This is the moment, early in the second semester, when I always tell first-year law students that they are in the roughest time in law school. Many first year law students are coping with the disappointment of their first semester grades, which have probably all been posted by now. To exacerbate the harshness of having worked extremely hard (in most cases) only to have fallen short of the top stratum of grades, students often hear that their entire law school career - indeed, their entire professional career - is determined by their first semester grades.
It's not true. Yes, high first semester grades are great, but they are not definitive. You can bring up mediocre grades. If you need any further encouragement, consider this story of a law student who went from a B- in torts to the deanship at Harvard Law and soon to be Solicitor General (from BLT) ---
In a folder in Box 571 of the Thurgood Marshall papers at the
Library of Congress, one can find Elena Kagan's 1986 application to be
Marshall's law clerk, along with recommendations from five Harvard Law
professors, as well as her resume and even her law
school transcript. That transcript indicates, interestingly, that Kagan
got something of a slow start at the law school, with no A's in
her first semester 1L courses.
Kagan's Feb. 19, 1986 application letter to Marshall was
straightforward and brief, ending with the sentence, "I would be
honored to serve as your clerk."
In a letter of recommendation, professor Charles Nesson, who worked
with Kagan as she edited an article of his for the Harvard Law Review
in 1985 (she was a supervising editor,) said of her, "She understood my
arguments very well, pointed out weaknesses with precision and tact,
suggested specific ways to remedy them, pushed me to say what I wanted
to express, and helped me express it... Indeed, I thought she was
fabulous in every aspect of writing right down to spelling. I cannot
give her a higher recommendation."
Abram Chayes, who taught Kagain civil procedure and then supervised
her as a teaching assistant, was similarly enthusiastic. "I have no
hesitation in saying she is one of the very finest students I have ever
had -- not in her class alone, but among the handful of outstanding
people in a decade." Confidently he added, "I believe she will number
among your finest law clerks."
Kagan was also a research assistant to professor Richard Fallon, who
wrote to Marshall, "Her work has been superb. She has a tough-minded
lawyer's sense for the extraneous and the relevant; her critical
faculties are good; and she writes clearly and well."
Randall Kennedy, himself a former
Marshall clerk, reported to the justice that in his class on race and
constitutional law, he had given her an A+. "Her examination paper was
among the finest in a large class of highly motivated students.... I
recommend her unreservedly."
Not all of Kagan's grades were A's, and one of her recommenders
dealt with that fact. According to Kagan's transcript, in her first
semester at the law school in 1984 she got a B- in torts and a B in
criminal law. Her mark in Legal Methods is listed as "Cr." and there's
a dash in the column that lists how many credits she received. She
recovered in the spring semester, getting all A's except for one A-.
Frank Michelman, her property prof, said in his letter, "I am
looking at her transcript as I write, and there's just no doubt that
her first-year spring-term grades... not the fall-term ones, are the
true reflection of her capacity and her learning. Whatever was in her
way on those fall term exams, it wasn't affecting her class performance
even during the fall, and evidently was gone by exam time in May."
Michelman also wrote, "From the very first exchange through the rest
of that first year, Elena struck me as a student of outstanding
calibre... She has about her the qualities both of seriousness and
warmth, genuine and evident though not ebullient or obtrusive."