Dear Katie – How important are grades?
“I’m currently studying at VUW and there has recently been a data release that seems to indicate we are graded much more harshly than other law schools. Even before this, I feel there is a real atmosphere that you must have the best grades otherwise there are no options for you. This is seen in GPA requirements for job applications, in every careers advice session and in every grade curve released. Not to mention the comments from the lecturers...
The reality is that the majority of us are likely unhappy with our results. Every message we receive is to get good grades as evidence of your intelligence. But that ignores the fact that most people will not get A grades, and many feel like they are unattainable no matter how much effort we exert. So most of us feel pretty hopeless when we hear that advice.
My question for you is, what job opportunities are available for those who aren’t LLB (hons) students with excellent grades?”
This question covers so many important things that I need to split it into two parts. In this article I will respond directly to the last question there, and in my next column I will examine grades as an imperfect system more generally, and what a person can do not to fall into a “my grades are my worth as a human” hole.
Full disclosure: I am not an employer or a recruiter, and even in my coaching work I don’t actually get people jobs. As a result my knowledge of how employers perceive grades is limited to my own experience and conversations I have had with others in the industry. Because my knowledge is somewhat anecdotal, I spoke to a legal recruiter to get her thoughts. What follows is an amalgamation of what she told me, together with what I picked up while working in the industry for several years.
So let me start with the end. There are lots of opportunities for people other than honours students, including graduate positions and law adjacent positions. There is competition, and higher grades are preferred, but employers are different and look for different things, especially beyond the big firms that sponsor career nights. There are also imperfect jobs that may give you the experience and references you need to get somewhere you would prefer to be. Once you are working, focus shifts to references from your current employer pretty quickly (within 1 to 2 years). I know that’s not useful to hear when you can’t get a graduate job, but I hope it reinforces what a weirdly temporary problem the grade issue can be once you are out of university.
There are the firms that want A students, and they get A students. You probably know which ones I am talking about. They tend to be the types to actively recruit directly from university. But there are others who prefer not to have the highest graded candidates, because they find that a B+ student can often have more life experience and emotional intelligence than people who have focused only on study. (Note of course that an A+ student may also have these additional qualities. I know some of these people and they would be insufferable if they weren’t so kind.) My legal recruiter friend tells me that slumps in grades that can be explained are also less of a problem than you might think. If you were in and out of hospital one year or went through a period of grief, your fellow humans (even legal employers) will often understand that.
Also, more employers than you might realise were lower-grade students themselves, or otherwise have seen that students who were closer to B students than A students were outstanding advocates or negotiators. They know there is a range and they have “good enough” thresholds that are lower than some might have you believe, since the lawyer that is made out of an A student is not necessarily so different from the lawyer made out of a B or even a C student, especially if that B or C student brings non-academic strengths to the table.
Finding a job may take more persistence and creativity if your grades are not the best. That demands capacity and humility, but can be a source of hope too. I was not an honours student and my grades varied quite a lot, but I learned how to write an engaging, entertaining cover letter, and how to draw attention to non-academic strengths I had. I still think luck played a role, but I am glad I did not pre-emptively count myself out of applying to jobs I thought I didn’t have the grades for.
And of course, I am talking here only about practising lawyer jobs. A law degree is a difficult thing to get with any grades, and is therefore a highly respected thing among the general public. There are many jobs that are law adjacent or draw on similar training that respect law degrees too, and may be less precious about grades. I am talking about jobs in business, public service, policy, risk and corporate management, regulatory work, governance, and any number of other things. Some of these law adjacent jobs may allow you to transfer to a legal position once you have a couple of years of work experience and references under your belt (hard, but possible, see the podcast episode with Solicitor Chris). Or you may discover that you don’t need to be an actual lawyer to get the life you want and do interesting, lucrative work.
So I can’t say that grades don’t matter, or that recruitment systems fairly account for qualities other than grades, or that every student who wants to be a lawyer will be able to get a job as a lawyer. But I can say that the reality is more nuanced than “HONOURS STUDENTS ONLY, EVERYONE ELSE WORKS AT CALL CENTRES” (which is definitely the message I got at law school too). And I can say that non-linear careers that don’t route through prestigious clerkships can still get you interesting places worth being.
If your grades are not as high as you would like and you want some hope, I suggest you listen to two podcast episodes in particular: Una Jagose, now a QC and Solicitor General, and Duncan Webb, now an MP and previously a respected academic and partner at a commercial firm. There are lots of ways through the maze.
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Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at thenewlawyer.co.nz. Check out her website for more details at: symphonylaw.co.nz. Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.