When it comes to getting a legal job, law students often wonder: What matters more — law school grades or work experience?
The answer (naturally, since it’s coming from a trained lawyer) is “It depends.”
Grades Matter a Lot (for Certain Jobs)
There are certain jobs you’re only going to get if you have excellent law school grades, preferably from a highly-regarded school. These include Supreme Court clerkships (duh!), but also most other types of federal clerkships, many BigLaw jobs, and competitive, prestigious government opportunities, such as the DOJ Honors program. What surprises many people is that certain public interest opportunities fall into this category! Yes, many successful law students are willing to work for very little money to do work they believe in.
So, if you’re gunning for a prestigious clerkship, it’s critical to get the best grades possible. (But you probably already knew that.)
However, grades will only get you so far, even if they’re excellent. Even in the rarified realm of great grades from prestigious law school, other factors come into play. For the most prestigious clerkships, for example, you really need a professor who’s “on your team” to pick up the phone and make calls for you. Failing that, at a minimum, you need several laudatory letters of recommendation. Getting good grades is nice, but I hope you’ve been nice to your professors, too! You’ll need their help.
In a nutshell, great law school grades, while helpful and sometimes necessary, aren’t the end of the story.
Why Work Experience is Critical
For the 99.9% of law students who aren’t thinking about where they’ll reside during their Supreme Court clerkship, let’s talk about work experience. (And here I mean paid legal work experience, internships, externships, clinics, and pro bono work.) Does it matter when it comes time to look for full-time work?
In short, yes.
It’s no secret that the legal job market is pretty terrible at the moment. So when employers do decide to hire, that’s not a decision they’re making lightly. In most cases, they need someone who can come on board and get to work on day one. How do you show you’re that person? By pointing to specific things you’ve done in the past that are directly relevant to what they’d be hiring you to do.
If your legal work experience is limited, how will you be able to convince an employer you’re the one they they want to hire? No one has time for extensive training — you need to be “practice ready” when you show up for your first day of work.
You Need Legal Work Experience to Stand Out in a Crowded Job Market
Most law students show up with the best of intentions. They’ll pound the pavement for summer jobs, volunteer for interesting pro bono assignments, and so on.
But what happens within a few weeks is that most start to focus wholly on their classes. This is understandable — law school is tough, and there’s a lot of work to be done.
However, it’s a serious mistake to focus all of your energy on trying to get good grades. Why? Several reasons:
- What if your grades end up being average? With the forced curve in most law school classes, a lot of very smart, hard-working students are going to find themselves with average grades (or below). With only a handful of people in the top 10%, is it really worth it to put all of your eggs in that basket? Just numerically, I’d say probably not.
- Law school is a time of exploration. If you never experiment with different areas of the law, how will you really know what practice area is right for you? In the ideal, law school (and the summers between each year) are a time for exploration of different career paths. Far better to do it in school than to realize several years out that the path you chose isn’t working!
- Working is how you meet people. In a crowded job market, you need all the help you can get. Who’s most likely to help you? The people who have already worked with you (assuming you did a great job). You’ll rely on these contacts throughout your career, but especially when you’re looking for that first job.
If you’re still in law school, it’s time to examine how you’re spending your time. If most/all of it is spent on classwork, you’ll likely find yourself at a disadvantage in the job hunt. Time to pick up a pro bono project or two and get to work!