Do Grades Matter?

1Ls received their grades in January, and it seems to me that I’ve not said anything about grades, so now may be a reasonable time to do so.

Grades do matter. To get an idea of how much, start with a baseline determined by the job you’re looking for, then factor in any advantages you might have (usually, connections).

If you want to work in Biglaw (defined for our purposes as the firms paying salaries at the market rate for your city — $130k-160k for the most part), grades are by far the most important factor (unless you have hardcore connections). The class rank % required for you to be a viable candidate depends on your school and is relatively easy to determine.

Find out what percent of people in your school get legal jobs paying over $130k their first year out of school. Assume that the vast majority of your people were at the top of their class. Multiply that percentage by 1.5. (if 10% of students at your school got such jobs, multiply that to get 15% — it’s a safe bet that 80-90% of the people who got such jobs were in the top 15%). Furthermore, for schools outside of the T14, being in the 9.5% is >>>>> 10.5%, because most schools will release GPA cutoffs for the top 10% and the top 25%, but nothing in between.

The very most competitive jobs (V15 law firms in NY/DC/Chicago, AUSA in S.D.N.Y. or Chicago, etc.) recruit almost exclusively from the top of the T14. To have a shot from another school you probably need to be in the top 5% of your class, and in some cases that won’t be enough. (Actually, the very most competitive jobs — Cravath or Wachtell — are so exclusive that general recruitment guides don’t even list them.)

Other than this, you can work your way down the scale, but you should be aware that it’s not a smooth decrease: once you are out of this range, your likely salary will be about 50% less (that is, outside of biglaw, the high salary for first years is usually around $70k-80k). For most people, that will make a significant difference in the economic utility of a law degree.

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