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Law School Grades Are Not Your Story

Heidi Brown

Law School Grades Are Not Your Story

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My Story

I vividly remember getting my first grade in law school. For some reason, my law school released our 1L small section grades first, weeks before the rest of our grades. Criminal Law. I received a C+, the worst grade I had ever gotten in my life. My roommate got an A+. To this day, I still don’t know why we talked about our scores.

For weeks before I received my other 1L grades, I cried. I berated myself. I catastrophized. You’re too dumb for law school. You don’t belong. You’re going to fail out. No one is ever going to hire you. You’re going to be broke. I spent my winter break under a blanket of shame, embarrassment, and fear.

When the rest of my grades came out, I did fine. Not stellar, but fine. I wiped the tears off my cheeks, and I heaved myself off the couch. I took a deep breath and dove back into second semester. I vowed not to talk about grades with anyone. I kept my headphones on, blasting Nirvana songs to drown out the din of my classmates bantering in the school hallways about their prospects of making law review and landing BigLaw summer jobs.

Ignoring the constant pressure to join that ubiquitous conversation, I found a quiet carrel in the library and made a list of 100 law firms in Northern Virginia and D.C. I sent my resume to the 100 firms and landed a summer associate position at a boutique litigation firm that happened to specialize in construction law. When our spring grades came out, it was déjà vu. I received a C+ in Constitutional Law. I did fine in my other classes.

I thrived in my summer job. If the firm noticed those two C+ grades on my transcript, they didn’t seem to care. They never once mentioned them. I loved the legal research and writing projects doled out by the partners. I got incredibly nervous every time a partner called me into his office to talk about (and often praise me for) my writing. I began to find my niche that summer: I loved and was good at, poring over factual documents, analyzing statutory rules, finding case law, and crafting persuasive arguments to resolve our clients’ complex legal conflicts. While other summer associates were better at public speaking, mingling at networking events, and exuding confidence, my gift was research and writing. My law firm cared about our work ethic and our ability to write, solve complicated problems, and interact with our intense and demanding clients during document reviews and strategy meetings. For three blissful months, no one talked about grades.

After that summer, I returned to school for my 2L year. My insecurity about my grades bloomed again. The students on law review and the moot court team seemed to roam the corridors like the in-crowd in high school. For the next two years, I let the blips on my transcript define me in my interactions in the classroom and the hallways. I felt less than. I wasn’t less than. I had a lot to contribute. For two years, I unnecessarily dimmed my shine because of two three-hour tests.

If I could go back 27 years, sit my 22-year-old self down, and have a candid conversation about grades, this is what I would say.

Your grades absolutely don’t define you. Yes, it’s okay to be bummed out or frustrated about a less-than-ideal grade, or excited about a good one. But they have nothing to do with who you are as a person and who you will be as a lawyer. Yes, they are pieces of information. But YOU get to decide how to use that information.

Grades as Potential Indicators of How Brains Process Different Types of Legal Concepts

If I could go back to my 1L and 2L years, perhaps I could have noticed that I flourished in classes that had definitive rules that could be broken down into elements or factors. I liked Civil Procedure. I liked Uniform Commercial Code classes. I even liked Tax! In contrast, I struggled in classes in which the professor focused and tested heavily on theory. Using my grades in Criminal Law and Constitutional Law as information rather than a judgment of my intelligence or worthiness, perhaps I could have approached future theory-based classes better armed with this knowledge. I could have worked with my professors to try to transform abstract theory into more tangible “rules” that my brain could process more effectively.

Evaluate Your Transcripts for Clues about Intellectual Activities and Curiosities You Enjoy

If I could go back to my 1L year and analyze my transcript in a different way, I would look to see if any patterns jumped out about intellectual activities I enjoyed and in which I thrived. I could have used my law school grades to discern that I love researching, writing, and thinking, and I do NOT love academic scenarios in which I am expected to (and evaluated at least in part based on my ability to) argue or engage in spontaneous debate about abstract concepts without time for reflection. Rather than using my grades as potential clues about my interests and curiosities instead of my perceived abilities, I forced myself into 2L and 3L classes I thought I needed to take because everyone else was taking them. In retrospect, I should have taken more writing and reflection-oriented classes and sought out more courses that fostered my authentic personal and intellectual development.

Don't Let Grades Define Your Law School Journey or  Career Trajectory

Okay, I acknowledge that the gatekeepers of some traditional markers of “success” in law school and some employment decision-makers use grades as a selection mechanism. While I personally would love to see a shift toward a more holistic and 360° evaluation of candidates in all those realms, let’s start with what we can control and change right now. As a 1L, I judged myself so harshly about those two less-than-ideal grades that I considered myself unworthy of certain law school groups and post-graduation jobs. I was wrong. I brought a lot to the table beyond grades. I wasted a lot of time in school treating myself like I didn’t belong.

For two years, I unnecessarily dimmed my shine because of two three-hour tests.

Let me tell you a story. After I sent out those 100 resumes and landed and worked hard in my 1L summer associate job, the firm invited me back for my 2L summer. I ended up working there for six years after graduation, very intellectually fulfilled and happy in my work for most of those years. After a difficult and traumatic long-term relationship split, I moved to New York and worked in BigLaw, and ultimately I became a brief writer for a small boutique litigation firm—my ideal lawyering role. Fifteen years into my law practice career, I transitioned to teaching law. I’ve taught at three law schools and now am the Director of a Legal Writing Program. (And between us, I never made law review or any law school competition team.)

I only have two career path regrets. First, I wish I had tried to write on to law review, not because it would have changed my career path at all but because I regret that I took myself out of the game for no reason; I was a strong writer but I erroneously believed my grades disqualified me. Second, I wish I had applied to clerk for a judge at one point in my career; I think I would have loved researching and writing for, and learning from, a judge.

My point is: Even if we encounter disappointments in some of our grades, we have the power to refuse to let them define our future. We absolutely can do anything we set out to do. If we want to work in BigLaw, or do a judicial clerkship, or work for a particular government agency, we absolutely can do it. We just need to take more control over our career paths, and some opportunities might take us longer than others to land. So what; we’ll get there eventually. We also may need to present ourselves more holistically and not just submit a resume and transcript without context. When I was in law school in Virginia crying about my Criminal Law and Constitutional Law grades, I never imagined that later I would work in BigLaw in Manhattan and eventually become a law professor in New York City. You can do and be anything you strive to do and be.

This past week, I took myself on an “artist’s date” to see the Jagged Little Pill musical on Broadway, inspired by Alanis Morissette’s music. I heard a song I don’t think I previously knew. These lyrics pushed me to reframe that memory of receiving my 1L grades: “That I would be good even if I got the thumbs down.” I was good then, even though I didn’t feel like it, and I’m good now. We are good.

If you’re experiencing stress, fear, anxiety, or self-doubt as law school grades come out, I see you, I hear you, and I care about you. Be you. Whether they are excellent or less-than-ideal, your grades don’t define you. You define you. You are worthy of this profession and we need you.

Also, if you don’t make law review or the moot court team, create a different writing and publishing opportunity or step into a different public speaking experience. There are plenty. If you don’t land the summer job you initially want, lay different stepping stones and eventually you will get there. If a few blips appear on your transcript, analyze those grades as pieces of information—not judgment—and discern what we can learn about the way our brains work, how we thrive, and what changes we can make in our study habits to do even better next time. Those grades are not your story; you are your story. You’ve got this, and I’m rooting for you.