Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Harry Blackmun and the Transcript of Doom

Following up on my post yesterday about law school grades, there's a book out on the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun called Becoming Justice Blackmun. I haven't read the book myself, but after reading a post about it on another blog (with the wonderful name Frightened Monkey), I plan to.

As the book and other site point out, Blackmun bombed some law school classes. Take a look at the list. It's got Ds and Cs all over it! Wow. Bear in mind, of course, that he went to law school back in the days before grade inflation, when far more people flunked out of law school than they do today. But the fact of the matter is that he sometimes did not do very well in terms of grades. In contrast, his contemporary on the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens, graduated from Northwestern University School of Law with the school's highest GPA ever. And that was back in the day too.

So for those of you who did not do as well as you wanted this past semester, take heart. It is not the end of the world. Learn from your mistakes, and hang in there. And remember that for most people, grades matter for one thing only: helping you get your first job after law school. After that, no one really cares.


Tommie said...

What about people who do well or really well on cooperate law, or classes like contracts, property and classes that branch off those versus criminal or tort classes. Are you familiar with many, or any situations like that?

Gregory W. Bowman said...

That's an interesting question. I am sure there are people out there like that--that do well in one type of class versus the other. And some classes do tend to branch off in various directions, which does make them a different animal. I have not seen wide evidence of such a distinction, but then again I have not been actively looking for it. It's something I will look for now, so thanks for bringing it up. Have you seen it?

Michael McCann said...

I wonder, though, whether there is an actual correlation between a grade in a law school class and the actual practice of that class subject? I imagine it varies by professor and school: some professors gear their courses more for practice than academic issues (and vice-versa), but in terms of using grades as proxies for which topic one might want to practice, I'm not sure if there is a connection.

For instance, I remember my contracts law course was very theoretical, and then when I studied for the Bar Exam, I realized that the more discrete/practical aspects of contract law are very different than the subject matter that I had been taught.

tommie said...

I am in law school and I do notice it with some people. Perhaps they have a better understanding of coorperate v. criminal. It seems difficult to obtain results because of the difficulty to obtain every grade from every student.
My reference started with courses like contracts and property and branch out into wills, sales, labor law, real estate classes (like land use and RE transactions, housing laws), and any other course branched off of those.
The other side would be torts, criminal law, crim pro, evidence, trial ad, and advanced courses in these subjects as well.
It seems very likely some students score a lot better on a criminal base of classes, and would be great criminal lawyers, but horrible coorperate lawyers. And vice versa. And their GPA may be average because of several courses they take, whether required or not or in prep for the bar. Maybe that has an effect on the hiring process of some law firms that are complaining about the quality of lawyers.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

We all have our natural talents, and some of those might predispose us to do better in some courses (and areas of life) than others. There is a reason I am a law professor and not a professional golfer--I'm not very good at golf. And not for lack of trying.

It would perhaps be an interesting study to see if students with particular aptitudes typically did better in certain kinds of classes than others--say, traditional classes v. clinical classes, or broad, somewhat amorphous courses (say, Con Law) versus narrowly focused ones (say, Secured Transactions). But there would be a lot of variables to control for--teacher quality, scope of coverage, grading leniency, type of exam, etc. But still, it is a question worth asking.

That's especially true since there are different types of learners. The traditional Socratic method benefits non-visual learners, for example, at the expense of visual learners and group-study learners. Largely because of this, far fewer law school courses are purely Socratic these days (which is a good thing), and use more visual material. I'll be teaching a National Security Law Seminar in about 10 minutes that is a perfect example of this--it's pretty much group study and discussion all day long, with a paper instead of an exam.

tommie said...

I also agree with the amount of influence a professor may have. I have had the same professor 3 times and i have got similar grades each time, only a plus or minus difference. I have also had the same professor twice on two different occassions and the same results held true.

E.J. said...

C's & D' Harvard. It doesn't make me feel any better about my A's and B's at MC. I know that because I went to Mississippi College (followed a girl - bad move) I will never be employed by a blue chip firm nevermind recieving an appointment as a Fed. App. Ct. judge or a Supreme Court Justice. I sent out 126 Resumes this past fall...All with personalized and researched cover letters. I got 105 rejection letters. Not a single interview. It's all about getting a C at Harvard

Gregory W. Bowman said...

It's most definitely NOT all about getting Cs at Harvard. Sure, the better the school, the easier it is, but I know people from MC that have gotten top notch, national-caliber jobs. And I know people from top law schools who couldn't find jobs after school to save their souls.

So your task from a regional school is harder, but not impossible. I sympathize with your frustration, and I don't intend to suggest that everything always works out for the best, because it doesn't, even when you give it your all. It sounds like you are taking all the right steps. But if you just decide you don't have a shot, then guess what? You'll be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Don't assume you can't get a federal clerkship, either. You can. You may need to do a state clerkship first and work your contacts a bit, but it can be done.