Class rankings, the dean’s list, magna cum laude, order of the coif… 

The entire law school experience can feel like one numeric measurement after another, and students are constantly under pressure to “measure up.”  It is no wonder that most students believe that the key to a successful legal career is to have top grades.  It certainly is the case that many successful, highly paid attorneys were at the top of their class; however, a widely-cited study from Berkeley Law faculty members Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck has identified 26 lawyering effectiveness factors that are more accurate predictors of lawyering success than LSAT score or law school GPA.  The factors include those that are traditionally described as “essential” lawyering skills: logical reasoning, research, writing, and oral communication skills; but many other skills make the list as well, such as practical judgment (the ability to determine effective and realistic approaches to problems); listening (for accuracy and more subtle or unspoken messages); the ability to persuade others; negotiation skills; organizing and managing one’s own work; networking and business development; community involvement and service; passion and engagement in the law; and the ability to see the world through the eyes of others.  To see all 26 Shultz & Zedeck factors, visit this page:  http://alumni.ggu.edu/Document.Doc?id=92 .

For law students, the focus on grades and ranks in job postings and OCI hiring preferences can make it seem like there are no jobs for those who aren’t in the top half of the class.  Yet our graduate employment statistics do not bear that out: we routinely hear from alumni who have successful legal careers despite below average grades in law school; and there are always some students in the top 25% of their class who have considerable difficulty finding a job.  The following are some tips for a successful job search regardless of where you fall in the class rankings:

 1.        Don’t let a hiring preference stop you.  If a job posting or OCI listing says top ___% preferred and you are not in that percent, but interested in the position, apply anyway.  Sure, there may be a recruiter who screens resumes and will cut yours from the pile, but you also never know who will apply for any given position.  Maybe the job wasn’t posted for very long and very few people applied.  In that case, an employer may will look through the handful of applicants more closely, and their hiring preferences may change based on their options.  Similarly, if you have a background or skills that make you uniquely qualified, your GPA will matter less.  Imagine you are an insurance defense firm.  If you have a choice between a top 25% candidate with no previous insurance experience and a student in the top 60% who spent several years as an insurance claims adjuster, which one would you choose?  An employer’s stated preference reflects their ideal candidate at the time they post the job, but they won’t know who the “best” candidate is for the job until they see the applicants in the pool.

 2.       DO put your grades on your resume (or DON’T, it’s up to you).  Basically, there are two schools of thought on this issue.  Some attorneys will assume if they don’t see grades on a resume that the grades must be very low.  Others don’t care as much about grades and will ask about them as an afterthought (or not at all).  When applying for a job, you won’t know how the particular attorney to whom you are applying feels about this issue, so it’s up to you to decide what you feel comfortable doing (unless the employer specifically requests you to put your grades on your resume or to include a transcript in your application).  If you would prefer that prospective employers get to know your other accomplishments first, then don’t list your GPA.  If you would rather the employer know that while they are not excellent, they are also not “worst case scenario,” go ahead and put them on.

3.       Get comfortable talking about your grades.  Whether you list your grades on your resume or not, if an employers wants to know, they will ask.  If they ask, you either have to provide your GPA or you run the risk of losing the opportunity, so the best way to deal with the grades issue is to become comfortable talking about your grades.  Whatever you do, don’t walk into an interview thinking that your grades are a huge red flag that you will have to overcome.  If you got an interview, that means the employer is willing to consider you.  If grades do come up, and yours aren’t quite what you wish they were, give a very brief, confident explanation of why that is the case.  The following are some possible explanations for below average grades that emphasize the positive and minimize the negative.  Does one describe you?

  •  You excel at “doing” the work that attorneys do rather than studying about it.  If you’ve got great extracurricular activities such as BOA, externships and internships, and working part-time throughout the academic year, seize the opportunity to really sell the skills you have gained through those experiences.  Acknowledge that perhaps some of that experience may have come at the expense of a slightly higher class rank, but that you are more gratified knowing that you have already prepared witnesses for depositions, or know how to do a cross examination, or have already argued a pretrial motion to suppress.
  • It has taken you a while to master the art of law school exams (managing time on exams, writing for exams, issue spotting, whatever) – it is something of an art form, and for some students, their grades improve with each semester.  If you got off to a slow start but have been steadily improving, point that out to employers so that you aren’t just the sum total of your cumulative GPA.  Explain how you identified the problem and what you did to fix it, and then highlight the results.  Employers will likely see the most recent semester as better evidence of what you can do than your very first semester and will also be highly impressed by your can-do attitude.
  • You’ve got a preference, and it shows.  For some students, their grades may be so-so in many classes, but much better in the area of law that truly interests them.  Whether it’s tax, criminal, IP or any other area of law, if you’ve got a much higher GPA in coursework that directly relates to the prospective employers’ business, highlight that. 

4.       Identify ways to develop more of the 26 lawyering effectiveness factors and find the best ways to highlight the ones you have.  The Career Development Office can help you with this.  The more experience and skills you have on your resume, and the better you sell them in your cover letter, the less important your GPA becomes to your application package.

5.       Remember that job postings and OCI are only two of the many ways that law school students get jobs!  In any situation where there is a large pool of applicants, GPA can be an easy way to “weed out” some candidates.  But more students get their jobs through networking contacts than through OCI or job postings.  Regardless of your GPA, you must get out there and meet attorneys.  Join a local bar association.  Attend CLE events.  Reach out to alumni and other attorneys for informational interviews.  Become knowledgeable about the legal landscape in the area you hope to practice, and reach out to the movers and shakers in that community.  Every year we hear from students who have gotten their jobs without the employers ever asking to see their grades.  Whether they are students in the top quarter who are disappointed that their hard work wasn’t necessary for the job, or students in the bottom quarter who are relieved that it never came up, the one thing they all have in common is that they got the job through a networking contact or other direct contact with the employer.  If an employer already knows you to be a bright, confident, promising individual, they won’t have to rely on grades as a proxy for determining whether or not you are qualified.