Thanks to Peter Daines for contributing this article
If you want a job in a large law firm, the single biggest factor is your first semester’s GPA. Law firms hire entry-level associates from their law school summer associates. They hire 2L summer associates the summer after your 1L year. They often decide who to interview before your 1L spring grades come out. That leaves one semester’s worth of grades.
So how can you maximize your law school GPA?
Focus on the black letter law.
In class, many professors like to go on at length about the policy debates underlying the law. You might get some points for bringing this up on an exam. But more often, lengthy discussions of policy debates tend to count for very little in the actual scoring.
Most law school exams are structured as an “issue-spotter.” You are given a fact pattern coupled with questions from a client or senior partner. You are expected to respond in free form prose that concisely recites as many of the relevant legal nuances as you can remember and applies them to the facts at hand, including a direct answer to the specific questions asked.
These exams are typically scored based on the total number of things that you can say that are both 1) legally correct, and 2) relevant to answering or analyzing the question asked. Most professors don’t even penalize you for saying wrong things so long as you also say the right ones.
(This, by the way, is one of the biggest differences between legal analysis in a law school and in practice—as a real lawyer, the penalty for saying even a single careless sentence can be extraordinary depending on the circumstances. But as a lawyer you are generally expected to research the law carefully before speaking to it, which is not practicable in the context of timed, closed-book exam.)
If a client or senior partner asks you to apply the law to a fact pattern, they don’t want a long policy debate. Not even a good one. Partners and clients typically want clear, direct, and concise analysis that puts them on notice regarding all of the critical legal nuances without overwhelming them with irrelevant material. The same is true on exams.
Law school professors may appreciate policy debates in a classroom, but they will be stressed out and tired after reading through dozens of students’ lengthy essays on the same legal point. They are not likely to award the effort more than an extra point or two. It’s all about the clear answers about the black letter law and its application to the fact pattern in question.
Do still mention policy debates if they directly relate to whether a provision is legally ambiguous or how an ambiguous provision is likely to be interpreted. (Or arguments that could be made relating to how it “should” be interpreted). Actual arguments that the law is ambiguous or about what an ambiguous provision means and how it applies bring home the bacon, because they determine whether you have a case.
Focus on the legal nuances that your professor mentions in class.
Every professor is unique, and every law school has a different grading system, but I (Peter) think the following rules of thumb would perform quite well:
- Every unique sentence that your professor says about the black letter law in class is worth one point on the exam if you can recall and apply the nuance that the professor was getting at to the fact pattern on the exam.
- A sentence that the professor doesn’t say but that is true (for example, a sentence from the textbook) may or may not be worth additional points.
- If you can get 90% of the points from 1, above, you are likely getting an A in the class.
What does this mean? It means that you can derive immense value from a system of note-taking that includes writing down every unique sentence that your professor says about the black letter law (and later reviewing those sentences and consolidating them into an outline).
Get to know your professors’ exam styles.
Most law schools have some kind of formal system where you can go in and look at old exams (and perhaps even the answer keys) for each class. You can also learn a lot by getting to know a few upperclassmen and asking them about different professors and classes.
Some things to watch out for:
- Does this professor dock points for wrong answers? Do they grade on a strict points system, or more holistically? Do they penalize or reward “outline dumping” (where you say everything that you know that is remotely relevant to the question rather than briefly answering the exact question asked)?
- Do the exams feature multiple choice questions or essay questions? Do you have to rush to finish your essay in time?
Avoid professors that are known for being difficult or for having a style that will not fit well with you.
This is actually a pretty good general life tip—the people who are going to be very difficult to work with generally tend to have a reputation for being difficult to work with. Your life will be much easier if you get into the habit of asking around (discretely) before placing yourself in a position that you may regret later.
Research your law school’s grading (curve) policies.
Most law schools these days inflate their average GPAs by adjusting their curves. They want their students to get jobs, so that they can continue to attract new students. So they adjust the curve so that more students end up with higher GPAs relative to the students graduating from other schools. In general, this discrepancy is very difficult for potential employers to adequately account for, so for the most part, they just ignore it and hire students with relatively high GPAs from good schools that do well in interviews.
Generally speaking, law schools tend to have fairly strict curve policies for their 1L classes, which may or may not carry over to other large core classes for 2Ls and 3Ls. This is because your law firm job prospects are largely determined by your 1L GPA, which is also when you take the standard set of law school classes that are required by essentially all law schools (contract law, property law, constitutional law, tort law, etc.).
However, many law schools have more lax curve policies for upper level classes, and especially small seminar-style classes. If you want to build and maintain a high GPA, then targeting classes that are subject to friendly curve policies could help.
This is not the same thing as taking easy classes. A clinic where you represent clients in court and do all the preparation work but everyone who does the work gets an A is better for your GPA than a class with low time commitment but with the administration telling the professor what percentage of their grades can be As and what must be Bs.