Legal Recruiting: How to Explain Bad Grades
As a practicing attorney who volunteers regularly at a couple of local law schools, I spend a fair amount of time mentoring students. One question I get frequently during the recruiting season is, “How can I explain to interviewers why my grades aren’t very good?” While it’s true that you can’t change your grades, how you explain less-than-stellar grades can be the difference between a call-back interview and, well, nothing at all.
It should first be noted that grades are, as most people assume, the factor most interviewers assign the greatest weight. However, grades often serve as a cut-off rather than a system of rank. That is, a firm may as a policy consider only students in the top 25% of their class, but a student ranked in the 87th percentile of his class is not necessarily in a much better position to receive an offer than a student ranked in the 77th.
If, however, you believe that your grades put you outside most employers’ target range, a compelling explanation can give your interviewer a reason to give you full consideration, and perhaps a call-back interview.
As a threshold matter, I believe that poor grades should be addressed in an interview. Some students (and even some career service advisers) believe it’s better not to draw attention to bad grades, and instead focus on leaving a positive impression during an interview. Whether a student decides to address or ignore grades, though, the interviewer is going to consider them. Not talking about a C+ isn’t going to change it into an A-. In my experience, a student who is able to speak candidly and thoughtfully about his or her bad grades leaves a much better impression than one who simply ignores the issue. An explanation that is honest and well-thought-out suggests a student who is self-aware, confident, analytic, and keen on self-improvement. All traits important in a new attorney. A student who does not address his poor grades, on the other hand, may simply be assumed to be a bad student.
For 1Ls: If you’re a 1L interviewing in the spring for your first summer job as a law student, then you only have one semester of grades to be evaluated on. If those grades aren’t as good as you would have liked, your explanation should:
- Discuss what you learned from taking exams
- Provide a few concise details as to why your exam didn’t earn as many points as others
- Emphasize what you did right
- Explain how you intend to improve your performance in the current (spring) semester
For example: “My grades aren’t where I expected them to be. However, when I went back and compared my essays to the model essay, I noticed a few areas where I was leaving points on the table. In the issue-spotter questions, I was able to identify all of the major issues, but my analysis was too in-depth, which didn’t leave me as much time to discuss the minor secondary issues in the issue-spotter. For example, one of our Criminal Law issue-spotters involved a kidnapping, false imprisonment, and murder that took place in a barn. In my answer, I thoroughly analyzed each of the elements of the major crimes. The professor’s model answer, however, included just a cursory analysis of the elements, but then also addressed other minor crimes that I didn’t, such as how the murderer committed larceny when he took a wheelbarrow that wasn’t his to move the body out of the barn. For this semester, I’ve already begun to work through my current professors’ past exams to get a feel for the balance of breadth and depth that my professors prefer, and I’m going to tailor my essay responses to each professor’s preferences.”
An explanation that includes a plan for how to improve grades going forward may sway an interviewer towards giving you the benefit of the doubt. However, 2Ls and 3Ls who have two or more semesters of poor grades will have a harder time convincing interviewers that their poor showing on exams was a fluke.
For 2Ls and 3Ls: Poor grades over two or more semesters suggests to interviewers that the candidate is simply not a good student. However, there are still things that 2Ls and 3Ls can do to mitigate the impact of poor grades.
First, every other component of your file needs to be perfect. Make particularly sure that the writing sample shines. A great writing sample demonstrates to the interviewer that you have strong analytic skills, and that your writing is clear, concise, and organized.
Likewise, labor over your resume until you’re sure that it will make an interviewer pay attention to you. If you don’t have an eye for design, ask a friend who does to help you with the design and layout of the resume. Ask for assistance from your Career Services office, and any mentors you may have. Get as much feedback as possible. And most importantly, be sure that the descriptions of your previous jobs and experience are clear, concise, accurate, and well-written. People don’t often realize that a resume is actually a writing sample. A poorly-written resume (wordy descriptions, tense shifts, typos) is often the only reason an interviewer needs to reject a candidate. If a student isn’t willing to put forth the effort to craft a perfect resume, interviewers will reason, then what’s the likelihood that he or she will be willing to put forth the effort required of the job?
Finally, once your sure that your candidate package is perfect, prepare and rehearse an explanation for your underwhelming transcript. Be honest. Draw attention to any academic achievements. Remind the interviewer of your stellar writing sample or other work-product. Focus on positive reviews you received in internships or clerkships. In other words, explain that your grades don’t reflect your true abilities as an attorney.
Remember, your goal is to get employed. Prove to the employer that you’re best candidate for the job.