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Landing a Great Lawyer Job With Not-So-Great Grades

By Shauna C. Bryce

Landing a Great Lawyer Job in Spite of Not-So-Great Grades

A common sentiment among students and junior lawyers is that there is no hope of landing a quality legal job if you’re not in the top twenty-five percent of your class. Is that true? And, if so, what does it mean for the other seventy-five percent? What does it mean for people with a cumulative GPA under 3.0?

There’s no doubt about it -- your law school GPA is important for your first job (or two) after law school graduation. If you review job ads (which are a fantastic research tool), you’ll often see law firms and other employers demanding top academic credentials.

At times, employers will even specify a GPA cut-off in the application process. They will indicate that they will not consider any applicant whose GPA is not at least, for example, a 3.0. Or they will not consider any applicant who is not in the top ten percent or top twenty-five percent of their law school class.

Why Law Firms and Other Employers Care About Grades

If you weren't a top performer in law school, it’s helpful to consider why some employers care so much about cumulative GPA and grades.

  • Many law firms care about the “prestige factor” itself. For better or for worse, name-brand law firms want to hire attorneys who’ve gone to name-brand law schools and who have other marks of prestige, including academic honors. It can be difficult -- although not impossible -- to break into those employers without an academic pedigree.
  • GPA and academic performance are proxies for potential. Law students and junior attorneys usually have little on the job experience that employers can use to judge their ability to be good hires. When hiring, any employer must gauge an applicant’s potential to succeed in the workplace.

New and Recent Graduates

One of the best ways to predict future work performance is to examine past work performance. However, if you are new to the profession, then you don’t have a track record the employer can use to predict your success. In that case, the employer must find a substitute predictive indicator -- academic performance. This is what I mean when I say that the law firm is using academic performance as a proxy for job performance.

Experienced Attorneys

Academic performance may be important during the first few years of your career, but as you gain experience as an attorney, employers care less and less about your grades and judge you on your work instead. It’s unlikely you’ll be asked much about your class rank or grades after about four years of law practice.

If you’re an experienced attorney, then you have a track record of performance as a lawyer that an employer can use to predict your success. Employers may still require you to produce a transcript proving you graduated from law school, but they’ll be more focused on what you’ve accomplished since graduation and what you bring to the table now.

Managing the GPA Issue for Employers Who Care

So what do you do during that critical time when employers really do care about your grades? Some go to their law school career centers for help.

Unfortunately, some employers are very GPA-focused. Since law schools care a lot about their hiring statistics, some law school career centers seem to concentrate their efforts on helping their top students land employment even though, by definition, the majority of students are not "top" students. Not every student can be valedictorian or salutatorian. Nor can every student be in the top ten percent or even top twenty-five percent of their law school class -- but that doesn’t mean they won’t be great attorneys, and it shouldn’t mean that they can’t land a great job as a lawyer.

So what can the other seventy-five percent of graduates do to improve their odds in the job market that uses GPA, grades, and class rankings in the hiring process?

Use Honest Self-Reflection to Understand Your Strengths and Weaknesses

First of all, do not fudge, even a little bit, with your GPA. Your grades are what they are.

Instead, really think about why you earned the grades that you did and whether you think those grades actually reflect your ability to function as a lawyer. Let’s examine three of the reasons I most often encounter.

Notice that, inherent in the below exercises, is the need to distinguish between overall GPA (the traditional predictor) and two better predictors:

  • Trends in your GPA
  • Individual class grades.

You’ll likely still be expected to disclose your cumulative GPA and your law school transcript, but alongside that information, you can provide the better predictors and explain to your target employer why those are better predictors.

Let’s take a look at possible explanations you can present, and how to present them to potential employers:

Strength: Prefer Hands-On Learning

Are you just not a book-learner? Do you prefer hands-on learning or on-the-job training? Let’s face it, not everyone excels in the classroom. There are many different styles of learning and many different talents. Perhaps you found that you learned more and performed better in your clinical courses and internships than you did from cracking the books.

Presentation to Employers:

Focus on employers who value your style. When interviewing for jobs or writing your résumé, highlight your ability to learn quickly and think on your feet.

While the AmLaw 100 firms often place the most value on pedigree and grades, there are many others -- including smaller law firms -- that place more value on performing well on your feet than they do in performing well in the classroom.

In many small firms, junior lawyers are often working directly with clients, going to court, negotiating with opposing counsel, and conducting depositions right away. Those employers don’t care as much about researching and examination of esoteric areas of law because that’s not what they do.

Strength: Excelled in Some Topics

Did you perform poorly in certain topics, but excel in others? Few students perform well across the board. Many students find they perform best in the areas of law that interest them the most, and perform less well in classes that don’t interest them.

Presentation to Employers:

Focus on your performance in courses that are relevant to the job and the employer. When at job interviews and on your resume, focus on the grades that are most predictive of your success in your chosen practice area and at your target employer.

Did you earn A's in your property-related and business-related courses, but only a D in your international human rights course? Well, if your goal is to be a commercial real estate transactions lawyer, then your grade in international human rights law is arguably non-predictive of your ability to succeed in real estate law.

Strength: Improved Law School Performance after Slow Start

Did you get a slow start in law school? The transition from college to law school can be a rough one. Because law school is only six semesters (in most cases), it can be mathematically impossible to graduate with a GPA above a 3.0 if your first semester or 1L grades were lower than you’d like.

Presentation to Employers:

Focus on your upward trend. If you started with a 2.3 GPA, but earned a 3.9 in your final year while taking more sophisticated courses, then that higher GPA may be a better reflection of your academic abilities and thus a better predictor for law firms to use.

When at on-campus interviews (OCIs) or other job interviews, as well as on your résumé, focus on that upward trend and your highest semester GPA.

Find Employers Who Value What You Offer

Identifying your strengths is critical so that you can emphasize them throughout the professional branding, networking, job search, and hiring process.

AND, for your job search to be most productive, you’ll also need to find employers who value those strengths. That way, you don’t set yourself for a long and frustrating job search chasing after employers who are unlikely to hire you. (I’m not saying not to apply for long-shot opportunities. You should. But you should keep your odds in perspective.)

The Bottom Line

For new/recent law school grads, your academic performance will be reviewed before you are interviewed or hired. To overcome not being at the top of your class, pick the more productive route by aligning your job search with employers who will be most likely to hire you. Then, focus your commuications with them, written and verbal, on the most effective presentation of your law school history for those employers, as described above.


About the author...

With more than 20 years in law and legal hiring and degrees from Harvard Law School and Johns Hopkins University, Attorney Job Search Expert Shauna C. Bryce is a nationally recognized expert in career development, career transition, social media, and resumes for lawyers. As a former practicing attorney and member of a law firm hiring committee, she knows what it takes for lawyers to build successful careers. She’s worked with some of the nation’s top attorneys -- at places like Global 100 law firms, Google, Dreamworks, Major League Baseball, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the White House. Follow Shauna on Twitter at @brycelegal and also on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google+


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