I was sitting between the walls of my study carrel, obsessively refreshing my inbox. Rumor had it that our grades were to be released that day, Jan. 6. Finally, as I chatted with a classmate, the notice came through.
I immediately went to download my transcript. I read each class one by one. Contracts, A; Torts, A; Civil Procedure, A; Legal Writing, A. I read it again. The letters didn’t change.
I shot from my chair and slapped my friend a hurried high five.
She did her best to smile, but there was, shall we say, an enthusiasm gap.
This is where my finely tuned emotional antennae should have registered her distress, cueing in my memory the despair I had seen in her face weeks earlier after she felt she’d tanked a final. Aware of her state of mind at the moment, I might have restrained myself and offered some words of encouragement.
Instead, I high-kicked my way down a row of annotated digests.
The moment captured the essential nature of life as a 1L. The relentless pressure, the unspoken competition, and, above all, the seemingly arbitrary nature of success.
“Congrats. You deserve it,” my friend told me when I regained my composure. She was sincere, but there was an undercurrent of frustration. I knew why: She had deserved it, too.
She knew the material at least as well as I did. We had spent many hours studying together over the previous six months. She committed hundreds of flashcards to memory. She completed innumerable practice exams.
Yet, in the end, it hadn’t been enough. For reasons completely unrelated to her mastery of the subject matter, she had frozen during one of the exams. She was crushed.
I, on the other hand, had been rendered oblivious to any reality not made of the pure, narcotic relief of my 4.0 GPA.
The depth of her devastation, and my elation, may seem overly dramatic to those whose law-school days are long gone. Time has a way of sanding away the splintery edges of memory. With some distance, I’m sure I too will look back on this period and chuckle at the self-indulgence and distorted perspective that only hours upon hours of ambition-fueled isolation can breed.
That said, the pressure is far from entirely self-induced. A good deal of the legal industry’s hiring pipeline is, quite absurdly in my opinion, based on a student’s performance in the first semester. Post-graduate employment often grows from seeds planted during a 1L summer internship. The availability of those jobs is, by and large, based entirely on your first semester’s grades.
Well-meaning professors and administrators spend much of the first semester reminding students of this fact, unsubtly stressing the connection between success in the class room and success in the industry. When the grades are finally posted, and an entirely predictable spirit of panic sweeps through the bottom half of the 1L class, the tone suddenly changes. Class rank, we are suddenly assured, is not everything.
Professor Orin Kerr, of George Washington University, once summed up the sentiment in a blog post addressed to 1L students beginning their second semester. “[Y]our law school GPA is much less important — and in many cases, completely irrelevant — after your first job. Once you’re out of school for a bit, people care whether you are a good attorney, not your law school GPA.”
The phrase that pays here is “after your first job.” It is great that grades don’t matter after your first job. I’m sure they matter even less if the first job was at Home Depot.
I asked some attorneys what they looked for in a potential hire. Their uniform response: Class rank is the first thing that they look to when hiring summer associates. It alone won’t land someone a job, but there has to be some way to limit the number of applications under consideration. It’s a threshold issue.
This seems crazy to me. The typical 1L fall semester consists of four classes. Three of those—Legal Writing is usually the exception—come down to a single final exam. With so little work product to assess, the results can’t help but be somewhat arbitrary. A single missed issue or sloppy rule application is enough to nudge someone’s class rank out of the top 10 percent. That can be the difference between a resume that gets read and one that gets tossed in the garbage.
Consider my friend’s case. Mathematically, she is in the middle of the pack, despite her hard work. A person with less determination would denounce the game as rigged. Instead, she has only redoubled her efforts.
Employers are fond of lamenting how hard it is to find young workers with grit. Maybe they should start their search with the stack of resumes in the recycle bin.
Robert McClendon, a former reporter at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, is a first-year student at the University of Tulsa College of Law.