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Dear Law Profs: I’m Agonizing Over 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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 tenth 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.

If you have a general question you would like addressed, then please send it to​.

The Law Profs

Law Profs

Full disclosure:  The law profs are:  Naomi Cahn (left), GWU Law School, Todd Peterson (center), GWU Law School, and Nancy Levit (right), UMKC School of Law.

About the Author

Nancy Levit holds both a Curator’s Professorship and the Edward D. Ellison Professorship at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law School. She teaches Defamation & Privacy, Employment Discrimination, Gender & Justice, Jurisprudence, and Torts, and is the co-advisor to the UMKC Law Review. Professor Levit has been voted by the students as the Law School’s Outstanding Professor of the Year three times and she has received the Elmer Pierson Faculty Teaching Award three times as well, the N.T. Veatch Award for Distinguished Research and Creative Activity, the UMKC Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2011, and the Missouri Governor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She will be profiled in Professor Michael Schwartz’s book, What the Best Law Teachers Do, forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2012. She is the author of The Gender Line: Men, Women, and the Law, and the co-author (with Richard Delgado and Robert L. Hayman, Jr.) of Jurisprudence—Classical and Contemporary, the co-author (with Robert R.M. Verchick) of Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer, and the co-author (with Douglas Linder) of The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law.

Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. Her areas of expertise include family law, adoption law, and reproductive technology. She has written numerous law review articles on family law, feminist jurisprudence, and other subjects, and has co-authored several books, including, with June Carbone, Red Families v. Blue Families (OUP 2010). She has co-authored casebooks in family law and trusts and estates. She is a Senior Fellow at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a member of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project, and a board Member of the Donor Sibling Registry. Prior to joining the faculty at George Washington in 1993, Professor Cahn practiced with Hogan & Hartson in Washington, DC, and as a staff attorney with Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services. During college, she was a student teacher for high school students, and she received a Teaching Certificate.

Todd Peterson joined the Law School faculty in 1987. Earlier, he had been a partner at the Washington, D.C., firm of Ross, Dixon & Masback, where he specialized in commercial litigation. Professor Peterson also served as an attorney adviser in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is responsible for providing advice to the attorney general and White House on constitutional law issues. He began practice in the fields of administrative and commercial litigation at the D.C. firm of Crowell & Moring. Professor Peterson has served as a consultant to the National Commission on Judicial Discipline and Removal and as co-chair of the D.C. Circuit Special Committee on Race and Ethnic Bias. From 1997 to 1999, Professor Peterson returned to the Office of Legal Counsel to serve as deputy assistant attorney general. Professor Peterson teaches civil procedure, federal courts, and separation of powers. He writes principally in the areas of separation of powers and the federal judicial system.

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