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April 20
From here to eternity with your law school grades? Not so much.

The most exciting part for me about having been recently quoted in The New York Times was that the piece began with the words “James Franco.” I presume it is only a matter of time before Mr. Franco will want to chat about our linked names. From there, it will be the work of but a moment to persuade him to underwrite the reincarnation of Freaks and Geeks, and then we can find out whether Lindsay ever actually attends the University of Michigan. Happy thought!

Setting that highlight aside, given that the piece comprised a total of 444 words and covered the topic of grades at all graduate schools, it necessarily glossed over many nuances of the issues surrounding law school grades. It is true that some law firms have strict GPA cutoffs. This is not a new, post-2008, law-firm-contraction creation; this is how certain law firms have always operated. It is also true that some law firms, freakishly—or, as I phrased it with more restraint in The Times, “somewhat astonishingly”—will look at grades even for, say, lateral partner candidates.

While these statements are true, they are true only as far as they go. For example, if you’re a major rainmaker, the firm considering you as a lateral partner probably won’t kick up too much of a fuss about your C- in civil procedure 20 years earlier. Likewise, even for the employers that care deeply about transcripts, the terminology of “high grades” isn’t self-defining. Within the narrow ambit of the BigLaw, for example, standards vary widely; one firm may want to see nothing less than a 3.5 from a top school, while many others view 3.0 from that same school as wholly satisfactory.

Perhaps the most prominent consideration elided over in the article was that a firm with high expectations for grades is also a firm with even higher expectations for school pedigree—so picking a law school where getting a 4.0 is a relatively easier undertaking is going to be a losing proposition, because the chances that they want to take a peek at the transcript in the first place diminish drastically, rapidly approaching zero. Just as in the law school admissions process, different institutions carry different weight.

It’s not exactly a newsflash for lawyers and law students that BigLaw employers look at grades (in contrast, according to the article, to other graduate disciplines), and I actually think law students tend to put excessive emphasis on their role. Sometimes that means candidates take themselves out of the running for jobs they had actually had a shot at; sometimes it means candidates don’t work on other key aspects of their professional development, erroneously assuming that a good GPA is going to do all the heavy lifting. Either way, it’s self-defeating. High grades are simply not always a necessary, and never a sufficient, existing condition to getting a law job.

Let’s say a given firm is on the far end of the spectrum that views grades as the defining element of human worth. Exceptions will nonetheless be made. A firm that, for example, has a large Japanese practice will find its otherwise rigid views suddenly flexible for the candidate who speaks Japanese fluently. More amorphous, hard-to-define attributes can yield similar results—including, on occasion, exceptional charm and charisma, which, after all, popular culture would say are in short supply in the legal field. (I disagree. The most charming and charismatic people I know are lawyers. Mind you, I know almost no one who isn’t a lawyer.)

Of course, employers who don’t emphasize grades nonetheless need to make some decisions; some other criterion(a) necessarily gets substituted. One judge friend of mine says what he cares about is an ability to write well, and that in his hiring experience, grades appear to be not at all predictive of that ability—so he has applicants provide many writing samples, and scrutinizes cover letters and resumes with painstaking care. I have another friend who hires for one of the most prestigious legal nonprofits in the nation; when we once spoke about the grades of a candidate he was considering, he burst out in some consternation with, “I never look at grades!! Do you think I SHOULD look at grades??” For him, a demonstrated history of commitment to the particular mission of his organization is the sine qua non. And some employers may care so much about the graduating institution that grades fall entirely by the wayside; a Michigan Law student whose GPA barely cracked 2.0 got a federal district court clerkship because the judge was in a state where few Michigan Law grads go, and he had never gotten an application from one before—he viewed this student as something of an exotic and rare flower.

All that speaks to my claim that high grades are not a necessary precursor to legal employment. What about the part where I said they are not sufficient?

One, to me, amusing aspect of the New York Times piece came toward the conclusion, with a quote from the founder of an MBA job search site. He downplayed the importance of GPA in the business sector—and then proceeded to undercut his claim entirely by referring to his own previous experience as a recruiter for finance and technology companies, “look[ing] beyond grades”: “I would say: ‘Let me see who you are. Does your personality match our company culture? What are your ethics? Do you have work experience?’ As long as it’s a good G.P.A., I’m going to look at who the person is rather than the grades.” There you have it—“as long as it’s a good GPA.” Sort of begs the question.

But the significant point is that within the universe of candidates whose GPAs put them in whatever sphere a given legal employer wants to see, employers aren’t going to hire on GPA alone. Say an employer has a presumptive cutoff of 3.0 at a given school; that means the employer thinks that if you have a GPA above that, your academic credentials suggest you can do the work. After that hurdle is cleared, academic credentials become a less significant consideration. Having a 3.5, in other words, isn’t going to be the thing that differentiates you from the person with the 3.1 in that context; once you’re in the acceptable universe, many other factors come into play.

What sort of factors? One cited by lots of interviewers is ability to carry on a conversation-- sometimes styled as being “beer-worthy.” Those who find high grades an insufficiently inspiring goal may find the development of beer-worthiness highly motivating.

-Dean Z.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
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