I’m In the Bottom 25% of My Class


QI am currently a 1L at a Tier 1 law school. I finishing my first semester and am very disappointed in how I did.  My grades will not be respectable.  I am determined to improve my grades, but given the exceptional nature of the students I am competing with, I am concerned that I may never climb out of the “lower 25%” basement that I will soon find myself in.  So my question is twofold:

First, for those students who graduate from a Tier 1 law school and fall in the lower 25% of their class, can these individuals still obtain jobs at decent law firms in the summers and ultimately upon graduating? Basically, what happens to these people?

Second, I was given a full ride to a Tier 3 and turned it down in order to attend the Tier 1. Thoughts of transferring schools have entered my mind.  I assume I would be ranked higher in my class at the Tier 3 compared to my current Tier 1. For hiring purposes, would law firms prefer someone in the lower 25% of their class at a Tier 1 school or the top 33% of their class at a Tier 3?  I understand that I am only in my first year and that it is early to jump to conclusions, but I was hoping to gain some insight into how law firm hiring practices relate to class rank. Thank you so much.

AShut up and do better. (I say that with kindness in my heart.) Transferring from a T1 to a T3 because you’re intimidated by the students at your T1 is dumb. It just is.

Law firms like smart, ambitious, competitive people. They don’t like people who transfer to T3 schools because they’re afraid of smart, ambitious, competitive people.  Now, if money is an issue and you don’t want to incur any law school debt, transferring to a lower-ranked school is not totally crazy. It’s not smart, but it’s at least a rational, if not strategically sound, move. But, if you do transfer, you better graduate in the top 5% of your class—and that’s not easy. I don’t care if it’s the worst school in America, it’s tough to graduate in the top 5%. Ask me, it’s a lot easier to graduate in the top 50% of a T1, which to most employers is roughly the same thing.

But remember this: When you’re walking down the hallway at Sullivan & Cromwell, and the snobby Partner asks, “Where’d you go to law school?” He doesn’t ask, “What was your class rank?” So my advice would be to stay put at your T1 school, study harder and do better.

Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.

28 Comments

  1. Guano Dubango

    December 14, 2009 at 3:28 am

    I agree with the Ex-Bitter answer.  It is best to go to the most famous law school.  Even if you do not get good grades.  That is why I went to Georgetown for my LLM, because I could not get work with a law degree from University of Accra Law School.  More imporant, if you are good looking, I do not care if you are not all that smart.  As long as you are attractive and can bear me children, I will not only hire you, but will marry you also and jet you home to meet my Aunt Ooona.  So all is not bad for you, even if you are at the bottom of your class.

  2. BL1Y

    December 14, 2009 at 6:27 am

    The way this question is written shows why he’s towards the bottom of his class.  Issue spotting fail.  Saying you’re at a T1 doesn’t give us a ton of information; there’s a big difference between Yale and Tulane.  But, if you were in a top 5, top 10 or top 14 school, I assume you would have been more specific, so you’re probably in a lower ranked T1.  That’s still a lot of room.  There’s a lot of difference between Vanderbilt and Southern Methodist.  It also matters how you got into the bottom 25%.  A bunch of mediocre grades isn’t nearly as damning as barely-passing grades.  Your job prospects will also depend a lot on your prior work experience (someone proven to be a competent worker is better than someone with an A in an irrelevant class), as well as your interview skills.  As for transferring, don’t do it.  If you were considering moving just a few rungs down the latter to go debt-free, it’d take sense.  But T1 to T3?  That’s insane.

  3. Ace in the Hole

    December 14, 2009 at 6:34 am

    What is “Tier 1” in this case?  The only “Tier 1” in the real world is HYS, in which case it doesn’t really matter what your grades are at most firms.  If you’re T8 (T3+ Columbia, NYU, Berkeley, Duke, and UVA), work on your grades, and otherwise, drop out now unless you have a prestige/grade insensitive plan for a legal career.

  4. Guvment Cheese

    December 14, 2009 at 7:16 am

    Believe it or not, you won’t find law school to be any different no matter where you go.  It’s the same amount of preparation, same material, same books, same curriculum, same cases, same gunners, everything.  If you are doing bad at your “tier 1” then you will do bad anywhere else, because you obviously aren’t studying enough or the law isnt for you.  In fact, many lower tiered schools don’t offer open book exams, so you actually have to study for them and, gasp, memorize things. 
    1) do you really want to be a lawyer?  It is incredibly hard to find a decent job outside of Biglaw that will pay your debt load.  Working at Biglaw is also a terrible, soulcrushing experience.  If you aren’t into it, the law is a boring, tedious profession filled with pompous, self-entitled assholes or, to the other extreme, incompetent, mouth-breathers whose keyboards have only the cut and paste button on it.
    2) why are you doing so poorly?  Let’s be honest, you’re probably drinking too much or playing too much xbox, or something.  If you are working, then that’s one thing, but if you have time to study, and then aren’t, it sounds like law school isn’t right for you.  The law is ALOT of work after you graduate.  It is not easy to slack off and you will be working long hours.  If you can’t hack it now, will you be able to then?  At least now you can go do much more pleasant office work without a six figure debt load.

  5. Craig

    December 14, 2009 at 8:07 am

    “Basically, what happens to these people?” – - They become lawyers and hate their jobs/lives like the other 90% of lawyers who graduated anywhere from top 1% to 99% in T1-4 schools. Basically, real life is not about how well you did and school, and you will be fine. Just graduate and start hustling like every other non government employee out there.

  6. SFLawyer

    December 14, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    I really appreciate your approach Brett.  What makes people think T1 schools are academic superstores?  Prestige, yes.

  7. BL1Y

    December 14, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    T1 schools only produce smarter lawyers because they started with smarter students.  My mediocre state school professors were (for the most part) far more intelligent than my top 5 law school professors.  Law schools offer so many fluff classes and the ABA discourages the hiring of practitioners or anything with actual knowledge about legal practice.  If smart lawyers come out of top schools it’s not because of the school, but in spite of it.

  8. manda

    December 14, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    how do you know you’re doing so bad?  have the actual grades come out?  i’m only asking because it’s vaguely written, and sounds like they haven’t.  are you sure you’re not just really neurotic and stressed out, and letting other people’s comments about how much work they did and how they answered questions get to you?  if so, just stop.  it’s a waste of time, and you haven’t been in law school enough to really predict.  i’m sure you did fine.  and if you didn’t, it’s really not the end of the world.  you’ll be fine.  just do moot court or journal or trial team or something to make yourself stand out.

  9. Chick Litigator

    December 14, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    I’d suggest chilling out for right now, work harder next semester, and (almost certainly) your grades will improve over the next 2 years. Personally, I’m willing to admit that my grades weren’t phenomenal my first year (right around the 50% mark) but, with the increased median grades for upper-level classes and getting to take a few classes that I actually liked, my grades improved quite a bit.

    Hang on, it gets better – but if you really hate it (or the idea of going ass-deep in debt), get the fuck out now.

  10. Brett

    December 14, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    BL1Y: I’d have to disagree with the T1 producing smarter lawyers because they have smarter students; at least from what I’ve seen now.  I have a neice and nephew both in law school.  My neice is BRILLIANT; extremely bright, but Shite as a standardized test taker.  She graduated from a good private undergrad with a 3.7ish GPA; but only scored a 160 on her LSAT.  She is now enrolled at Marquette law.  My nephew is an absolute dimwit.  He got a 3.8 from Arizona State (NOT hard to do) in a bull**it major, BUT he’s great/lucky at tests.  His LSAT was something in the low 170’s–he’s now at Berkeley.  My nephew is no where near as smart as my neice, he’s got worse grades than her, and, literally, knows little to nothing about the law.  I’ve also seen this with interns that I’ve interviewed…good schools, but after speaking with them, I seriously wonder how the hell they even got in.  I think that the LSAT has gotten a bit too much credibility now-a-days; I don’t think one test can really determine how smart a student is; I would rather look at the quality of the undergraduate program/school, grades, and writing sample.  Of course, back when I took the LSAT, they scored it out of 48 (not 180) and schools actually looked at things like the quality of your undergrad.

  11. BL1Y

    December 15, 2009 at 7:35 am

    Brett: I’m curious as to why people always assume it’s the standardized test that’s an inaccurate measure of intelligence.  In undergrad and law school most of my tests required little more than memorization.  LSAT at least tests a cognitive skill.  Some of my former coworkers who you might considering intelligent because they know a lot about the law can’t handle things much more difficult than memorizing facts.  I might have to look at my notes every time I need to remember what an 8K is, but I’ve never had to call a coworker to learn how to divide a number by 100.

  12. AlanaJ

    December 15, 2009 at 9:45 am

    Alas, Tier 1 is a smarter choice if you have the option. I did not, but if I did it would have been a no brainer.

  13. R Smith

    December 15, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Waving the white feather a bit early aren’t you?  Not to worry: your problem isn’t one of intellect, its test-taking.  Go buy a 2L law review type a drink or lunch and ask for exam tips. Ask to see some. (“I want to be just like you.”) You’re problem is probably issue spotting as someone here has noticed. You simply don’t know how to take an exam in law school.  Continue to put in the study time:  (someone once told a former president that he had what it took to do well in law school, “an iron butt”).  But stop worrying about dates, footnotes, the judges name and other irrelevant stuff. Don’t play any golf.  Issue spotting is critical. Now get back to work. PS: Its tough on lawyers now, but we’re hoping for resumed energy in 2011. You will probably benefit. Keep pushing.

  14. prog

    December 15, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Tier 1 rank is WAY more important then your class rank within that school.
    That being said, you need to pull yourself above 50%.  Being in the lower 25% is just sad.  The first semester is probably the hardest because everything is so new and you don’t necessarily know what to expect from finals.  My second semester was definitely an improvement over my first semester.
    Otherwise, just get as much practical experience as possible under your belt.  Clinics, internships, whatever.  If you have a particular area you want to go into, dive into it and wrack up all the experience you can while people are still willing to put up with you in return for your free labor.

  15. Brett

    December 15, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    BL1Y:  I generally have a biased against standardized testing.  It’s probably, because like my neice, I have always sucked at multiple choice, standardized testing.  Call it nerves, call it just plain stupid; whetever it is, it doesn’t make me a bad lawyer or not as smart as someone else.  Same thing went with my neice…she is ACTUALLY smarter than my nephew; yet he scored higher on the LSAT (for whatever reason).  You also missed my point (or at least didn’t address it) that there should be more than just a test and GPA to consider.  Per my previous statement: sure my nephew got a 3.8 GPA, but he went to freaking Arizona State and majored in something BS like recreational studies.  My neice went to Dartmouth (or was it Duke?  One of the D’s) and majored in some sort of engineering.  But, according to T1 schools; my nephew is smarter because he somehow got lucky and scored a 170 something on his LSAT.

  16. BL1Y

    December 16, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Brett: I agree that law schools (and employers, etc) should be looking at more than GPA and LSAT (and I’m saying this as someone with a 4.0/172).  And while the LSAT is not a perfect tool for gauging intelligence, 9 times out of 10, someone with a 170 is smarter than someone with a 165.  LSAT doesn’t gauge intelligence, only your likely intelligence.

  17. Confused

    December 16, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Am I the only person who does not get if Guano is a real person or someone making a joke?

  18. Anonymous

    December 16, 2009 at 11:19 am

    I think you’re the only person to still be questioning whether he’s a joke.

  19. 2L

    December 16, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    someone has to be in the lower 25%.  we got the whole lecture after 1st semester.  out of 189 students, well, someone is going to be that lucky #189.  though i COMPLETELY understand freaking out when you don’t rock the top half, hang in there because there is a lot of room for improvement.  i got mediocre grades 1st semester, but pulled myself up 40 spots in rank by the end of 1L.  and, contrary to what people say – personality is huge.  i got both the jobs i wanted (big firm one summer, government the other) without being at the top.  why?  because i’m not pompous and can hold a conversation (which is more than i can say for a lot of people at my school). 

    ps: don’t leave the T1.  a friend of mine at a lower-ranked school is curved on a LOWER scale – which means she’ll have a lesser ranked school AND a crap gpa.  no bueno.

  20. Brett

    December 16, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    BL1Y:  Therein lies my complaint.  I don’t really think standardized tests do gauge likely intelligence.  Those tests didn’t reveal much back in my day and, based on my understanding now, they still don’t.  I can understand testing basic knowledge–does a kid know how to do math, can he/she write a coherent sentence, etc.  But, any knucklehead can take one of those Kaplan courses and learn how to “play” the LSAT.  It doesn’t mean he’s smarter, it just means he had the $1000 to blow on the class.  Granted, this argument has been going on for years now, so I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.  Do I think the system is flawed?  Yes.  Do I have any ideas to fix it?  Nope.

  21. BL1Y

    December 17, 2009 at 8:09 am

    I’m curious as to how one “plays” the LSAT.  I found the best way to do logical reasoning questions was to have decent logical reasoning skills.  Best way to do reading comprehension is to have reading comprehension skills.

  22. Brett

    December 18, 2009 at 9:31 am

    BL1Y:  That’s exactly what I thought.  How does a class teach someone to be more logical?  How does a class teach someone to read better?  Either you’ve got it, or you don’t.  Years ago, I asked one of my associates what those classes actually taught.  He essentially said that he learned how to guess better and how to pick the right answer based off of the format of the question (without having to actually read the context of the question).  That sounds like “playing” the test to me.  Now, if he was wrong, please correct my understanding.

  23. Powernupe

    December 18, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Did you actually receive your grades, or are you just freaking out? Grades typically come out after Christmas, so I’m inclined to assume that you’re anxious like many first semester 1L’s. The most difficult part of the first year in law school is figuring out “how to do everything.” The work itself is not that hard – however, you have to work hard at absorbing rules and spotting issues. If you really didn’t do well, chances are, you didn’t work hard enough. I encourage you to remain at your school and put forth the necessary effort to get good grades. As a general rule, you transfer up the tier scale not down. If it turns out that you’re actually in the bottom-quarter of your class, you have plenty of time to pull yourself up. Keep in mind, not all law students are equally motivated, so many of your classmates will slip over the next few semesters. Law school is full of slackers who manage to do just enough to get by. Many of them are exceptionally bright, but care less where they rank. Assuming that you really do care, I offer one bit of advice – make sure your “ready meter” measures 100% each time you enter an exam. And, like another blogger suggested, ask successful 2 and 3L’s to help with issue spotting and writing. Many schools have writing centers. For now, enjoy the holiday break because the amount of work only increases after the first-year first-semester. Good luck.

  24. BL1Y

    December 19, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Brett: Having taught both LSAT prep (Kaplan) and deductive logic at my undergrad, I can say it definitely seems like you can teach people to think more logically.  Learning how to reduce statements into symbolic logic and knowing a few rules for how to work with symbolic logic can actually go quite a ways towards thinking more logically.

  25. Anonymous

    January 2, 2010 at 5:45 am

    Even at the bottom of your class, you are still at the top of the legal food chain. Work hard and make contacts.

  26. Susan Gainen

    December 11, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Please answer two questions:

    1. Have you received your grades? By my calendar, you may not have finished your first set of finals.
    2. Do you really want to be a lawyer? All of this fretting about T-1 and T-17 sounds like issue avoidance. After your finals are complete, sit down and ask and answer these questions:
    a. Why did you decide to come to law school?
    b. How did you make the decision?
    c. When — if at all — have you decided to be a lawyer?
    d. Did you come to law school to fill up time because you hadn’t decided what you wanted to be when you grow up?
    e. Did you come to law school because people said “you are good at arguing — you should be a lawyer?” This one of the worst reasons to pick law school
    f. Did you come to law school because someone told you “law school will open every door?” This is the grossest of misconceptions because it confuses “law degree” with an app on Harry Potter’s wand.

  27. J.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    I was in the top 18% of my first year, and after transferring plummeted to 467/477, bottom 3ish percent. I now know that transferring was a HUGE mistake (was homeless for a few months after my transfer). Now I am considering dropping out, but have mountains of debt. I loved law school when I started, had the highest score on one of my tests, 2nd highest on another first semester. Transferring destroyed me. I now know I will NEVER EVER get a decent legal job.

  28. bootspur

    November 2, 2012 at 4:08 am

    BUT, it gets worse; “I’m In the Bottom 25% of My Class,” and attended a law school in the Bottom 25%, now working in the Bottom 25% of most trusted professions, in the Bottom 25% of Industrial Nations…
    *
    And, if you aren’t certain about this don’t accept any wooden nickels…

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