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What is the 1L Curve and how to embrace it?

By Eleanor Clerc

For 1L students starting their first year of law school, there are a lot of unknowns. Between a new school, new professors, new material, and a new testing format, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Sooner or later, you’ll hear about the 1L curve, a key stressor for law students.

In this post, we’ll demystify the curve and provide a way of thinking about it that will hopefully reduce the stress of 1L, instead of adding to it.

What is the 1L curve?

Many students have experienced some form of curved grading. Most curved grading systems are a variation on the “Bell curve,” also known as normal distribution, which looks like this:

In technical terms, a normal distribution assumes that most of the sample will fall within the “median” measurement (e.g., weight, height) for that population. In law school, the curve means that most students will achieve median grades, and that a small number of students will do much better or much worse than the median. In law school, the median is pre-determined by the school. For example, my school, the University of Baltimore School of Law, sets its median grade at 2.6-3.0. This means that most students are expected to get between a B and a B-. It is important to understand that each school has its own grading policies and median grade. Wikipedia has a list of law school GPA curves if you are interested, but it’s always best to check your school’s grading policy directly. The aspect of the 1L curve that is most frustrating to students is that these grades do not necessarily correlate to how well they know the material and perform on their exams, but instead are generally dependent on how they do in comparison to the rest of the class. For example, if your school sets the median at a “B” and if the class median on an exam is 90%, then a student who gets 90% on an exam will get a “B.” However, this can also work in students’ favor. If the class median on an exam is 50%, then students who score 50% will also receive a “B.” A better/less stressful way to think of the curve. Given the challenging nature of law school, including having to learn more information than ever before and adapting to an entirely new type of examination process, it’s easy for students to see the curve as a barrier to success. However, successful students know that to beat the curve, you don’t need to be an expert on every topic in every class or to conduct sophisticated legal analysis like your favorite fictional lawyer to do well on exams. Rather, you just need to know the law and conduct legal analysis a little better than most of your classmates. The good news is that these are skills you can learn. By adopting the right strategies for your learning style, applying a system for tackling hypo-based exams, and devoting time to taking practice exams and comparing your results to model answers, you will build key skills for law school and put yourself in the best position to meet your academic goals.

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