a writing sample (unless it was published in the Harvard Law Review as an article) is anywhere near enough to overcome poor grades from a low-ranked school. I just don’t think the hiring coordinator (who is an HR staffer, not a lawyer) would pass such a candidate on to the hiring partners. (My very strong suspicion is that this person, if they’re in biglaw, would technically be a “contract attorney”, which is very common . . . you can say you work at the firm, I guess, but you’re not an associate, and you are doing doc review at a lower salary on a contract basis sometimes at an off-site location, and there is no room for advancement. Underbelly of biglaw . . .).

Anyway, I maintain my position that biglaw firms hire on your grades, school, skill at not being a complete tool in a series of 20-minute interviews, and ability to drink a lot without throwing up on a partner over the summer. Pointing to the (possible) extremely rare exception as evidence that grades don’t matter for biglaw is still doing a disservice to any of your readers who may be hoping for the golden handcuffs.

Jun 10, 2011 at 11:40 AM

“Hope” got a man elected President, surely it can get someone into BigLaw too ;)

(I kid, I kid)


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