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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

February 17, 2016

I’m a 6th year law firm associate and am looking for a new job. My law school grades are awful and the firms to which I’m applying are requesting my transcript. Is there anyway around this hurdle?

Julie Q. Brush

I’m a 6th year and want to leave my law firm. My law school grades are awful and the firms to which I’m applying are requesting my transcript. Is there anyway around this hurdle?

When evaluating law firm associate candidates, law firm brass will consider a number of factors to determine viability: quality of the law school, quality of the current employer, quality of directly relevant experience, interpersonal skills…and grades. And the more junior an associate is, the more impact grades will have on his/her candidacy. This criterion does not disappear until a lawyer is elevated to partner or of counsel status (and in some very select firms, it never goes away).

So in the application process for a lateral associate position, it is standard protocol to ask for a candidate’s law school transcript. If you receive such a request, I strongly recommend that you comply – or your chances of securing a position with that firm will be close to nil. While it is true that bad grades will preclude you from a constituency of law firm opportunities, they won’t preclude you from every opportunity out there. So what can you do to get around this hurdle? Below are a few strategies:

Leverage Contacts For a Leg Up.

Influential people have influence. So work your network to see if you have a connection(s) to anyone in the firm to which you have applied. Then, see if those individuals would be willing to provide introductions and/or put in a good word for you. Firm clients are best – as law firms are willing to go to great lengths to please clients. Internal partners are also good, particularly if they are powerful. Associates, colleagues, family members and anyone else who can help boost your candidacy will potentially mitigate…and bypass your poor law school performance.

Join A Small Firm.

Small firms tend to be more forgiving on bad grades – particularly if a candidate is more experienced. So this route may not require you to produce your transcript or will place less importance on your marks. If you do consider this option, make sure it’s a firm with high quality clients where you can develop excellent experience. And if you can hone your skills in a hot practice area like privacy or data security, you’ll increase your future marketability and further diminish the importance of your law school grades.

Join a Small Firm…and Make Partner.

Rarely are lateral partners asked to provide their law school transcripts. So if you want to a way around this hurdle in the future, join a smaller firm and make partner. Way easier said than done, I know. But if you can do it, you’ll take your grades off the table with a majority of law firms.

Move In House.

Companies do not require law school transcripts as part of the application process. These hiring managers place a premium on the quality of relevant work experience and culture fit. Being a 6th year attorney, you have a solid number of years in legal practice under your belt, which could be quite marketable for the right role.

Provide an Explanation for Your Grades.

It is rare, but sometimes you’ll have an opportunity to provide additional insight as to why you did not perform well in law school. If you see such an opportunity, seize it – and make your case. The odds are low that it will have a material impact. But you’ll never know unless you try.

Emphasize Experience.

Your resume and cover letter should tell an effective story about your background and quality work experience. And should you receive an interview, you’ll have a live platform with which to emphasis your experience, which, if done properly will de-emphasize your law school rank. As a 6th year, your tenure is an asset if your legal knowledge can bring value to the firm. So talk it up every chance you get.

Earn Another Degree and Get Good Grades.

An LLM, MA, MS, MBA…if you are so inclined to go back to school; you’ll have a chance to redeem yourself on the grades front. So if you choose this path and earn high marks, you’ll mitigate your sub par law school performance and have another talking point to illustrate your value.

For a law firm associate, bad grades present challenges early on in a legal career. But grades to not define the lawyer – and paths exist to succeed beyond your expectations. The road to the top is never easy, poor grades or not. So hunker down, be resilient and execute on one or more of the suggestions above, and your grade worries will son be a distant memory.

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