August 14, 2020 Article

Resilience and Grit Yield Law School Success

Five tips and strategies for beating the odds.

By LaFonda Willis

“The start of your legal career will be limited without top grades.” “If you want to be able to compete for coveted clerkships and other post-grad opportunities, focus on your grades.” Many attorneys and judges gave me this advice as I entered my 1L year, and I took it to heart. As I encountered obstacles throughout law school, as most law school students do, I was forced to consistently apply practical strategies for success. 

1. Show What You Know—Don’t Take Your Legal Knowledge for Granted

When I started 1L year, I had recently finished two master’s programs—each with a 4.0 grade point average (GPA)—so I did not think “getting good grades” would be a problem for me. But law school is a different beast. Imagine how utterly devastated I was when my first law school grade turned out to be a C. To make matters worse, that grade was in criminal law, one of my intended areas of practice after graduation.

After the first C, I reviewed my exam and met with my professor to discuss the grade. Failing to mention one legal concept (that I knew very well and thought was implied in a related answer) had cost me nearly 30 points. I was confident I could recover, so I used my first exam as a learning tool and caution against another C in a future class. I now understood that my exam answers needed to demonstrate my legal knowledge explicitly, rather than rely on implications or nuances that a grader might miss.

2. Reflect on Your Mistakes and Meet with Your Professors to Help You Improve Performance

However, to my surprise, my second semester produced another C on my transcript. As a result, I did not qualify for the dean’s list or the merit-based scholarship that came along with it. From the looks of it, I was not on the road to my vision of law school and post-graduate success. After the second C, I decided it was time for serious reflection to understand how I had gotten those average grades. I knew that legal research and writing were not the issues. (During my 1L year, I had won the Terri LeClerque Award for best 1L brief and earned As in Legal Research and Lawyering Process I and II.)

But I needed some help identifying what the issues actually were—and who better to ask than law school experts, my professors? My Torts, Property, and Bar Success professors helped me realize that I needed an attack plan for multiple-choice questions and for separating black-letter law from minority rules—insights I was not able to discern on my own.

3. Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan, and Let Nothing Get In Your Way

Once I identified the issues, I developed a plan to address them. By the end of the year, I had learned an effective multiple-choice technique, signed up for Quimbee, used LexisNexis and Westlaw more frequently, briefed more cases, and accepted a position as a writing mentor and teaching assistant for my law school’s legal writing program. After all, the best way to retain information is to teach it—and as an educator, I find that to be true.

By the time the first semester of 2L year rolled around, I could see my strategy and hard work paying off. My grades were As and Bs. My semester GPA was a 3.5, and my cumulative GPA was a 3.1. I was well on my way to reaching cum laude status (3.2) and graduating with the honors distinction I needed for the start of a successful legal career.

Then, at the end of my 2L year, the worst thing that could happen did happen. Right in the middle of final exams, my mother, who has lupus, fell ill with a third bout of pneumonia that almost claimed her life. Though the situation was urgent and bleak, I maintained a positive outlook and attitude. I had moments of sadness but refused to allow the situation to unravel me because I knew that panicking would only result in negative outcomes. I am also a woman of planning and faith. So I revised my study schedule and cut out specific time blocks to speak with my mother and help her manage her medical affairs from afar. I refused to let these unfortunate circumstances overtake me, ruin my well-laid plans, or destroy my hard work. Though it was challenging to remain focused in the midst of the storm, I worked my plan and prevailed (and by the grace of God, so did my mother). I closed out my second year of law school with a 3.8 GPA, bringing my cumulative average to 3.3. I had achieved cum laude status! After overcoming nearly insurmountable odds to achieve academic success in my second year, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that it was possible for me to close out my last year of law school with straight As and maintain the honors distinction, so that became my goal.

4. Adapt Quickly to Unexpected Change

Everything was looking up. I was striding toward the finish line. Then, two months into the start of my final semester of law school, COVID-19 hit and turned the world upside down. School facilities shut down and law professors ended their office hours. As a result of the global pandemic, most law students were required to take on a virtual existence and leave the traditional classroom behind. Under the “new normal,” I had to be even more organized, disciplined, and intentional about my studies, class preparation, and accessing the limited online meetings with my professors. Although the United States is a leader in technological advancement, no institution or company was ready for an instantaneous pivot to the virtual world. As a consequence, I also had to be ready for and responsive to the multiple technological nightmares I experienced during final exams.

Even in the midst of this global pandemic and its ensuing challenges, I never lost sight of my goal or faith in my ability to accomplish it. If I could earn a 3.8 GPA the previous semester while bearing the emotional weight of a critically ill mother, as long as I had breath in my body and the ability to read and write, I was confident I could push through COVID-19 to finish law school with outstanding success. The caliber of post-graduate opportunities accessible to me would depend on my law school GPA. I could not allow any circumstance to get in my way. So I prioritized my studies, blocked out distractions, and adapted to my new way of life.

5. Use Adversity to Your Advantage

At the end of my 3L year, I held my breath in suspense as I checked Blackboard to see my grades. There it was, the semester GPA I had been waiting to see my entire law school career: 4.0. In spite of various trials and tribulations, I finished the law school race with a 3.475 GPA, honors distinction, and three post-graduate offers—one at the city, state, and federal levels. (I had also finished my law school career having completed six externships and three clinics at various sites across the country, including at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the Miami-Dade Public Defender, D.C. Superior Court, and Harvard Law.) Reflection, faith, planning, and hard work had enabled me to use adversity to my advantage to achieve these seemingly impossible results.

Life has its ups and downs. Challenges will come, but no matter what, you have to keep your eye on the prize. With resiliency and grit, you, too, can navigate adversity and uncertainty to beat the odds and achieve law school success. In the process, don’t forget to breathe, celebrate small victories, have some much-needed fun, and pick up some transferrable skills along the way. It may not seem like it at first, but the glass is half full (as opposed to half empty) and, to quote Shakespeare, “sweet are the uses of adversity.” 

LaFonda Willis is a writer, advocate, educator, and cum laude graduate of UDC Law based in Washington, D.C. She is also the liaison for the ABA Woman Advocate and Minority Trial Lawyer Committees.


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