Can Other Things Compensate for Poor Grades?

  • Last updated 21-Jul-2016 17:23:32
  • Jennifer Overhaus, Former Partner and Head of a Global Practice Group in a Top-50 American Law Firm

When I was in law school, I assumed that the graduates with the highest grades would turn out to be the most successful. After all, they were the ones being interviewed by the top firms, getting the best jobs, and starting their careers off with a stellar CV. (You’ll note my use of the term “they” to indicate that I was not among the favoured few!)

However, upon attending my law school reunion, I found myself to be among a very small percentage who were partners in leading law firms, and, still more surprisingly, that those who had led our class were not among us. Since then I’ve realised that there is little correlation between good grades and future success in any field. Some of the most successful partners I know failed to get top grades. One of the most renowned City lawyers, Slaughter and May’s star corporate partner, Nigel Boardman admitted in The Times to “only” achieving a 2:1 in history from the University of Bristol and went on to say that his fellow partner (head of tax) only managed a 2:2 at Exeter.

Of course, I haven’t directly addressed your immediate concern. So here is my ‘take’ on it: 

Research your law firms

Good grades open doors and without them, some firms will not even consider your application. So it’s best not to waste your time, energy and focus on these firms. Personally, I started off with a small boutique firm specialising in IT law and worked extremely hard to build my expertise in that area—not only becoming proficient at the law but also at IT itself, and the particular branch of the industry involved. This eventually led me to a larger, better-known firm and then eventually being headhunted by a magic circle firm—all on the basis of the credentials I’d built up post-graduation (not my grades). So currently unopened doors are not closed forever.

Think creatively

In the past young lawyers were expected to work hard and perform technically, and this was the basis for their success. However, practising law is increasingly becoming more of a business, meaning that lawyers need to behave like entrepreneurs rather than mere employees. Thus, being able to demonstrate your entrepreneurial outlook and potential to attract clients could certainly compensate for less than ideal grades. 

You are a lot more than a grade

Firms are increasingly looking at any candidates’ entire “package” or what they have to offer beyond their most obvious qualifications. Here are a few things to consider:

Demonstrate your passions.

Show your unique skills and knowledge, preferably in a way that leverages your strengths and passions. If you don’t know what you’re passionate about, then spend time discovering something. Firms want to see your value beyond mere technical aptitude. 

Become a great communicator.

This not only distinguishes you from the majority, it’s also the basis for public speaking skills, which will become critical. 

Pursue mastery.

Choose an area of focus and build up your credentials by getting to grips with more than just the law: understand the underlying client base, business, and industry. For example, one lawyer I know did an internship (unpaid!) with a publishing company with the intent of learning about the industry. She later won a position in a law firm on the basis of that experience, since the firm specialised in representing publishers. Any able applicant could probably have learned the relevant laws, but she was the only one who could prove a working knowledge of their target clients’ business.

Polish your people skills. 

The ability to interact effectively with people will set you apart in the interview process, as well as throughout your career. 

Present yourself to best advantage.

Invest in your presentation. If you’re not certain about this one, seek expert help!

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