Will Bad First Semester Law School Grades Tank Your Legal Career?

University law school students checking bulletin board for their pass/fail grades.

Eric Audras / Getty Images

January means one thing to law students, their grades are coming in. If your first-semester law school grades are everything you hoped and dreamed, awesome! For most people, especially 1Ls, that’s not the case, unfortunately. 

The forced curve in 1L classes means that a huge number of law students are getting grades they’ve never seen before. Bs? Cs? Ds? Fs? It’s all possible. Beyond just the shock of not automatically getting As law students have another worry: Will these grades sink my legal career? It’s a legitimate question, but there’s no reason to panic. Many successful lawyers have been where you are right now and lived to tell the tale.

What Happened?

While it’s possible to recover from terrible grades and have a successful legal career, it’s easier to find a job when you graduate if your grades aren’t consistently terrible. So, it’s time to figure out what went wrong first semester and correct it going forward.

Step one is to get, and carefully examine, your exam answers, comparing them in form and content to any sample answers your professor handed out. Once you’ve done this, set up a meeting with your professor to see what advice they can offer. Some professors are reluctant to engage in such a conversation, but many are willing to help if you approach them with a constructive attitude and make it clear you’re interested in improving your performance going forward, not in arguing about your grade from last semester.

Take any advice to heart and make changes in how you study this semester. If your professors aren’t willing to help, look for other resources. Your school might offer peer mentors or an academic support program. Worst case, consider hiring a law school tutor for a few sessions. Any input you can get is valuable, so don’t be shy! Ask around for help. 

Change How You Prepare

If your grades weren’t great, it’s a sign that your preparation wasn’t effective, so you need to change your approach going forward. There are lots of books on taking law school exams, so you can probably find one that makes sense to you. But don’t expect different results if you prepare exactly as you did the first semester! It’s time to change it up.

Focus on Your Career

It might sound counterintuitive, but one way of handling disappointing grades is simply to ignore them and turn your attention to other matters. One of my law school roommates knew she wanted to do public interest work, where grades are less of a focus. So she simply didn’t look at her grades! She had a friend check to make sure she passed all of her classes, but then she focused her energy on securing relevant internships, doing pro bono work, and making connections in the area where she wanted to work.

In the end, she had tons of job options, despite a less than stellar transcript, because people in the field knew her and respected her work. If your grades aren’t going to get you in the door, think about what will. Can you spend time blogging on a topic of interest to you? Or meeting lawyers who work in the area by volunteering for a bar association committee or joining a pro bono project? Ultimately, time spent on such activities can pay off far more than improving your grades from a B to a B+. 

Getting bad first-semester law school grades is a shock, but it’s not the end of the world. Try to improve your performance going forward, and focus on other aspects of your legal career planning to find ultimate career success!