You Have Your First Law School Grades: Now What?

law school grades

While most Americans regard January as chance to recover from the holidays. But for law students, January marks a time of high anxiety: the arrival of law school grades. Though students worry about grades to varying degrees throughout law school, first year students usually experience the highest levels of stress.

Let’s be honest: anyone who tells you that law school grades don’t matter is lying. Your grades, particularly your first-year grades, will shape your early career. Also, as this blog has discussed, given the level of bias and discrimination African-American attorneys face, Black law students may rightly feel that their grades matter even more than other students’. However, if you stumbled in your first semester, don’t fret. Even if you did well, there are some things you need to consider. Read on for tips on what to do after receiving your first law school grades.

Understanding Law School Grades: A Quick Summary

Hopefully, someone at your law school has explained the grading system. In short, nearly every law school in America grades on a curve. You must understand two things about the curve to truly understand your grades.

First, no matter what 2Ls and 3Ls might tell you, the curve is not your enemy! The curve exists to ensure fairness. If there is a curve, a professor cannot fail an entire class. Now, 2Ls and 3Ls may tell you that curves are unfair because they also mean that the professor cannot give everyone As. This is true. However, please understand that most law students are much closer to failing than they are to passing. So, rather than thinking that the curve kept you from getting an A, it’s better to think that the curve kept you from getting an F. In short, the curve is your friend.

Second, when students are graded on a curve, it means they are graded against their peers. While this might not seem important, it means that professors are not allowed to rank you against the perfect, model exam answer that they’ve written or against students from last year or five years ago. So, as you evaluate your performance, remember that your grade reflects how you performed against the other people who took that test at that time. So, in law schools, higher grades mean that a student has outperformed her peers while lower grades mean the opposite.

What to Do Next

If you’re wondering what to do about your law school grades, don’t fret.  The list below provides tips for students at all levels.

  • High Grades (A to B+, 100-88, or top 15-20% of class)

If you did well in your first semester, congratulations! Your strong performance in the first semester is a good indicator that you’re on the right track. However, law school lasts three years. The number one pitfall successful students face after the first semester is complacency. So, you must work hard if you want your success to continue. Remember, your peers have also gotten their grades. They want As this semester. They are coming for you. If you stop working, they will catch you – and pass you. Don’t slack off. Keep working. No shortcuts.

  • Middle Grades (B to C, 87 to 74, middle 40 to 50% of class)

In most law schools, Bs and Cs are the most popular grades. (Thank the curve.) So, if you’re a B or C student, you are firmly in the middle of the pack. There is no shame in that. However, if you want to move to front of the pack, here are a few things you can do to push ahead.

First, most law professors make themselves available to review student exams. However, most professors will tell you that few students take advantage of the opportunity. If you take your spring exams without first learning from the mistakes you made in the fall, you have decided that you are perfectly okay with getting the same – or worse – grades in the spring. Taking a little time to identify a few things to do differently can make a world of difference.

Second, think about your study habits. If you can honestly say that: 1) you strictly followed your study schedule; 2) you read and outlined each case before every class; 3) you paid careful attention during class; and 4) you took advantage of any and all extra help offered by the professor, your study skills may not be the issue. However, if you answered “no” to any of these questions, you may need to make bigger changes. You may want to make an appointment with a professor, mentor, tutor, or other law school staff member to help you pinpoint areas where you can improve your study skills.

  • Low or Failing Grades (C- or below, 73 or below, bottom 25%)

You’ve worked your entire life to get to law school. You never expected to get the grades you got, but there they are. Unfortunately, there is little you can do to change them. Fortunately, there are things you can do to improve in the spring semester and beyond. You should follow the recommendations for B students listed above and also take the steps below.

First, don’t despair. Take a moment and take a breath (or two). Law school lasts six semesters, so you have five semesters to improve. Many students stumble in the first semester. There is a reason why many law schools give “most improved” awards. Don’t give up.

Second, look at your life outside of law school. Were you distracted by financial, family, or other non-academic concerns? If so, think of ways to eliminate or reduce your stressors in the upcoming semester. Do what you can to make law school your primary focus.

Third, ask yourself the most difficult question of all: Do you really want to be in law school? People enroll in law school for many reasons. If you enrolled in law school for the wrong reasons (to impress family, to make money, to “prove” something, etc.), your road ahead will be more difficult. Distractions can be addressed. Study plans can be tweaked. But passion can’t be faked. Law school also requires dedication and endurance. If your heart isn’t truly in it, your poor law school grades may be a blessing in disguise. If you just can’t muster a passion for the law, consider cutting your losses early and dedicating yourself to your real dreams.

Finally, you must accept help. As previously mentioned on this blog, many African American law students find it difficult to accept help, particularly from white faculty and staff, for fear that it will simply confirm the racist notion that Black folks aren’t cut out to be lawyers. While this fear is understandable, do not give into it. Accept any and all help that comes your way. In addition to meeting with your professors and reviewing your exams, you may need to enroll in special academic support courses. You may need a tutor. You may need to retake courses. It may be difficult but stay positive. Remember, in this case, the only true failure would be not accepting help.

Law school is hard. No matter how you fared in your first semester, law school will remain difficult. Remember to ask for help when you need it.  As you work to build your career in law school and beyond, The African American Attorney Network will be there for you. Use The Network to find information on succeeding in law school, passing the bar exam, landing a job, and succeeding as an African American attorney.