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Legal Commentary: Prawfs
Emotional Distress and 1L Grades
By Dan Markel, Ethan Leib, Rick Garnett, Matt Bodie, Paul Horwitz , Steve Vladeck, and Orly Lobel
As a teacher, you want to tell students that if you work hard and do everything right, you will be sure to succeed, but in law school it just isn't necessarily so. Almost every 1L student works hard, but some just have a knack for the narrow analytical skill that law school exams prioritize. Some will eventually acquire the knack, but they need a little while to figure out what's being asked of them. Some are too intellectually creative to ever give AN answer on law school exams, and some are too concerned with providing THE answer. Many of these students can and will go on to be great lawyers, but not if the 1L experience so shatters their confidence that they never fully recover.
The situation is complicated by the fact that many of the students I teach had all "A"s before law school and are used to deriving their self-esteem from their accomplishments. I try to warn 1Ls of the dangers of this practice before exams. I've stolen the speech my Torts professor (and mentor and friend and co-author and hero David Anderson) gave to my class before our first exams. I tell students that the exam is just a four-hour snapshot of their performances on a given day on a given exam. It is a snapshot that may in no way reflect their knowledge of the subject or their abilities as lawyers. I also add my own riff on David's speech. I tell them that my lowest grade on my mid-term exams in law school was in Torts, and then ask them whether they think it means I wasn't capable of learning Torts, which usually gets a laugh. I tell them that I've had students with mediocre grades I'd hire as my own lawyer and students with excellent grades I wouldn't. All of these things I say are true, but I don't know if they actually help or not.
Moreover, I feel obliged to balance that advice by acknowledging that some prospective employers, particularly big firms, care about grades. I tell students that any one grade may be a fluke, but if a student is getting low grades in every class, he needs to look at his exam-taking skills closely and make great efforts to improve them. Consistently low grades in law school ARE a predictor of whether a student will pass the bar, and in this economy, it will be very hard to get a job with consistently low grades. It is a hard truth, and it pains me to be the one with the obligation to say it, but I do. What do you do?
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