First off- they matter. If you don’t get above average grades many law firms won’t even consider you most of the time. However, some recruiting periods (like the first semester of law school) either ignore law grades or downgrade them in relative importance to other aspects of your application. In making this claim, I am assuming they are based mostly on 70-100% finals which consist of a 4 hour or less exam covering a whole semester’s worth of material. Grades should not be decisive factors which weed out potential applicants from certain sectors of employment. Here are 10 reasons why:
1. they do not necessarily prove real-world legal or analytical ability
When I actually am working, will a firm give me a complex problem composed of a mutated hybrid of unresolved legal issues and expect I write out a complete answer to it in a few hours? Of course not. Take home exams, moots and research assignments are much better indicators of real world ability. Yet when they are tested, they often are worth a fraction of the overall mark relative to final exams. Meaning, an A on a 25% research paper is invisible if the 75% final is a C.
2. they can be capricious and are often determined more by chance than ability
My C-student roommate texted me the night before a 100% international environmental final exam asking if I had any notes I could share. Apparently never going to class, not doing any of the readings and not having any notes or materials to work with made him worry about passing the exam. I asked him a few weeks later how it went down and apparently he got a B by cut and pasting some Wikipedia entries under the subject headings of the course outline and freestyling his answers.
I have personally had A level success by pulling out last minute answers and suffered Cs on exams that had significant preparation put into them.
3. they don’t consider intangibles that may affect grades positively or negatively
Some people have superior outlines or CANs. Some people have excellent commercial study aids. Some students have family obligations and personal hardships. Not all students are created equal and therefore performance on one exam won’t adequately characterize what that student will bring to the table.
4. they can be faked
…and fraud is probably more common than most people think. Photoshop can make that bad report card look good awfully quickly and compellingly. And bittorrent technology means the hefty Adobe price tag doesn’t put the software out of reach of the average starving student. Safety features like watermarks can be forged as well. Does every firm or business contact the school and ask the registrar to mail them a sealed envelope containing a positively genuine transcript?
5. they are important mainly because they are a quick and easy way to separate “good” students from “bad” ones
Recruiters can be as lazy as anyone else. The last thing they want to do is spend extra time poring over every detail in an application which may indicate one candidate is superior to another. A quicker way is to just narrow the list of applicants by cutting off a certain number of those who don’t make the grade. Unfortunately, some of the best people in my class, those who I believe will make the best and most successful lawyers, are people who are C students and thus do not make the cut under existing recruitment regimes at many firms.
6. they won’t matter after your first day of work
Just like the LSAT, no one will care about grades after they’ve been used to get onto the preceding hamster wheel.
7. after working hard to earn that A average, don’t be surprised if you get hired alongside someone who got Cs
It happens quite a bit. Some are lucky, some have connections. I met a girl at a prestigious big city firm who was a C student and had weak social skills but had played hockey with one of the partners at the firm. Some get summer jobs (based on previous work or social experience) and get offers before (or even after) grades are revealed.
I suppose nothing is lost by having great grades, unless you compromise other important areas (friends, family, work/life experience) to get them.
8. Truly successful people have other skills; outstanding students tend to be grinders
To be successful in law or any human enterprise, you generally have to be a good people person. At some point, no matter how great your grades are, if you’re a social buffoon, no one will care that you tended were the most coherent of your peers on your 3 hour 100% final exams. If robots were effective lawyers, they’d have been invented long ago.
The reality is many great students tend to be socially awkward and undeveloped in non-academic areas. In the real world, complex legal problems exist in contexts requiring common sense, street smarts, and/or social graces. Not every person has these skills. I met a 30-something year old partner at the most prestigious law firm in this city at a recruitment event who proudly bragged about being a regular contributor to hotchickswithdouchebags.com.
There is much truth to the adage, A students become Profs, B students become judges, and C students become rich!
9. Some profs hand out arbitrary grades
Profs usually aren’t at universities to teach. They are there to research. 80-90% of their time is devoted to research, and the rest between free time and teaching. Do the math, short cuts are inevitable.
This may sound like a petty excuse and it is often used by underachieving students who fail to get the method of success. But at one of the country’s best law schools (judged moreso by reputation than actual quality), I had the opportunity of attending a split (3rd year level) law and arts class in my last year of undergrad. I worked hard to get an A- on a 25 page research paper on a topic that was a personal passion. I spent 3 weeks of serious work on it, only to find out a friend who did his a few nights before it was due got the same grade…as did 4 other friends I had in the class. When I asked the elder law students at the school about this Prof, they chuckled and said it was no great secret he gave random grades to the students. For what its worth, while the arts students got As, the law students got Cs in the same class.
10. Most law schools grade on a curve
If you had a class where half the class wrote exams worthy of an A, only a fraction of that half would actually be awarded an A. This is counterproductive because different Profs teach different classes. Some are better teachers than others. Some classes have a greater percentage of excellent students than others, putting the average but otherwise sufficiently competent student at a massive relative disadvantage. The goal should be measuring ability. Not relative ability. Individuals should be distinguished by soft factors like life experience and extra-curriculars, not metaphysical exercises in relativity.
11. The places that value grades the most, BigLaw firms, tend to be places the socially successful and ambitious student would probably hate working at
Long hours, relatively meager pay (especially in the beginning), being ignored or disregarded by the rest of the firm and a lack of lifestyle mean the firms that market themselves the most to students often do so because they realize they’re peddling an inferior product. Case in point: an acquaintance was working for a Wall Street law firm and worked until 4AM on a litigation file. The boss then told him, “Go home and get some sleep. See you at 8!”