Kate’s Counsel: Chill Out About Exams

Sad law studentJust in the nick of time, Kate McGuinness returns with some words of hard-earned wisdom about law school exams & your future career!

In an astonishing display of clairvoyance, I will correctly predict the emotional state of each of the nation’s law students. Ta-da, it’s anxiety.

Exam Time!

Exams are coming, and no matter how hard you worked over Thanksgiving break, you’re certain you didn’t work hard enough. You finished reviewing your class notes, but you’ve given up creating your own outline. Gilberts and E&Es sit unopened on your desk. You haven’t taken a single practice exam yet.

Here’s my advice:

  • Schedule your time carefully
  • Eat right
  • Sleep enough
  • Exercise
  • Manage your stress level

No, I’m not being facetious. Yes, I understand that exams loom like a lethal gauntlet. But let’s be realistic.

Grades and class standing matter most if your goal is BigLaw. Unless you’re in a top tier law school, only a small segment of your class will be considered for jobs in BigLaw.

But — you respond confidently — you can make the cut if you work hard enough before exam time! You’re bright, ambitious and hard-working. Of course, so are your classmates. Most likely, the test scores and undergraduate GPAs of your class are closely clustered. That’s why you all ended up within the same ivy-covered halls.

Are Grades All That?

You are certain — absolutely certain — you’ll place in the top ten percent. Think again. A survey of incoming law students evidenced their inflated expectations of success. Over 25 percent thought they’d land in the top ten percent and over 75 percent thought they’d finish in the top thirty percent. Less than one percent of the students questioned thought they’d be in the bottom half of the class.

Everyone can’t be a special snowflake. I’m not saying that to discourage you, but rather to sound a note of rationality.

Your legal career will not be doomed if you don’t finish in the top twenty percent. Your mouth-breathing panic about exams is unnecessary.

Exams are not about your inherent worth. You are much more than a number scrawled on the top of a blue book.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

If that philosophical tidbit doesn’t calm your nerves, remember that the majority of lawyers are employed outside of BigLaw. (I’ll save my screed on why their hallowed ranks are wildly overrated for next year.) In addition to private practice, there are positions for lawyers in government, corporations, academia and public interest institutions. Also, there are literally hundreds of jobs where legal training can be an asset. (Whether your salary will be sufficient to repay your student loans is a separate issue.)

Regardless of your class standing, you will leave law school with sharper analytical and research abilities. Your writing and speaking skills will be improved, too. And a law degree is a credential that will enhance your credibility — if not your likability.

— – —

Thanks, Kate! Excellent advice to keep in mind when the going gets tough.

Read On:

Did you miss Kate’s first column? Kate’s Counsel: Finding Your Way in the Legal Profession. And if you missed our initial interview with Kate, check it out here: The More Things Change…

Want to be sure you don’t miss Kate’s column? Sign up for our weekly newsletter now!

More about Kate: Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years in BigLaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 300 corporation. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @K8McGuinness. Her blogs about women’s rights have appeared in Forbes Woman, Women’s Media Center, Jezebel, The Frisky, Role/Reboot, Fem2pt0 and Ms. JD. (These essays are collected on her website.)

She has created Pinterest boards illustrating issues of concern such as advertisements objectifying women. You can find her on Pinterest and LinkedIn as Kate McGuinness and on Facebook as Women’s Rights Writer. After leaving the corporate world, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal thriller Terminal Ambition, which is available on Amazon. Information about the firms, characters and locales in the novel can be found at Terminal-Ambition.com.

Looking for more exam advice? Go to Law School Exams 101.

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  1. Not only am I at a top 30 law school, I am in the top 15% of my class. However, not only do I not have a big law job, I don’t have ANY job. I am currently a 2L, yet my future prospects look bleak. Not to mention my boyfriend, who is currently a 3L, in the top 30% of his class at a top 10 law school, and is unemployed. Not only did big law entirely ignore him, the government and smaller firms continually tell them they aren’t hiring. Stop telling people it’s okay out there, because it really isn’t.

    • I can hear your frustration. This is definitely a very tight job market. My post appeared without two hyperlinks that may illuminate my comments. (Alison is correcting that now.)

      The first link went to a February 2012 Above the Law column that included a graphic of the percentage of 2011 graduates from the top ten law schools that were hired by BigLaw. As you’ll see, the range is from 56.9% to 39.7%. The second is a handout from the career development office of South Texas Law School that lists 300 jobs “you can do” with a law degree. Many of these are not positions law students dream about or even jobs that pay particularly well – thus, my caveat about being able to repay student loans.

      I wrote this column with a degree of ambivalence because I’m aware of the difficulties in the job market. My readers are present law students, people who have already completed a portion of their legal studies. Most importantly, they are people who are faced with the incredibly stressful ordeal of upcoming exams. For that reason, I chose an encouraging tone.

      On the other hand, I could have urged readers to weigh carefully how much of their lives, dreams and purse are invested in graduating from law school and then decide whether to re-enroll next semester. Would you have welcomed that message?

      I hope the current trough in the market for recent law school graduates is temporary, but no one can predict that. Law schools’ reductions in the size of their entering classes may ultimately play out to your advantage. Failure to get a job practicing law upon graduation doesn’t mean the profession is forever closed.

      Your comment inspires me to write a column with suggestions for job seekers from someone who sat on a BigLaw hiring committee as I did. Meanwhile, I wish you and your boyfriend happiness and professional success. The first is obtainable without the second and much more important.

      • My bad! The links have been added.

        But I think the comment above really illustrates Kate’s point — your grades aren’t necessarily going to get you a job, even if they’re quite good. So I’d like to see students spending as much time working on career plans, self-analysis, practical skill development, and networking as they do on studying arcane doctrines to impress a professor.

        Yes, grades matter. But so do many other things that get a lot less time and attention!

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