I Work Hard, but My Law School Grades Suck

Ex-Bitter Columns, law school, Lawyer 4 Comments

QI’m heading into my 3rd year of law school at a tier two. I go to class part time and work 50+ hours a week, clerking full time for a staff attorney at a Fortune 500 Company. I’m looking forward to practicing when I graduate, but there’s just one problem. My grades suck, I mean they suck big time. I went from being a Phi Beta Kappa in undergrad to being a C+ average law student. Do I have any shot in hell at making some decent coin after school? With work and school at it is, 100 hour weeks is something I’m already used to, so I know I can do the work. I just don’t know if any decent firm will give me a shot. What’s your sardonic take on my situation?

AI will try to be honest, not sardonic. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, they sort of intersect. Anyway. You absolutely have a shot in hell at making decent coin after school. Why not? You’re a hard-working Phi Beta Kappa with a law degree from a good school. Being blunt, the C+ average will most likely keep you out of the elite, major-city law firms. When I say “most likely,” I mean 98.5%. Someone, somewhere might be super-impressed with your undergraduate grades and 50+ hour work weeks while attending law school. But don’t count on it. These firms typically have hard and fast cut-off points relating to grades. If you had a B+ average, you might be in the hunt.  Barely.

Having said that, you seem like a perfect candidate for a quality mid-size or small firm. They’ll care a lot more about your practical, real-life work experience—and work ethic—than your GPA. The prestige firms, on the other hand, look for quantifiable measures of academic aptitude and desire. Excellent grades, top-tier universities, Law Review, federal clerkships. Their goal is to teach you how to practice law “the right way.” Their way. Smaller firms don’t have the time or resources to do this, so they’ll actually appreciate your part-time work experience.  Bigger firms are (much) less interested in this. In fact, they might even be worried you picked up some bad habits working for that Fortune 500 staff attorney.

As for the money, the simple truth is the starting salaries at big, fancy firms are significantly higher than at mid-size and small firms. Like double. That’s just a fact. The good news is that, after your first job, grades and law school mean a hell of a lot less than client lists and experience. In the real world, law is a business. The more clients you control, the more money they pay your firm, the more leverage you have. If you care about making money, never forget that. An “A” book of business trumps a C+ GPA every day of the week.

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  • 3L

    good advice!

  • Paul

    I agree that law is a business, and that if you spend time at a smaller firm building up a very solid client base that you will eventually have the opportunity to make money either in that smaller firm, by yourself, or by “taking” the clients with you to the bigger firm.
    The problem is in the premise.  It’s very difficult to build a solid client base with inadequate resources.  That is on top of the fact that the clients who typically go to small firms do so because they don’t want to pay the big firm bills.
    Your best strategy is to accept that you won’t get that big firm job, and you’ll struggle for 5 years, but you should focus on developing a quality “boutique” type practice either on your own or in a smaller firm.  Do not sacrifice quality and do not accept working with a firm that has the low standards often accepted by smaller firms.
    Then, hopefully, after 4 or 5 years you’ll be in a position where you can control your destiny.  Ironically enough, at that point you may be happier and may be making more money than your big firm colleagues.  But, unfortunately, you may be broke too.

  • nona

    I actually think this advice is incorrect, but it’s pretty typical of someone who 1) has been away from law school for quite some time, and/or 2) still believes anything other than grades and school name matter. As someone who just graduated in this poor economy, I can say with 100% certainty from personal experience grades and school name matter more than ever. In general, anything other than maybe a top 50 school is kind of a burden right now, and even if you have a C+ average at a top 10 school (which I had a little better than that from a top 10 school and still am unemployed)…unless you know the right people or really have a killer personality, you’re kind of screwed. Legal employers don’t care about work experience, unless it’s at least a year of work experience actually practicing as an attorney–this is true of employers at law firms anyway; public interest employers are a bit different. Bottom line, legal employers are laying people off, not hiring…and the ones who are hiring have too many resumes for even the mid-size firms to not be very picky about who they hire.

  • Anonymous

    I am a stockholder in a small firm in a medium city.  We don’t care much about grades.  We care about performance where the rubber meets the road…in court, in mediations, in negotiations.  A person can be brilliant and not have the sense to pound sand down a rat hole.  Some of the best lawyers and wealthiest I know could not get a job with a major firm, set up their own little office, and got rich.