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.

B-Minus

Law students should not think of this as a scarlet letter

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.

This entry was written by and posted on June 17, 2010.
The entry was filed under these categories: Tips and Advice, Topics of Law

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9 comments on “Why Elena Kagan’s B-minus Didn’t Hold Her Back—And Why Yours Shouldn’t Either
  1. Lee Leviter, 2L says:

    New York Times article referred to above: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/us/politics/25kagan.html?hpw

  2. Gabe says:

    Of course, as stated in the article, by second semester Kagan’s report card “consisted of three A’s and an A-minus.” And she followed through with As in 17 of 21 classes. With such a consistent track record after first semester it’d be odd to not consider the B- as a fluke. If anything, it’s her (successfully) defining herself as a straight A student that pushed her to do better and got her to where she is. While I like the content and the message of this post–do grades really matter a few years after graduation except for academia?–I don’t believe that Kagan’s story supports it.

  3. Lee Leviter, 2L says:

    I disagree. I didn’t get into it in the post, but I think that NY Times piece relies too heavily on historical perspective – on the benefit of knowing how everything would turn out for Kagan. The article effuses sarcasm because no one really cares now about Kagan’s first semester grades.

    But I am confident that Kagan herself cared after that first semester. Yes, maybe if she knew that she would grow up to be a candidate for the Supreme Court, she would rightfully discard the B-Minus was a fluke. After that first semester, however, she probably went through the same emotional experience that I describe in the post.

    I’ll concede that Kagan probably maintained a self-image of someone who always gets good grades. But that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t at least discouraged after the first semester. My final admonition in the post – not to let one’s grades be limiting – applies both to a person’s legal career in general, and to performance and enthusiasm as a law student.

    My intention is to ensure that unsatisfactory grades do not cause someone to disengage from legal life altogether. In that regard, Kagan’s story supports my point.

  4. Prospective Student says:

    I am a 0L and enjoyed your post. While I admire the sentiment that you should not let grades define you, I was wondering how you felt grades affected your internship and job opportunities. Obviously they are important, but could bad grades really be overcome in the on-campus law firm recruiting process? Does your 2L performance matter to your law firm, so perhaps you have more time to overcome a bad 1L year? I don’t know a lot about the law firm world or what the work is like, but as a 0L scared about 1L courses, I would appreciate your thoughts.

  5. Lee says:

    Well hello, Prospective Student

    Ah, you want the nuts and bolts, do you?

    (sigh) For better or for worse, I have no doubt that my law school grades have affected my job opportunities. You see, there are so many law students out there vying for not as many jobs. Depending on who you ask: either a) grades are an easy way to make the pool of candidates smaller for any given position; or b) grades are a way to limit the pool of candidates to only the smartest applicants. It’s probably a bit of both.

    In my experience, (certain) law firms and judges care about grades more than, say, public interest organizations. That does *not* mean that people who work in the public interest are somehow less intelligent or are worse lawyers – only that people in these organizations look for skills, experiences, and characteristics in a job applicant beyond grades.

    I’m afraid that I cannot answer your question about how my firm factors in 2L grades into hiring. The conventional wisdom is that you can’t just start slacking 2L year. If you show improvement between 1L and 2L year, and then between 2L and 3L year, more opportunities will probably open up to you. But I don’t have any case citations to support that assertion.

    All that said, despite my average grades, I got my first choice for a clinic (S.D.N.Y. Civil Litigation, w00t), I was a research assistant last semester, and I’ll be a research assistant next semester. Also, I absolutely love my firm job this summer.

    If you’re a 0L, you definitely should not be worrying about 2L grades at this point. Truth is, you shouldn’t even be worrying about *1L* grades at this point. You’ll try your hardest, you’ll get a grade, and you’ll move on. Part of law school is accepting uncertainties about things over which you formerly had a reasonable amount of control. Don’t worry. Enjoy your summer.

  6. Lee Leviter, 2L says:

    Well hello, Prospective Student

    Ah, you want the nuts and bolts, do you?

    (sigh) For better or for worse, I have no doubt that my law school grades have affected my job opportunities. You see, there are so many law students out there vying for not as many jobs. Depending on who you ask: either a) grades are an easy way to make the pool of candidates smaller for any given position; or b) grades are a way to limit the pool of candidates to only the smartest applicants. It’s probably a bit of both.

    In my experience, (certain) law firms and judges care about grades more than, say, public interest organizations. That does *not* mean that people who work in the public interest are somehow less intelligent or are worse lawyers – only that people in these organizations look for skills, experiences, and characteristics in a job applicant beyond grades.

    I’m afraid that I cannot answer your question about how my firm factors in 2L grades into hiring. The conventional wisdom is that you can’t just start slacking 2L year. If you show improvement between 1L and 2L year, and then between 2L and 3L year, more opportunities will probably open up to you. But I don’t have any case citations to support that assertion.

    All that said, despite my average grades, I got my first choice for a clinic (S.D.N.Y. Civil Litigation, w00t), I was a research assistant last semester, and I’ll be a research assistant next semester. Also, I absolutely love my firm job this summer.

    If you’re a 0L, you definitely should not be worrying about 2L grades at this point. Truth is, you shouldn’t even be worrying about *1L* grades at this point. You’ll try your hardest, you’ll get a grade, and you’ll move on. Part of law school is accepting uncertainties about things over which you formerly had a reasonable amount of control. Don’t worry. Enjoy your summer.

  7. idwsj says:

    Well, I liked this post.

  8. Prospective Student says:

    Thank you very much for your suggestions. I’m reading “Getting to Maybe” at the moment and skimming the legal page of the WSJ and Above the Law (do you go to that website)? Otherwise I am trying to relax, as you suggested. It is also reassuring that you were able to find a job in this economic climate.

    Are you enjoying your summer job or is it very competitive? It is hard to get a sense from those websites, especially Above the Law, which makes the current summer associate experience appear very stressful.

  9. Prospective Student says:

    Also, thank you again for your statement that the law school experience is about more than just grades.

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