It's Not Just About Grades

by the Summer Associate Hub Team

With pre-OCI recruiting becoming even more prevalent, there is concern among 1Ls/rising 2Ls that grades are going to be the main factor for firms.  This is not completely true, for a few reasons.
For some background, one of the key differences between traditional on-campus interview (OCI) programs and direct pre-OCI recruiting at top schools is the ability for firms to “pre-select” candidates.  
  • In traditional OCI at many top schools, firms don’t have the ability to “pre-select” candidates – students place bids and get matched with firms solely based on bid number, with firms seeing grades for the first time during the interview.
  • In pre-OCI recruiting (for example, applying directly to a firm before OCI or through a law school-structured pre-OCI “resume collect”), firms have the ability to “pre-select” – firms review resumes, transcripts, and other required materials (sometimes cover letters, writing samples, or assessment results), and choose whether or not to interview students based on that.
For this reason, it is natural to be concerned that grades are the only thing that matters, and that you might not be selected by firms if your grades aren’t super high.  That’s not true, and firms care about a few different things, not just grades.  There are several other factors at play.
And the proof is in the pudding.  Talk to the 2Ls and 3Ls in your school and you’ll find plenty that landed jobs at firms even though their grades were below the firm’s traditional “grade threshold.”  (I was one of those people too.)
So, when looking at which firms to apply to, don’t just avoid all the firms that have a grade threshold above where your grades are.
Here are a few reasons why:
1/ Engaging With the Firm
One thing that firms love is actual engagement.  Firms host events on campus and in their offices throughout the school year.  Firms also host virtual events (including joining Summer Associate Hub’s virtual programming).  Firms spend their money and time on these programs so they can meet students who are interested in the firm.  Many times, these programs lead to students setting up follow-up coffee meetings with attorneys or recruiting team members, to learn more about the firm and strengthen the relationship, from strong conversations they had at these events.  (We’ve seen this happen with many law students who joined our virtual programming in February 2024).
Not surprisingly, firms keep track of who attends their events.  So, if you are applying to a firm for a 2L position, one thing the firm will look at is: “Has this person engaged with us before?”  Showing up to events, engaging with the team members, and showing a genuine interest go a long way and are often more important than grades.
As you might expect, it is hard for a firm to believe that you are “very interested” in their firm as a “top choice” if you haven’t showed up to one of their events all year and have not spoken with any one of their attorneys or summer associates.
This is especially important for students at schools that are outside the traditional “top” schools for BigLaw jobs in that city – at some schools in that category, firms may be looking for students within a certain top tier of grades.  But, if you’ve shown genuine engagement with the firm and show that you could be a good fit, that can help a lot.
2/ Showing a Genuine Interest in the Firm
This is related to engagement, but slightly different.  Firms want to see that you are genuinely interested in the firm and can back that up with specific reasons.  Does your cover letter touch on multiple attributes about the firm that are specific (and not just generic reasons about their top-notch practice and about how you’ll get the best training)?  Have you connected with attorneys about the firm and heard about why they chose that firm (if so, you can build that into your cover letter and mention that it is based on feedback from attorneys at the firm)?  Does your resume fit with the story you are telling (if you state in your cover letter that you are dead-set on IP and technology, then does your resume show that you are part of the IP and Tech group at your school)?
This is especially the case for firms that have a more specific specialty.  A good example is the category of large tech-focused firms, many of which have a large presence in the Bay Area with offices in NY, Boston, LA, and other areas around the country.  For many of those firms, although grades are a factor, they want to see that you are genuinely interested in being an attorney for technology and life sciences companies.  
This can be especially obvious in interviews.  When I was an associate at a large tech firm interviewing rising 2Ls for callbacks, it was easy to see when a student was interviewing at our firm as a “backup” to a prestigious “white-shoe” firm or because they were interested in our practice.  Those interested in being a lawyer for tech companies were more informed on the tech world, asked more specific and knowledgeable questions, and had a story to tell as to why they were interested in the firm that included specific examples and anecdotes.  It all worked together.
3/ The Interview!
There are many students who have amazing grades but are less comfortable in interviews.  Although grades are important, there is a reason the interview is a key part of this process: firms want to make sure that they feel you are a good personality fit for the firm.
In one of the episodes of the popular How I Lawyer podcast, hosted by my friend Jonah Perlin and featured in our Summer Associate Hub practice area overviews, they mention the “Toledo Test.”  Basically, when looking at a student, the partner is thinking: “If I’m on a business trip in Toledo handling a matter with just one associate, is this someone I would want to spend time with?”  (No shade to anybody from Toledo.)  The same is true for working on deals late at night and being in the trenches on busy matters.  And the same is true for having you interact with clients – can they trust you to present yourself to the client in a manner that is consistent with the firm?
Doing well in interviews (having a natural conversation, showing you are prepared, asking informed and knowledgeable questions) goes a very long way and can often overcome any deficit in grades.  This was my experience when I was a law student and is true for many others too.
4/ Assessments
Some BigLaw firms ask students to complete assessments as part of their application.  Assessments are an important topic of conversation and are covered in more detail in our other content.
But, it is important to mention them here briefly.  Assessments are generally used as a tool to add more data points to your application and consider a wider range of applicants (NOT as a tool to exclude applicants using AI or other automated means).  Assessments are put together by a firm based on what the firm views as its important “core competencies” – the type of work and personality traits that they feel are a good fit for their firm’s culture and working style.  
Law school grades are not that indicative of how an associate actually performs as an associate.  Firms know that.  And that is why many firms use assessments as an additional data point and consider candidates who may not reach their general grade preferences.
5/ Many Firms Won’t Have Your Second Semester Grades Until Later
Many firms are opening up their 2L application portal in 2024 on May 15 or June 1; some are opening in March or April.  In many cases, the firm won’t have your second semester grades anyway.  Although there is some weight on your first semester grades, firms know that it’s not the entire picture — and will still want to interview candidates.  If you show a genuine interest in the firm, you’ve engaged with the firm over the recent months, and you interview well and show that you’d be a good fit, you are putting yourself at an advantage.  Some firms might even give offers before they see your second semester grades (these may be contingent on your second semester grades, but this is really in case you get all Cs… and firms would not want to revoke an offer if your grades decreased a reasonable amount).  
Once you go through the process and a firm had you in for a callback or made you an offer, you are excited about the firm and the firm is excited about you.  Your second semester grades don’t matter as much as that point.
Hopefully this is a good reminder for you that grades are not the only factor.  When looking at firms, don’t be afraid to explore opportunities even when you are outside their grade threshold – but, when you do so, make sure you can bolster your application in other ways.  By showing engagement with the firm, genuine interest, your personality and preparation in interviews, and other items mentioned above.

Summer Associate Hub Team

This content is based on our own experiences as former law students and BigLaw attorneys, and countless conversations with firm recruiting teams, law students, law school career advisors, legal career coaches, and hiring partners.  

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