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February 06, 2007

Grades: Some Perspectives and Advice

Submitted by
Dean David Baum

Based on more than a decade of counseling law students, I can tell you that nothing causes more anxiety around this place than grades. I’ve also learned that there are many myths and misconceptions about grades. My goals in sharing the thoughts below with you are to dispel some of these myths, provide you with some useful advice; and, by putting grades into perspective, alleviate some of that anxiety.

Myth #1: Receiving a poor grade means that I didn’t learn what I was supposed to learn.

Many students disappointed with a grade will come into my office and say something like this: “I worked so hard in that class. I did all of the reading. I went to class every day. I wrote a great outline. During the study period, I studied for four days solid, and I went over everything. I really thought I knew the material, but I got a poor grade, so I guess I didn’t.” The fact is that most students here go into the exam room having thoroughly prepared and possessing a genuine understanding –and even a mastery– of the material covered in the course. Receiving a poor grade doesn’t negate that. In most traditional classes at this law school, the grade assigned is almost entirely a reflection of a student’s performance on an examination, compared against the performances of the other students in the class. (It is true that many professors make adjustments to grades based on class participation and attendance, but these usually are only very slight.) So a poor grade doesn’t mean that you didn’t learn the material; it means simply that the professor felt that your particular examination answer wasn’t as strong as many of your classmates’ answers. There are some things you can do about that, which I discuss below. But realize that if you leave the Law School having truly learned the material in all your courses, then, GPA notwithstanding, you will have received the world-class legal education for which you came.

Myth #2: Receiving a poor grade indicates that I am going to be a bad lawyer.

Writing answers to law school exam questions is a very specialized exercise which is one way of testing a particular skill: legal analysis. To be sure, having the intellect and ability to conduct legal analysis is a fundamental part of lawyering. And certainly a law school exam is a relevant way to test for that skill. But even a student at Michigan Law School who receives mediocre grades develops adept legal analysis skills that put her at least even with –and most often ahead of– most other practicing lawyers. And I can assure you that when you go out into practice, you are never going to be asked to sit down in a room with a fact scenario and write an essay within three to four hours without consulting with anyone else and having limited or no access to relevant materials. What’s more, high quality lawyering requires a wide range of other skills and talents, such as oral and written communication, good judgment, leadership, active listening, general problem solving, the ability to sympathize, interpersonal skills, negotiation and facilitation skills, organizational skills, and so on. All of you came with many of these talents and skills, and you have many opportunities here to develop them further. More on that below.

Myth #3: Receiving a poor grade (or even a few) means that I will not get a job.

Anyone who tells you that your grades have absolutely no impact on your job search during law school is not telling you the truth. The fact is that grades do matter to employers. But keep in mind that they matter to different employers to different degrees. I have heard that some employers will not hire students who fail to achieve a certain GPA. But countless other employers evidently do not have such cut offs, because even students who finish in the bottom half of the class at UMLS get jobs. Indeed, the Career Services Office regularly reports that the employment rate for our graduates is in the high nineties. So, the best advice I can give you is to be open-minded about your job search and work hard to find the best opportunities for you. Also, take full advantage of the excellent resources UMLS offers to help you do this, most significantly the top-notch staff in the Career Services and Public Service Offices. This advice applies regardless of what your GPA is. The more time and effort you spend looking for the right job, the more likely it is that the job you take is going to be one that is interesting, challenging and a good fit for you. You will find out that as you progress in your legal career, your law school grades become less and less important, and your professional experience and accomplishments matter more and more. So, yes, grades do matter in your job search, but they matter a heck of a lot less than you think they do.

How do I know that all of this is true?

In large part I know these things are true because I have known hundreds of students who have earned less than stellar grades and who have gone on to become amazingly successful lawyers. But I also speak from personal experience. I was a very hard-working and serious law student. In every course I took, I completed virtually every reading assignment. I briefed practically every case. I almost never missed class. I put together comprehensive outlines. I was in study groups where I both learned and contributed a lot. I studied hard for exams. I went into each and every exam that I took feeling as though I knew the material cold. And I did know the material cold. My problem was that I was not a terrific law school exam taker. Consequently, I got some C-range grades in law school. And I had a whole bunch of B-range grades, and not so many A-range grades. This was tough on my ego, having come here directly from a rigorous and competitive undergraduate program with a very high GPA. But things worked out. I got summer associate positions with law firms during each of my two summers, and I got an offer from a large national firm in Washington, D.C. to return as an associate. I forwent that offer to pursue a clerkship in D.C. with a Superior Court judge (essentially, a state trial court judge). It wasn’t a prestigious clerkship, but it was absolutely phenomenal. I learned a tremendous amount about the practice of law and developed a special relationship with my judge who to this day remains both an inspirational mentor and dear friend. During my clerkship, I received an offer to work at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. I accepted that offer and practiced there for five years before returning to the Law School. All humility aside (and thank you for indulging me here), I was a very good lawyer. I was as able and effective as all of the very talented people alongside whom I worked. I prosecuted cases successfully at trial, post-trial, and on appeal in local and Federal courts. I won awards and commendations. And, most importantly, I loved my work, which was wonderfully captivating and challenging, as well as completely fulfilling. So, I am one example among countless others of someone who made it in the profession in spite of having received mediocre law school grades.

So, if you get a poor grade(s), what should you do?

There are a number of things you can do:

• Find out how you could have written a better exam answer.

Read any model or “A” answers published by the professor. If your professor conducts a session to go over the exam, attend it. Review your exam answer with your professor. With respect to this last suggestion, understand that you should not approach the professor with an eye toward having the grade changed. The Law School’s Academic Regulations preclude a professor from changing a grade unless he discovers that he made some sort of objective, quantifiable error (such as adding points wrong or failing to read part of your answer). Your focus should be on learning what you may not have understood substantively and how you could have written a better examination answer. I’ll add that this is particularly useful if you received grades below the class mean. If you are consistently receiving grades of “B” or higher, then you are doing a fairly good job writing exam answers, so you certainly shouldn’t feel as though you need to do this after every exam. Instead:

• Take other steps to become a better exam taker.

Besides finding out what went wrong on exams you’ve already taken, get some additional instruction about how to write better exam answers. Then practice doing it. One great way to get some help is by working with a tutor. Each year, Christine Gregory’s office solicits and hires students who have done well on exams to work with other students. Tutors get compensated but are available at no charge to you (beyond the tuition dollars you have already paid). If you request a tutor for a particular class, Ms. Gregory’s staff will try to place you with someone who has previously had that class taught by the same professor. One way of working with a tutor is to write answers to old exam questions and get her feedback on those answers. Ask the tutor to comment not only on your substantive analysis but on your answer-writing technique. Was the answer organized well? Did you have too much “fluff?” Did you over-analyze some issues and under-analyze others? All of this assumes that you are still doing the reading and regularly attending class. It is hard to write a great exam answer if you don’t, and what’s more, you’re cheating yourself out of that world-class education.

• Work on developing other lawyering skills and learn about the practice of law.

Besides continuing to take your doctrinal courses as seriously as you can, as an upper-class student take clinical law and practice/simulation courses (like Negotiation, Alternative Dispute Resolution, Advanced Legal Research, etc.). Volunteer in the Family Law Project or at a law office in Ann Arbor or Detroit for a few hours a week. Consider doing an externship one semester. Participate in competitions. Attend attorney lunch talks and symposiums. Join a journal. Take a leadership position in a student organization. Put extra effort into writing a seminar or independent research paper. All of these suggestions will help you develop and hone the other lawyering skills I mentioned previously, prepare you for the practice of law, and even make you a happier law student. They will also give you more and better things to talk about during interviews and make you more marketable to prospective employers.

• Make time for yourself to do the things you want to do, and take care of yourself.

Every law student knows that if he wanted to, he could spend virtually all of his time working. Don’t do this. You’ll burn out. Your grades will improve only marginally – or maybe not at all. So play; rest; recreate; spend time with friends; call your family; exercise; watch TV; read a novel; volunteer at a soup kitchen – you get the idea. You’ll have a much better shot of living a balanced life once you become a lawyer if you figure out how to do it now.

• Come talk to us.

I’ve already mentioned that you should go talk to our Career Services professionals and to faculty. I also want to invite you to come see Christine Gregory or me. We are eager to discuss your particular situation with you and offer further advice and perspectives. I’ll add that very occasionally, students receive very low grades (“C-” or below). If this happens, Ms. Gregory and I can inform you about rules that enable you to do more work to get that grade replaced by a “C.” Beyond all that, we want to help you determine how to have the richest possible experience during law school. And that’s really the point of all this. Law school is, of course, about so much more than exams and grades. Sure, work hard in your classes and try to earn the best grades you can. But realize that there is so much more to you, too, and remember to enjoy and experience the rest of what this amazing place has to offer.

To make an appointment to see Dean Baum, call 734-764-0516. To make an appointment to see Christine Gregory, call 734-615-0019.