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Law School Grades and Your Career
by Harrison Barnes, Esq.
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When you are considering a lateral move, there are certain firms that will never look at you unless you have certain grades. The most prestigious firms such as Latham & Watkins, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, Wachtel Lipton Rosen & Katz, and Munger Tolles & Olsen, among others, will almost never hire you, or even interview you, unless your academic performance falls within a certain cutoff set by the firm-regardless of what stage you are in your career.
However, it is also worth noting that many prestigious firms are often willing to look at individuals who are stellar performers from schools that are not in the Top 10 or even the Top 25. The most prestigious firms are looking for excellence, and excellence in their minds begins the second you receive your first grades in law school, whether it is a first, second or third tier law school. Either you have it or you do not.
There are many reasons that several top firms are so strict about grade cut-offs. The main reason is that it provides their clients assurances that the best lawyers possible are doing the work. People also talk about these firms and how difficult they are to get into. These firms can afford to be so selective because they are places where many want to work. If you want to move into the very highest rungs of law firm practice (which is defined by prestige), your grades will continue to be important throughout your career.
As any attorney who has participated in on-campus recruiting is no doubt aware, grades are extremely important criteria that firms use in the hiring of junior attorneys. Grades are far more important for law students than junior attorneys. Indeed, at no other point in your career will your grades be more important than when you are looking for work just out of law school.
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One of the main reasons that grades are emphasized so much for law students is that firms have very little else to go on when they are making hiring decisions. Firms can look at your college and your performance there. Firms can look at what activities you participated in law school. Firms can also judge how much they like you. Nevertheless, in terms of judging how serious you are about law school, and how much aptitude you show for the practice of law, grades are generally the most important standard that firms use in the hiring of law students.
It is important to note that law students from most law schools can find positions in most cases regardless of their grades. If you are interviewing with firms that typically do not do a lot of on-campus recruiting at your school, the odds are that grades will be emphasized less than they otherwise might be. In addition, many smaller firms may emphasize grades a great deal less than top national law firms due to the fact that they may be more than happy to get a student from your school. Finally, there are certain specialties (such as patent law) where your academic performance in law school may be emphasized even less than your undergraduate performance by some firms.
As recruiters, we have been amazed by the fact that grades are not always emphasized as much as some attorneys might think. We have seen attorneys from Fourth Tier law schools at the bottom of their class get positions during law school with top national law firms, for example. In general, there is a certain predictability as to what kind of firm law students will end up at based on their grades. Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this rule and we continue to see them on an ongoing basis. The fact that the exceptions occur with some regularity should clearly demonstrate the fact that there are forces at work beyond grades in the hiring decisions of many firms.
Associates with one to three years of experience who are considering a lateral move are typically worried about their academic performance and what effect it might have on their ability to move. The reasons associates worry about this so much is due to the fact that they have been so recently conditioned about the importance of grades during law school. As you progress in your career, grades recede in importance. Many attorneys are able to move as junior associates to firms they might not have been able to get jobs with while they were in law school.
The largest explanation for why grades will recede in importance when you have one to three years of experience is due to the law of supply and demand. If you think about it, the law of supply and demand is something that is important throughout your legal career. As a law student, you competed with many associates who are indistinguishable based on not much more than the law school they attended and how well they did there. The best jobs generally go to the best students from the best schools. As a practicing attorney moving laterally, the best jobs generally go to the attorneys who are most in demand. In this case, more often than not, it means the attorneys from the best firms, with the level of experience and the demonstrated expertise that the firms need. are coming from is usually far more important than your grades when you are moving as a lateral with 1-3 years of experience.
By far, grades are most important for law students. As law school grades are the only measure of what you have done relating to the legal field before you enter a firm, there really is no other way for a firm to judge your abilities at this level. Once you have reached a point in your career where you have gained meaningful work experience, they become less important and continually decrease in significance the longer you practice. While law school is three short years, your legal career can span more than 30 years. Accordingly, it goes without saying that your law school performance is by no means the most important indicator of the success you will have in the practice of law. Nevertheless, there are some American law firms where your grades will prevent you from getting a position throughout your career. However, with all the opportunities available in the market, one's law school grades ten, five or even one year after law school are not something that will hold you back with most firms if you have managed other aspects of your career correctly.
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