I am unhappy with my first semester grades. Am I in trouble?

Statistical realities dictate that half of the 1L class is unhappy with their grades. So if you’re unhappy with your grades, you are not alone. The good news is that you are also not doomed for unemployment!

While there is no doubt that good grades make the job search easier, students who are unhappy with their grades get great jobs every single year. If they didn’t, my job would be unbearably depressing and I would have quit long ago. Instead, I (and all my fellow counselors in the CDO) am happily working with students of all GPAs and backgrounds to craft winning job search strategies.

What should you do if you are not loving your grades?


1. Spend time thinking about what you’re really looking to get out of your career and then go after it.

If you genuinely came to law school excited about pursuing a big law career, GPA is undoubtedly important and you may have to retool your expectations. (Although you can still  potentially out-kick your GPA’s coverage through strategic networking.) If big law is your main focus and you have concerns about your grades, talk to a CDO counselor so we can strategize some steps for you to take to set yourself up for the best chances of success. Odds are that if big law is going to be a difficult path for you, we can talk about what inspired you to come to law school in the first place and find another path that you can get excited about.

Many students have interests outside of big law and if you’re one of those students, chances are that employers care more about factors outside of GPA than you might think. If you’re looking to pursue a career as a prosecutor, for instance, any prosecutor’s office wants to see that you have skills their entry-level attorneys need such as client interviewing, deposition, and trial skills.

Doing an externship in a prosecutor’s office, loading up on skills based courses, and participating in FPAC will make you a strong candidate for a career in prosecution even when your grades are not where you wish they were. The same is true for other non big law paths. If you don’t believe me, read this blog post about a recent NDLS grad who was really unhappy with her first semester grades and now has a job that she loves. (Or this blog post about an NDLS grad who did poorly his first semester and is now a federal prosecutor.)

If you have no idea what you want to do, come talk to the CDO. We have self-assessments and tools to guide you.

2. Build a strong professional network

If people know and like you before they know what your grades are, you are starting off with a check mark in the positive column. So get out there and meet people working in practice areas that interest you. Your goal should be to never apply for a job again without first knowing someone who works there. When you have spoken with someone working at the place where you’re applying, your cover letter will be stronger because you can reference that conversation and you’re dramatically increasing the chances that your resume will get read.

Get to know everyone working in the field you are interested in. If you want to be a prosecutor, get out there and meet tons of prosecutors. You can do this by reaching out to prosecutors individually and scheduling one-on-one meetings, by attending networking events, by going to FPAC events and following-up with speakers, and by joining the criminal law section of the bar association in your target city.

3. Stay positive

Freaking out and worrying that your grades are dooming you to unemployment will get you nowhere. Know that every single year, inevitably there are some NDLS students dissatisfied with their grades yet every year, NDLS students who were absolutely crushed by their first semester grades graduate with awesome jobs.

In the CDO, we see this play out year after year. If you maintain a positive attitude, regularly meet with the CDO, and continue to work toward your goals, you will be setting yourself up for success.


1. Apply to jobs without doing anything else

I know what it’s like because I have been there. If you came straight to law school from undergrad, the sole method by which you have moved on to the next level of life is by applying and then getting accepted. But that is not how the vast majority of legal hiring works. Vinny, the Director of the CDO, has a great saying that “people hire people and not paper.” People want to work with other people that they like since you spend a lot of time around your co-workers.

So follow step #2 above. Meet lawyers who would potentially hire you someday. Then, when they see your resume, they know that you are someone they would like to have around the office because they remember having a pleasant meeting with you before.

Work toward creating a resume that tells a compelling story. If you’re a 3L and you’re applying for a job as a labor and employment lawyer after graduation, you will be most likely to be called for an interview if you have labor and employment experience. So take steps now that will cause your resume to tell that labor and employment story. Talk to me or Bob Jones about externing with the EEOC through the Chicago program. Take the mediation skills class. Apply for a Peggy Browning Fund Fellowship for your 2L summer. Start a labor and employment law club. These are all actions you can take that have nothing to do with grades!

2. Listen only to fellow law students and online forums that law students frequent

If your fellow classmates are acting anything like my fellow classmates after first semester grades came out, there is some level of freaking out. Distance yourself from this freak out storm. It is not productive and it is not based on reality. This is not to say that you should not talk to fellow law students, especially upperclassmen, about your job search. You should. They are a valuable resource with good experience. I am suggesting that you should not seek counsel exclusively from fellow law students.

Instead, talk to the CDO. When you talk to us, you can take comfort in the following three facts:

(1) our full-time job is working with law students and helping you find jobs. We research the job market, talk to employers to learn what they’re looking for, and talk to fellow career counselors at schools all around the country. We go to conferences where we interact with hundreds of law firm, government, and public interest recruiting managers. This is our full-time job so we spend our days doing this stuff.

(2) We have seen hundreds of students’ job searches play out. Again, our job is to work one-on-one with law students and help you craft job search strategies. All of us in the CDO have hundreds (thousands if you’re Vinny because he has been in the office for 5 years) of data points for law student job search stories. My brain is full of anecdotes about law students’ job searches. We know from personal experience how things play out with law students’ job searches. When we tell you that you can overcome your grades to get a job you will love, we are telling you that from our own personal experience in seeing other law students do it.

(3) We can provide perspective. Going to an online forum frequented solely by law students to get advice about your job search after grades come out is like going to WebMD when you have a health condition you’re worried about. The vast majority of what you read is going to be negative and alarmist. Because we work with 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls and routinely talk to alumni who are years into their careers, we have a broader, forest view perspective of the job search.

3. Retreat into yourself, get negative, and don’t talk to anyone

We know from scientific research that when you’re happy, you are more productive. When you’re positive, you are your best self. When you are your best self, it goes without saying that you perform your best in interviews.

Be the best version of yourself. If you start engaging in negative self talk and convince yourself that no one will hire you, you will not be putting your best self forward in the job search. Besides, for reasons I stated above, that negative self talk just isn’t true.

If you feel yourself retreating into yourself, notice that it is happening and stop doing it. Schedule an appointment with one of us on IrishLink. We’ll pull you out of your funk.

Don’t stress about grades. You can get a great job by following my Do’s and by staying engaged with our office. If only the top half of the class got jobs, the percentage of Notre Dame lawyers with jobs would only be 50%. It isn’t.

If you’re really worried about your grades, schedule an appointment with a CDO counselor and we’ll set you on the right track.

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