Tuesday , 27 June 2017

Law School Job Search Strategy: Do Grades Matter After 1L? (Chapter 3)

Do Grades Matter After 1LWith the rigors of 1L behind them, and 1L grades finally available to sort the incoming 2L class into the haves and the have nots for purposes of 2L OCI, an argument can be made that the rest of law school is largely meaningless academically. For the students that have secured summer associate positions, it should become quite obvious that they will no longer be measured by their academic success, but by the summer of work ahead of them. For the students that have not been as fortunate, barring some rare exception, academically-obsessed big law has been foreclosed and their focus should turn towards gaining as much practical experience as possible in preparation for the entry-level positions that will become available to them and a little more than half of their class peers closer to graduation. Of course, this does not mean that 2Ls suddenly have free reign to start piling on Cs, but this sort of attitude about post-1L grades certainly isn’t unreasonable regardless of which side of the fence a law student occupies come 2L. After all, both groups of students ultimately desire post-graduate employment, and with grades no longer playing as big of a role, there’s an incentive to prioritize what matters most to securing that employment (preparing for the summer work or gaining practical experience). However, even if it is assumed there are no real benefits to keeping grades high, the real question is why skimp out on grades when 2L and 3L year are so much easier?

To begin, there are those law students who will not let their grades slip no matter the circumstances. There’s many of them, so perhaps a lot of this is preaching to the choir. However, there is an important caveat. Depending on the context, this can be both good and bad. For the summer associate, having this attitude does not hurt because there’s nothing really required that takes precedence short of being prepared to impress come summer time. For the student without a summer associate position, this may be damaging if it comes at the expense of seeking internships to boost that resume. It’s one thing to be able to handle getting good grades post-1L and simultaneously gaining practical experience, it’s quite another if there is a focus on doing nothing other than preparing for exams all semester. The latter plan of attack is unreasonable in the New Normal, when the competition for what will be available closer to graduation has tightened immensely. Unfortunately, this exclusive focus on grades and extracurricular activities like journal is quite common, especially among 2Ls that missed the OCI boat at a school that has a relatively decent OCI showing. For some of these 2Ls, there’s an unfounded belief that there is still a fighting chance to sneak into big law by improving grades some more and trying again at 3L OCI or upon graduation. This is largely due to a combination of optimism and a lack of material information about the relevant statistics, but it simply should not be the plan going forward unless improving or maintaining your grades, participating in these extracurricular activities, and gaining practical experience can all be handled simultaneously (which, by the way, is recommended).

For the remainder of 2Ls that do not have this automatic drive to keep their academic progress in check past 1L, here’s the ultimate question: what exactly is so hard about continuing to maintain or improving your grades through 2L and 3L year? For the summer associates, the initial gunning was accomplished and it is now time to relax without completely destroying what has been built. Fair point. However, this is 2L and 3L year. There’s either no curve in a class, or a more generous curve if it exists. Outside of a few post-1L requirements, you can also select your courses. You can relax all semester and do enough studying come finals time to still do well. Does the need to relax need to extend into that short segment of time that is finals period? For those students without a summer associate position, for the same reasons outlined above, why slack on the grades? Assuming your law clerk or internship position does not have you working the whole week, it’s not exactly unbearable to handle your classwork as well. The reasoning behind completely ignoring grades for either group, without some rare justification, just does not make sense. These classes aren’t hard, unless you willingly subject yourself to the most brutal substantive law-based electives with harsh curves. This brings up another important point. By being able to pick your own schedule, it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out a way to skate by with easy classes that result in high grades. You have to remember that nobody will care in the future about what specific classes you took in law school, only potentially about your class rank upon graduation. It’s a no-brainer for even the laziest of 2Ls: take easy classes because nobody cares. At least maintain that GPA to slide only slightly, or even improve it.

When Grades Might Matter

Although there’s little to fear for either group (within reason) about potential grade drops post-1L, there are reasonable arguments to be made for keeping those grades high.

Summer Associate Full Time Offers: There is much debate over whether any 2L should fear getting no offered due to a severe grade drop 2L year. Although the chances of this are highly unlikely because the summer long interview is the ultimate test, a grade drop has been used to “justify” no offers in this New Normal. It’s the perfect scapegoat, even if it is not the actual reason for the no offer. To this extent, even though the strongest argument continues to be that grades do not matter for purposes of receiving a full time offer (indeed, some firms don’t even request a transcript), why even give a firm the chance to use this as an excuse? Furthermore, if there really is an economic justification on the firm’s part for no offering somebody, but every summer associate did well socially and work wise, arbitrary or often-ignored factors quickly come into play. In this scenario, grades may very well matter. Ultimately, someone can make up any reason for why grades may matter to a firm for these purposes, that doesn’t mean it is probable. However, with the New Normal leaving thousands of hungry and highly-credentialed students in the dust, ensuring grades cannot be a justification isn’t a very high trade off in a much more relaxed 2L academic environment. This is no longer 2007.

An important caveat for transfer students: you are not in the same boat as your new law school’s peers. Often, it is the case that a firm comes to the transfer school’s OCI but it does not come to the original school. You have a greater burden of showing you belong with your new peers after your 1L GPA is erased and you start fresh academically at your transfer school. If your GPA suddenly drops to a level that would not meet the firm’s cutoff, there is more room to argue that you are in greater danger, even if that danger is still rather improbable. Just something to keep in mind.

Big Law Lateraling: There’s a lot of controversy over whether grades matter after your initial stint in big law. On the one hand, work experience will trump everything, so if you have gained substantive legal experience at your initial firm the rest is history. On the other hand, big law is quite obsessed with prestige, because their clients are impressed with prestige. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that class rank upon graduation from law school will be considered and preference one candidate over another. There’s nothing like adding an associate to the firm’s website that has another notch on his or her belt: latin honors or order of the coif. To ignore this reality is simply unreasonable. Now, that does not mean grades are universally declared important to anybody a few years out. However, it’s possible that where you apply they will still matter. The mere fact it’s possible and has been anecdotally demonstrated online should be enough to hold weight. If you couple this with how easy it generally is to not slip 2L and 3L year academically, it’s hard to justify checking out completely after that summer associate offer.

Non-Big Law Post-Graduation Employment: Although most places do not place as great of an emphasis on grades as big law, this is the New Normal. Every entry-level legal job opening will have a swarm of applicants hoping to secure an offer post-graduation. When the process becomes this competitive, it does not take long for the employers to start sorting applications via a quick glance at a law graduate’s class rank. When your competition will have substantive practical experience, extracurricular activities, and grades, where does that leave you? The state of the legal market currently leaves no choice for law students that missed the big law boat: you must do whatever you can to give yourself a potential edge. This is why the idea of having that internship, being on that journal, and continuing to keep the grades high have pretty much become prerequisites. If everybody does this, none of this will matter. However, every law student will not do this. You should, especially those individuals that did not fare that well 1L. The extra check next to the good grades may not ultimately help, but it certainly won’t hurt.

In the end, although foregoing a focus on grades post-1L will not be disastrous as long as any slide is kept to acceptable levels and what matters most for post-graduate employment is prioritized, there are two things to consider that narrow the justification window for checking out academically starting 2L year. First, this is not 1L. These 2L and 3L classes are easier, and you have the additional option of choosing the easiest among them to keep the workload light and the grades high. Second, keeping the grades high may have little ultimate value for any one student as so much random pieces are at play, but it certainly can’t hurt you. Combining the relative ease of these two remaining law school years with the potential benefits, it’s hard to justify calling it quits mentally. You never know what lies ahead, and you’re paying a solid chunk of change for these classes. It’s a win-win situation, why risk it?

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