I’m often asked whether earning top grades in college is at all predictive of the academic success a student will enjoy during law school. While a solid undergraduate academic record is a necessary precursor for a law school acceptance, the grades you earned during college are in no way dispositive of the success you’ll enjoy as a 1L.
Your law school experience will likely differ from undergrad in three major ways – all of which will dramatically impact the grades you’ll receive.
Your Law School Classmates Will Be Smart, Really Smart
In law school, you’ll find that most of your classmates possess all of the characteristics needed to earn a spot at the top of the class: intellectual curiosity, mental acuity, and solid study habits. Like you, these attributes likely separated them from their undergraduate classmates and earned them entry to a competitive law school. Consequently, you’ll likely encounter an entire class of high achievers – students who possess the same innate abilities.
Additionally, because of the sheer size of most college classes, you likely encountered a wider range of people – including many “slackers” who were never any real competition at all. By contrast, in law school, you’ll find yourself swimming in a much smaller pool of students who, because so many opportunities are riding on 1L grades, are all equally motivated to earn a spot at the top of the class.
The 1L Grading Curve
Most law schools impose a strict grading curve during the 1L year. So, 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” or “B” effort; instead, your professors are required to award individual grades relative to the entire class.
Consequently, to excel, top students must demonstrate a complete mastery of the material when compared to their (equally able) classmates.
Final Exams Determine Your Entire Grade
Unlike undergrad, in most doctrinal classes, there are no term papers or quizzes. If there’s a midterm, it is likely worth only 5% (if that). Also, because of the anonymous grading system, attempts to become the “teacher’s pet” are pointless.
Your performance on one time-pressured final exam will largely determine your grade in each of your courses. Obviously, this places a huge emphasis on uncontrolled variables (e.g., your health on exam day, your ability to test under pressure, etc.).
While these three points may seem daunting, you can take comfort in the fact that everyone in your class is forced to play by the same rules — while unpleasant, you’re not at any disadvantage relative to your classmates.
The truth is, however, that many very smart and capable students arrive on their law school campuses failing to understand the tectonic shift in the learning environment and fully expecting that the skills they used in undergrad will translate to law school (they don’t). Worse, some actually recognize the headwinds they will face during the 1L year and decide to adopt a trial-and-error approach (always a flawed strategy).
Just like how you wouldn’t wake up one morning without training and decide to run a marathon, in order to gain an advantage in the competitive law school environment, you need to train and prepare yourself (physically and mentally) for the experience. Given the high stakes 1L grades represent, proper preparation is the only way to distinguish yourself from the equally able competition you will encounter.