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Four Ways to Overcome Bad Grades and How Law Schools Can Get Their Students Into Big Law

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Will Pugh, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

So, law schools, your students want to work in Big Law?

Many law students enter law school with the express goal of working in a “Big Law” law firms upon graduation. These firms offer salaries of up to $180,000 or more and can open doors to lucrative in-house jobs after a few years. The American Bar Association publishes the percentages of law schools’ graduating classes that go on to work in these prized positions. For example, 468 out of 595 (or about 79%) of the 2017 graduates of Harvard Law School either went on to work in law firms with over 250 lawyers or accepted selective judicial clerkships (which frequently lead to Big Law jobs upon completion).

As a comparison, 117 out of 171 (or about 68%) of the 2017 graduates of Vanderbilt Law School and 47 out of 168 (or about 28%) of Georgia Law graduates accepted similar Big Law and clerkship offers. It is not a coincidence that there is a strong correlation between law school ranks and the percentages of graduating classes that go on to work in Big Law. Top law schools sit atop the ranking pyramid largely because of their demonstrated ability to achieve desired employment outcomes.

These statistics raise the question, if Big Law jobs are the desired result for many law students, what can law schools do to increase the percentages of students landing in Big Law jobs? Note that the prior axiom—that Big Law is the “desired result”—is a question for another day.

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How to get more students into Big Law jobs

As Above the Law has summarized, the formula for getting a “big law” job is not complicated. First, get a summer associate offer, then work as a summer associate, and lastly, do a good enough job as a summer associate. Recently, the main hurdle has been the first one—getting the summer associate job offer during the 2L summer. In 2016, 95% of those who made it past step one (i.e., those who got summer associate job offers) went on to get full time job offers. This has not always been the case because that number was 69% during the recession in 2009. That being said, it appears that once a student has received a summer associate job in Big Law, the lion’s share of the work has been done.

How, then, does one get the summer associate job offer? Chambers has reported that Big Law recruiters “focus on the very top of the class. Those people will have tremendous drive and personal characteristics.” Therefore, “the biggest law firms… recruit from the top 30-50% of the top ten schools, but only from the top 10% of schools ranked 31 to 50.” Vault quotes a Cravath associate as saying that “[a]lmost everyone [at Cravath] is from a top law school with very good grades, or an okay law school with exceptional grades.” Vault speculates that grades are so important because (i) “[m]any 1Ls went straight from college to law school and may not have professional experience” and (ii) “1Ls may not have had time to build relationships within the legal community that are often essential to getting interviews.”

Four ways to overcome bad grades:

1. Networking: It is almost hard to mention because it is so cliché, however, it is frequently discussed as thenon-grade differentiator because it is true. Why? Well, recruiting based off of personal recommendations (i.e., recruiting those who network well) is a good way for law firms to reduce risk. If a law firm makes a mistake and hires a full-time associate that—for whatever reason—is not good for the firm, the firm has tough choices to make. The sub-par nature of the employee may not be clear until months or years into employment, so firing and rehiring creates potential legal liability, lost productivity, lower morale, and re-hiring costs.

If, alternatively, someone is willing to put their personal recommendation at risk by giving a personal recommendation, it reduces the risk—to law firms—of hiring a total “dud.” Thereby, networking is a great way to make yourself a less “risky” applicant.

​2. Subject Matter Expertise: Vault has noted that students who take the time to become experts in specialized areas of law may have a leg up on competitors with higher grades. Areas like patent or IP law (for those with B.S. degrees) or tax require specialized skill sets that can serve as differentiators.

3. Experience, Experience, Experience: If you have a long track record of positive performance in a business (and have the personal recommendations to prove it) it can make a big difference to recruiters. Number one, you may be able to help generate business from day one. Number two, you will potentially have subject matter expertise for differentiation, and number three, a positive track record further reduces risk to law firms that you are a “dud.”

4. Make Law School a “Small” Part of your Resume: When writing on this topic, the blog The Lawyer Whisperer recommends that students with poor grades: “go in house,” “join a small firm and make partner,” or “earn another degree and get good grades.” All of this advice has a common thread of de-emphasizing law school in a student’s overall professional narrative. Students following this advice can self-style as a vetted business professional rather than an entry-level employee.

Where do we go from here?

For starters, law schools should not base admissions off of factors that law firms do not care about, and, at a minimum, law schools should at least think carefully before eliminating a student based off of such factors. The first unnecessary factor that comes to mind is LSAT scores. Not only is the LSAT a poor predictor of law school grades (with “r” values of only .35 according to some studies), but Big Law firms usually do not even know about LSAT scores. To the extent that a law school overlooks a student who would be an attractive candidate for law firms because she has a poor LSAT score, it is shooting itself in the foot. This is especially true if the law school selects another student who may have a high LSAT score but lacks the non-grade differentiators discussed above. This high-LSAT student will have to rely only on his law school rank to get a job. This means that, in the event that grades don’t work out for him, he will become a liability to the school whereas the low-LSAT student could be an attractive candidate notwithstanding poor grades.

This change of emphasis (from LSAT to non-grade differentiators) is crucial to move the law firm funnel up to the admissions process. Currently, law firms filter students after their 1L year. To the extent that law firms could filter students before they are admitted to law school, the students who end up in the bottom of the class will be in a better position. Their resumes will be strong with only one “strike” against them (i.e., their grades). If law firms were involved in the admissions process and asked whether they would consider X individual even if she was in the bottom 20% of the class, then students at that school would need to rely less on their grades.

This means that law schools should de-emphasize factors like the LSAT and, instead, focus on experience, network, subject matter expertise, and judgement. Law schools would be well served to filter out students who are likely to exhibit poor judgment at their summer jobs. After all, when a student gets no-offered for poor judgment, they drag down the school’s employment statistics and take up a “grade spot” that could have been filled by a more responsible candidate.