Law School: Grades, Grades, Grades – or, does it matter?

Most of the literature that you will read about law school will tell you that grades are the single most important focus of your first and second years of law school. The competition is fierce for top jobs at law firms in Canada. Further, the competition is getting fiercer for jobs in general in Canada. I received better than average grades in law school, with improvement each subsequent year. I wish I had concentrated more on grades in my first year, but at the same time, I have little regret, and am well pleased with how things turned out.

Grades can be very, very important in 1L if you are vying for a summer job at a legal firm, which can subsequently lead to a guaranteed article at that firm. As well, stacking up your law school transcript before your second summer can be important in setting yourself apart to law firms. This is especially true in larger urban centres such as Toronto and Calgary. If it is your desire to work at a national or large city firm then make sure you put grades at the top of your priority list.

Although I believe grades are great indicia of commitment, hard work and intelligence, I do not think that they provide a complete portrait of the individual. This is why law recruitment committees also include such criteria as personality, experience, fit with the firm culture, and other personal definers in their recruitment material and information. Grades will definitely help you to get in the door of a law firm for an interview, but it is the interview that will ultimately determine your success in obtaining employment at a law firm. I am not aware of too many interviewers who would take an individual on the spot if they had a 4.0 GPA without interviewing them. Nor would they hire a 4.0 law student who made a terrible impression at an interview.

So, get your grades up as high as possible. This may be increasingly important as each year goes by, as article positions decrease, and as competition increases. However, do not ignore development of non-law related interests, skills, and personality. It is important to come across as unique, while at the same time convincing a recruiter that you will fit into their ‘team’. This is a difficult thing to achieve, and I do not have specific advice for you to achieve the perfect balance. My advice is to work hard. Work harder than hard. Achieve your very best. At the same time, try to remain sane, fun, excited, and exciting. Bring passion to school every day, and bring passion to your interviews.

Grades are obviously more important at top law firms than they might be at smaller law firms. There seems to be a pecking order in the recruitment process. Top firms usually choose the top students. Many of those students end up choosing those top firms. However, it is not unheard of to have a very good law student choose a mid-size or small-size firm, or another legal setting altogether. I really admire those who choose for themselves, rather than going to where they are expected to go. Some high achievers are afraid that they will not be challenged or well compensated unless they are at top law firms. I have done research that challenges this notion.

One example includes Canada Justice, or a provincial justice office. These environments can be extremely challenging and rewarding, include a very decent and predictable salary, along with very good benefits. As well, the ‘billable hours’ are usually less demanding, which can lead to a much better balance. Another example is going solo in a small community. I am personally aware of such sole practitioner lawyers who bill $300,000 to $400,000 a year. Even after paying their business rent, expenses, and support staff salaries, they can make a very decent 6-figure income, often while working a very regular 9-5 type schedule. A third example is corporate counsel positions. Often, people who work as lawyers for corporations can earn very high salaries, be highly challenged, while enjoying very regular and decent schedules.

All of these examples require a lot of planning. They are not something that is necessarily achieved immediately upon graduating, or even soon after graduating. However, my point is that it is possible to be very happy as a lawyer outside of the big firms.
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