Don’t Believe the Hype: First-Year Grades Are NOT the Most Important Ones You’ll Earn

If you’re reading this blog post, an attorney or current law student has likely shared the harsh reality of law school: The grades you earn during the 1L year will dictate what employment opportunities are available to you after graduation.  

That’s no lie.   

The vast majority of law firm recruiting takes place during the fall semester of law students’ 2L year. At that time, 1L grades, and honors like Law Review membership, are all that employers have at their disposal when deciding who to interview for a coveted 2L Summer Associate slot. 

Now, you may be thinking, being an associate at a large law firm sounds like a soul-sucking experience and you’re planning for a more humane existence – perhaps as a judicial law clerk, public interest attorney, or even as a legal academic. Good for you!   

But the truth remains that whatever career path you intend to follow, students with top 1L grades enjoy significantly more options than their lower-ranked classmates. Simply put: top 1L grades mean the difference between searching for a job and getting recruited for one. If you’re looking at law school as an investment, you want to make sure that you get as many options in return as you possibly can. 

Given this reality, law students are under tremendous pressure to perform ‘out of the gate’ – during the fall semester – and avoid common missteps in order to earn the highest overall 1L GPA possible. For that reason, fall semester grades are the most important grades you’ll earn in all of law school.  Here’s why: 

Mathematically, Your Full-Year GPA is Largely Determined by Your Fall Semester GPA 

Most law schools assign roughly 15 credits in both the fall and spring semesters of the 1L year.  While both semesters have equal “weight” – it turns out that a strong fall semester performance is crucial to a law student’s overall full-year GPA.   

For example, imagine that at Law School X, the cutoff for the top 10% of the class is a 3.6 GPA. The Gunner law student who starts strong with, say, a 3.85 GPA during the fall semester will likely to maintain her position in the class (and often improve it) by the end of the of the spring semester. Absent some unforeseen personal tragedy, a strong start in the fall allows most law students to simply build upon their existing success the following semester.  Even in the unlikely event they earn a slightly lower spring semester GPA, students who start strong will enjoy a “cushion” as a result of high grades during the fall semester – allowing them some wiggle room to achieve a top ten percent ranking.  

Compare that scenario with the law student who earns a respectable (but average) 3.2 GPA during the fall semester. Sure, they could have done worse; however, it will take a herculean task – a 3.8 spring semester GPA – to claw their way into the top ten percent by the end of year. While it’s certainly not impossible (Supreme Court Justice Kagan was able to do it!), in addition to the math, students who trail behind after fall semester face some severe headwinds.   

Fall Semester Success Begets First-Year Success 

Students who enjoy a strong start during the fall semester are often able to parlay that positive experience and improve their performance during the spring semester. Having already encountered (and largely conquered) the challenges of adjusting to the law school pedagogy, top students are able to capitalize upon their forward momentum – allowing them to easily tweak an “A-“ or “B+” to a solid “A” with little extra effort.     

By contrast, tweaks aren’t going to help the student who earns a 3.2 GPA in the fall. Instead, what’s needed is an entire overhaul of their approach to law school – a formidable task given the psychology of resulting from the 1L grading curve. 

1L Grading Curve Emboldens Students Who Start Strong 

Because 1L grades carry so much weight, most law schools impose a strict grading curve – one that allows for only a certain number of A’s and, yes, even a few F’s. Unlike undergrad where your professors had broad discretion when handing out grades, in law school you will not be graded on what your professor feels was “A” effort; instead, your professors must award A’s only to those students who demonstrate a complete mastery of the material when compared to their classmates

1L law students who excel during the fall semester benefit from the confidence of knowing that they have already set the curve for the class. They know what they did correctly and understand that they must simply replicate their fall semester success in order to maintain their ranking. This positive feedback loop offers an incredible psychological advantage and source of motivation.  

Compare this with the psychological mindset law students in the bottom 90% of the class. Students who performed “average” (or worse, below average) must somehow muster the confidence to show up in the spring semester and compete – often without even understanding why their hard work during the fall, went unrewarded. As one Yale Law Review article exploring the law student depression noted: “studies have shown that as the school year progresses, students’ intrinsic motivation decreases.” Couple that general trend with a knowledge that they are fighting an uphill battle against a strict grading curve, and most law students encounter a psychological headwind that is simply too great to overcome. 

Prepare for a strong start when you arrive at law school next fall.   

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