Confessions of a Top Law Student — What I Learned in 1L

Guest Blogger Kate Fox from University of Pittsburgh School of Law tells us about her experience during the first year of law school and what it was like to be a top law student. 

Law school is stressful. It is difficult. It is competitive. As I’m sure you’ve read or heard, grades are extremely important, and it seems like there are only opportunities for people in the top 25%. While that isn’t necessarily true, it can only be easier to get the top grades and open more doors for yourself.  

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I’ve been told that I “will be fine” and that I’ll have my “pick of firms” when 2L summer comes. Hearing things like that can inflate your ego and give you a sense of confidence, but then you realize that grades aren’t actually everything. I know that sounds silly but it’s true. I ended first semester in the top few percent of my class, but I didn’t get called for every job I applied for, and I was even passed over for one I interviewed for. So, what is it like being at the top of the class after first year? Let me tell you. 

Everyone is Nosey 

The moment finals are over, you get a sigh of relief. The next moment is a wave of anxiety and nerves because everyone wants to stipulate grades. Students will be very vocal about what they think they got, and who is at the top and the bottom. It’s annoying, frankly. No one knows anything! It is even worse when grades do come out because those same people will want to know if they were right.

You will probably be surprised to learn that the quiet, non-participative students may have crept into the top tier and some of the talkers are falling to the bottom. The hard part about being a top student is that everyone who knows your grades will immediately *hate* you. Even your closest of law school buddies will give you the occasional side eye. 

To B or not to B 

Congrats! You did it! You got all A’s. That’s tough and you should be proud. But now, do you tell anyone?

Since everyone is nosey, it may get out even if you don’t make it vocal. People can tell by the jobs you interview for or they simply find out through rumors. The hard part about having your grades out in the open is the *hatred* and the pressure. And you will undoubtedly be caught up in a conversation with classmates about how unfair exams were or how difficult the job search is. It’s extremely awkward regardless of whether they know your grades or not. 

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CALI-less Top Students 

This one hits me hard. For those of you who don’t know, the CALI Excellence for the Future Award is given to the top grade in a class. The funny thing about CALI awards can be that a student could have excelled in one class and received a CALI, but fell in the middle of the curve in other classes, or one student could have done well in every class but didn’t receive the very top grade in any class.

It can be discouraging to do so well but not get that top grade. There is nothing wrong with not getting a CALI on your first try. There’s nothing to be ashamed of and Law Review or other journals don’t discriminate based on these awards. However, shoot for one every semester because they look great on your resume and LinkedIn!

You can get a CALI in any class. It doesn’t have to happen first year. 

The Pressure to Perform 

First semester is tough, but most law schools put the more substantively challenging classes in the spring. There is a lot of pressure to perform well again. I know, what a sob story. But really, it can be even harder waiting for your grades just to know you weren’t a one hit wonder.

People will also be talking about who they think will get the top grades in each class. You may even be intimidating in class discussion, so people will definitely expect a lot out of you. But everyone works smarter second semester so the curve could get you!  

It’s So Different Second Semester 

So after fall semester, you probably think you have this all down, right? Wrong. Class content gets harder and the assignments get longer. Plus, many classes in the second semester become different. For example, if you take torts the first semester, you’ll notice there’s a lot of doctrine involved. It’s all IRAC or CREAC on exams and pretty straight forward. However, constitutional law will be tests and policy sprinkled with history. So different. So even if you excel at IRAC-ing, it’s not going to help you with a class like that. Now you have to learn new ways to get to the top. 

You Don’t Know if You Made Law Review 

At the end of the year, you may have had a mix of grades or remained fairly consistent with top grades. The hard part about May and June is the waiting. You probably don’t know if you made your school’s Law Review yet, and it’s nearly impossible to be sure unless you have a 4.0 or know everyone else’s grades. Most schools also have a writing competition for journals, so you may need to compete to ensure your spot. 

Is Transferring the Right Option? 

If you are top of your class after first semester, people may ask if you want to try to transfer after first year. While it is certainly a hard decision to make, my advice is to think about what you want to do. If you are all about the big name and the pedigree, go for it. Maybe this was even your plan all along. But if you are more hesitant, make sure you do your research. There’s financial hesitation for sure, because you probably have a good chunk of scholarship at your current school or could get some money now with your grades. It’s a lot to think about, but do what is right for you. 

All in all, if your biggest problem if that your grades are too high and people are mad, I think you’re doing just fine. Just know it can be lonely at the top! Don’t get discouraged whether or not you get there. Most lawyers out there did not make Law Review, so it isn’t the end of the world. 

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