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The importance of 1L grades

By Eleanor Clerc

Why 1L grades matter so much.

Your 1L grades are extremely important. They are the most important grades you will receive in law school as they determine your class rank and eligibility for scholarships, honorary societies, legal journals, and most importantly, coveted employment, such as clerkships and “big law” associate positions.

Also, students who don’t do well as 1Ls can have their scholarships reduced or revoked, whereas students that excel can negotiate for a new or larger scholarship at their current schools, or transfer to a different school.

If you are a student who hopes to get on law review or to land a prestigious on campus interview or judicial clerkship, you must be aware of the impact your 1L grades will have on those opportunities. The lower your grades, the more your opportunities will be limited, at least at first.

To understand the importance of your 1L grades, all you need to know is the typical timeline of legal hiring:

Winter/Spring of 1L

  • You’ll be applying for internships and jobs for the summer after your 1L year. The only grades employers will have when evaluating your application are your Fall 1L grades.

  • Some students can convert their 1L summer positions into offers for full-time employment upon graduation. So, based on one semester’s grades, students have landed their first full-time job as a lawyer. (Talk about taking the stress out of law school.)

Summer of 1L/Fall of 2L

  • You’ll be applying for internships and jobs for the summer after your 2L year. At this point, employers will just see your 1L grades. Many employers, particularly law firms with summer associate programs, hire virtually all their newly graduated first-year associates from their 2L summer cohort.

  • So, even though the summer associate position doesn’t start until the summer after your 2L year, the only grades that matter for hiring purposes will be your 1L grades.

In addition to the soft impact of grades—it’s just a fact that all else being equal an employer is more likely to hire a student with a 3.7 GPA than a 3.0—legal employers often put hard GPA (e.g., 3.3 or 3.7) or class rank (e.g., top 10% or top 25%) requirements on applicants and won’t even consider those who fail to meet those benchmarks. Further, private practice salaries vary greatly, ranging from a low of around $50,000 to a high of around $200,000, and the firms that pay near the top of that scale tend to recruit at the top law schools or from among the very top students at lower-ranked schools.

Beyond employment, many law school extracurriculars use GPA as at least a significant factor in selecting new members. For example, at my school, the University of Baltimore School of Law, Law Review has a minimum GPA requirement of 3.2 and Law Journal has a minimum GPA requirement of 3.0. And, in a vicious cycle, many employers desire journal or moot court experience, so grades matter both explicitly and implicitly.

We don’t share this to scare you. In a separate post, we’ll talk about what you can do if you don’t get the grades you were hoping for. Remember that 90% of your class will not make the top 10%. Many of these students may still have successful legal careers. But we also think it’s important for you to know how the decisions you make today can impact your career years down the road.

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