Dear Law Prof: I’m stressed about 1L grades!

Dear Law Prof,
I just received my grades from the first semester of law school, and I am agonizing over one of them.  Do you have any advice? –Concerned 1L

Dear Concerned 1L,

Many law schools have mandatory curves, so relatively few students can receive the top grades.  As a result, receiving your first semester law school grades can be difficult.  Here are four ideas about how you can think about the issue of grades in a more productive way.

Understand What Law Schools Teach and What They Test
The most important thing for students to know about law school is that all law school courses are skills courses, not pure knowledge courses.  This fact means that students start from different levels of competence at the analytical skills we teach, and they acquire them at different rates.  So, law school classes are more like tennis lessons than they are like anatomy courses; as you take more classes, your analytical skill grows and you develop more competence  With this understanding, you should not be too quick to make any judgments about yourself (or law school in general)  based upon first-semester grades.  Some people come to law school already adept at the style of analytical writing we require on exams, others have to start from zero, while others must unlearn writing styles (like journalism) that are inconsistent with how we approach legal problems.  The import of this insight is that first-semester grades are better indicators of where students start than where they will wind up after more practice with analytical writing.  The only way in which bad grades might be predictors of bad future performance is if students give up because they incorrectly conclude they will never excel at legal writing or test-taking, in which case their conclusion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Go Backward
What can you learn from a “bad” grade?  A lot.  Make an appointment to review the exam with your professor.  See if she or he has a model answer or a grading rubric or a photocopy of one of the top papers so that you can compare yours. While you are at it, review all of your exams, even if you performed well, and see if you have consistent patterns that may be undermining your performance.  We’ve seen students who fail to use salient facts because they are so focused on setting out the law, who focus on finding one right answer instead of seeing multiple perspectives, who cannot defend their pro-plaintiff or pro-defendant tilt, and who overuse words like “clearly” or underuse  words like “because.”   Law school exams are designed to test not merely your  knowledge of the law but also your ability to apply the law to different sets of facts than those you discussed in class.  Use last semester’s exam-taking process as a learning experience—in how you can take notes differently, create your own outline to synthesize the material, or put yourself through different practice drills.

Go Forward
You need to put the grade into perspective.  The first set of law school grades often looms so much larger in importance for students than it should, either mathematically or psychologically. Let’s do the math.  You have received a set of grades that will ultimately constitute 1/6 of your total grades in law school; the remaining 5/6 are left to be determined.  If you are worried about a single grade, you are worried about 1/30 of your final grade point average.  Also, law school grades are on a different scale than undergraduate grades because. of grade normalization or the mandatory curve, and these differ pretty dramatically from your undergraduate expectations.  This is important to keep in mind as you reflect on your grades.

But the math is a diversion from the main point — don’t let your grades shape you.

Shift the Focus
Ninety percent of law students will not graduate in the top ten percent of the class. If you spend your time agonizing over grades, you’ll miss out on many opportunities to learn and grow . . .  and you’ll be miserable.  Studies show that people who study by trying to master a subject perform better than people who study by strategizing how to get a particular grade. Students who concentrate on learning objectives (“Can I explain the concept of res ipsa loquitur to my 10th grade nephew and show him how it works?”) actually perform better on exams than students who fret over grades (“I wonder if I’m studying hard enough to get a B?”). What you can do is to shift the focus away from grades and toward studying more effectively — not putting in more hours, but studying smarter.  Here is one place you can go to find ways to do that.

Beyond that, think about the things that interest you in law. One of the best antidotes to worry is action. Instead of focusing only on credentials in an effort to maximize some unidentified future options, start to discover what areas of legal work interest you.  Start attending lectures outside the walls of the classroom on topics that pique your interest, read books and articles and watch podcasts in areas of interest to you, consider writing a small article on a topic to both inform and credential yourself. Talk with practicing lawyers about what they do and what they like and dislike about their practice. These activities will enrich you far beyond their networking or resume fodder value.

The Law Profs
Full disclosure:  The law profs are:  Nancy Levit, UMKC School of Law, and Todd Peterson and Naomi Cahn, GWU Law School.

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