When I read that Elena Kagan earned a B-minus as a Harvard first-year, I had two reactions: I was surprised that she’d faltered early on, but I also was pleased that she seemed not to have let her grades define her as a law student or as a lawyer.
It took me two semesters to learn this lesson.
Like all typical 1Ls, I feared my first-semester grades. I had emerged from undergrad accustomed to a sea of As based on class participation and term papers, and was terrified that my marks would be based on a single exam and graded on a curve (a curve!). When I finally got back my grades, I was upset by not only by their sheer mediocrity, but because they challenged my idea of myself. I had always known Lee Leviter as a person who gets great grades, and that person appeared not to have followed me to law school. Who was I?
I was proactive. I went to my professors, who graciously agreed to review my exams with me. They spoke with me about where I missed points. Their comments largely came down to my answer’s unclear organization and my glossing over of important analysis.
Second semester, I was determined to learn from my mistakes and study harder. I had to do better. I would not be an average student. I read more carefully, took more judicious notes, and began outlining earlier. By exam time, I knew the material backwards and forwards. I had mastered the Chevron doctrine, had a command of the Weiler method, and could recite the Model Penal Code. I was ready…or so I thought.
That June, as I waited for my grades, my anxiety only grew. What if I remained an average student? What would it do to my career prospects? Would it even be worth it to finish up law school?
I was in Cambodia that summer, and was planning to go to a beach during the third weekend in June. Grades were posted the Thursday before I left, and the angst seeing still-respectable but not-markedly-improved results tormented me through the end of the workweek. That weekend, though, I had an epiphany.
Accompanying me on the trip were several law students, an artist, an actor, a doctor, and a few 20-somethings taking some time off. We went to Rabbit Island, a small getaway in the Gulf of Thailand, a paradise still unspoiled by tourists. The buildings were made of wood and straw. Among the bungalows were grazing cows and wild chickens. There were no fences, walls, gates, or doors. The island was open, and the animals were free. Hammocks swayed in the wind. It was the edge of the world.
Try as I might, I could not stay upset about grades in that environment. The travelers, the artist, and the actor all seemed content, and were not building their identity around performance on a few exams. As I stared into the ocean, I accepted the uncertainty of law school.
Would straight As give me better access to the top jobs and the best opportunities? Yes, of course.
Are the grades the only indicator of my abilities as a lawyer? Absolutely not.
Exams measure a student’s facility with a very specific skill during a particular 4-hour window. Are there other ways to demonstrate my capacities? Yes! Of course! I’m a TA, an RA, I’m writing a Note, I volunteer, and I do dozens of other activities that define me, and through which I define myself. Would my grades determine the course of my life? Of course not.
To the prospective law student reading this, to the 23-year old Elena Kagan, and to the reader who has stumbled upon this post by sheer chance: Yes, grades are important. But they’re not everything. Don’t allow them to define you, or worse, to limit you.