Short TL;DR version: If your law school grades sucked, even if it makes your upper or lower GI tracts quiver a bit, you must face your law professors for feedback on your final exams.
Now, the longer version for people who as kids would have done well in the Stanford Marshmallow Test:
As I write this, it’s cold. Where I am. And in most places where you are reading this.
(Or what passes for cold if you go to law school in California or Arizona. Or Texas or Florida…).
And maybe you feel . . . terrible. And that’s compounded by the cold.
Sorry for that.
Most everyone in law school (except maybe the top 3 people in the class), at some point get some grade that they didn’t like and didn’t expect.
(And even number 2 and 3 in a law school class have an axe to grind with some professor or other for not being number 1).
This post is not about what to do differently in law school.
Later, in another post, plenty of tips.
For this moment, Kleenex and active listening, for you and for me.
First tell me what’s on your mind: larrylawlaw at gmail dot com. (I read every email.) Or tell someone what you’re thinking and feeling. Talk it out.
Along with that, here are other healthy, well-recognized ways to cope with the painful feelings you’re having:
- Go for a vigorous run (or swim or bike or whatever).
- Cry vigorously.
- Go to vigorous therapy. (Find out why you went to law school, while you’re at it.)
- Have sex. Vigorously. (With someone you vigorously like and care about and are vigorously attracted to.)
- Meditate. (Vigorously.)
Kudos to the non-existent over-achievers who did ALL FIVE at the same time, with bonus points for juggling chainsaws and baby seals!* (Vigorously.)
*(No baby seals were hurt, even in my imagination, as I drafted this. So please relax.)
(And here is an incomplete list of unhelpful ways to cope: drinking, recreational drugs, overeating, 12-hour video game sessions, 12-hours of “not being the master of your domain” sessions, liking pictures from 5 years ago on your ex’s Facebook albums, binge-watching crappy shows, getting in twitter fights with basically anyone, etc. I’m not Nancy Reagan by any means — and it depresses me that I feel the need to include this link to explain the reference — but please trust me, guys, from personal experience, those other things don’t help you cope in the long term.)
Give yourself a little time.
Treat your feelings about law school like grief. It is. You are mourning the loss of something — the hope top grades and everything that may have meant to you (your identity as a perfect student, the pride of your parents and friends, being future Supreme Court clerk, whatever that might be.)
Mourn that lost optimism. (It’s OK to say goodbye to it. It was blind optimism.)
Then (and here’s the hard part): Once you’ve digested those painful emotions, get ready for more painful emotions.
Once you can look at your grades and your past semester with less (but not zero) pain, talk to your professor.
You must face Vader.
(Please tell me I don’t have to explain that reference. Darth Vader is not Nancy Reagan.*)
*(I am extremely proud of this borderline meaningless sentence.)
What I mean is: you must face your law professors in ALL the classes you did not do well in (and, frankly, if you want to kill it in law school, I suggest visiting every prof who did not give you and A or A-). And maybe even, to top it off, go to the profs whose classes you did ace.
BE SPECIFIC IN YOUR REQUEST FOR HELP.
Ask why you got the grade you did.
Ask in great detail about what it was that your prof liked and didn’t like.
Ask ask ask.
Ask to see your own exam answer, especially if it is marked up. (Few people do this.)
Ask if you can see a model answer. (Almost no one does this.)
And if your professor doesn’t give you a model answer, ask why you cannot see a model answer.
[Watch your professor faint or have his jaw fall and shatter on the floor.]
Now, for some of you (if you are a sensitive flower like me) this will be difficult.
But to be clear, do NOT:
- Complain about your grade or about the class. I have never heard of anyone succeed doing this.
- Complain about the professor; or
- Complain, come to think of it, at all.
And do not fool yourself (and you are the easiest person to fool):
Do not passive-aggressively ask questions about your exam while arguing that you did get everything your prof asked for.
So, I knew this guy (“This Guy”) from law school. A year behind me. This Guy was unhappy with his Civ Pro grade and went back to no less than to his professor, The Arthur Miller, and did this.
This Guy asked to see his exam. The Arthur Miller spent one hour going over This Guy’s entire exam with This Guy. This Guy kept arguing each point with him until The Arthur Miller blew up.
(To be clear: The Arthur Miller is the legendary former Harvard Law Professor, now at NYU Law, who helped shape the modern Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. He is not the playwright who married Marilyn Monroe, but maybe he wishes her were.)
To be clear: This Guy gets an A++ for balls. No fear, apparently, in badgering The Arthur Miller.
But This Guy gets a C- for having a growth mindset.
It’s funny that This Guy went for such small stakes — get a single grade changed — when he could have spent time learning from a master how to ace a law school exam.
Now, let’s be clear. Even if you don’t take This Guy’s approach, and instead focus only on learning, you should ask and ask and ask what a good exam looks like.
BUT your professor may get angry with you anyway.
Grading feels subjective to them, I think, deep down in their bellies. It does not feel super comfortable to decide the future of students in this way.
I do believe — much as I often crap on law professors — that they try to be fair.
But to come in to their offices with earnest questions, well. If they get upset, know that you tried. And there is little most law professors can do to you.
(Did This Guy’s grade in Civ Pro get worse because he badgered The Arthur Miller? No. Was he going to get a recommendation or anything else from The Arthur Miller? Nope.)
In any case, the point of this exercise is to learn.
To paraphrase Ramit Sethi, the point is for you to go from anger and disbelief and move to curiosity.
But you still have objections to facing Vader:
- It’s awkward.
- I’m too shy to do this.
- Isn’t this weird?
- The Arthur Miller has razor-sharp teeth and will EAT ME because I am a ginger.
Okay, except for the last, totally healthy and rational fears. (I am not a ginger, so I’m safe!)
Let me be brutally honest: do you want to excel in law school?
(Maybe — I am not being facetious — the answer is no, you don’t. Maybe law school wasn’t your idea at some level. But that story of law school as default option and subconscious sabotage is for another day.)
Even if you want to excel, it can be terrifying to see your prof.
You don’t have to deny or repress your fear, but you do have to face it and still perform.
(In fact, some recent research suggests that fear can help you. There is an great new book on this, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (affiliate link), which helped me recently.)
And here, all “perform” means is summoning the courage to ask your professor for feedback on your exam and seeing, with clear eyes, the quality of your exam.
Maybe this is the first time you got anything but As.
If you choose to rabbit-hole (a new verb I learned of that means “avoid your fear by living in denial” something that I have done more times than I can count myself.), then that’s OK do that.
But there is a meta-skill to be learned here.
Great lawyers perform despite feeling deeply uncomfortable (or maybe, as Kelly McGonigal would say in that book, because they were uncomfortable).
Most actual being-a-lawyer situations are anything but uncomfortable.
And you might as well get use to it as early as you can.
Think: if you can’t ask a professor about your exam, how are you going to …
- Give bad news to a client (when that case is critical)?
- Face off against opposing counsel on a deal or a tough case?
- Face angry questions from a judge — questions upon which your case depends?
- Get a delinquent client to pay a bill?
- Interview hostile witnesses when they have information that could make or break your case?
- Interview friendly witnesses who you are pretty sure are lying to you?
- Push back on a job review where a partner is lying about you?
- Push back against a senior associate who is trying to throw you under the bus?
All of this stuff happens. (I can say that because I went through most of the above as a practicing lawyer.)
Even more, situations like these not only involve the ability cope with uncomfortable emotions and anger from other people.
These situations involve another critical skills that all great lawyers have: having a realistic understanding of situations.
How can you give your client good advice if you don’t know all the facts, good and bad? How are you going to deal with opposing counsel and avoid being blindsided unless you know all the angles?
So you might as well start learning the skills of managing discomfort and getting a realistic and precise understanding of what your professors were looking for and why you missed that.
Also, let me flip this around: What is the worst that could happen to you if you ask?
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes it hurts to ask. (“Hey, it’s me. Friday night, I was thinking we could have the Johnsons over for some light couple-swapping… Honey? Hello?”).
Nothing happened, in the end, to the guy I know who went to Arthur Miller. There is no invisible blacklist for people who were obnoxious with a law professor once or twice.
And here, your grade is already in.
It won’t get worse if, worst case, your professor gets angry at your for asking why you got the grade you did.
(It won’t get better, either. Again, please be respectful and don’t complain or argue for a better grade).
But it is your choice: Will you let your fear and desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings stop you from getting the very information you need to correct course in law school?
And, if so, are you reinforcing a habit for your future legal career, in which fear and a desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings will stop you from doing what you need to do for yourself and for your clients?