How to handle getting a bad grade

By Alison Monahan

Law school is stressful. The pressure to get good grades, rise in the class rankings, and land jobs, both during and after law school, is palpable. That pressure only increases when your grades post for the semester, or after a big exam, and your grade is not good.

This article contains no well-known, well-concealed law-school secret to fixing an exam grade that is less than stellar. The purpose of this article is to help any law student overcome and recover from the devastation of a “bad” grade.

Where Did You Go Wrong?

Step one requires a little self-confrontation. In law school, you are ultimately responsible for your success and failure. The professor leads you through the material, pushing you through the Socratic Method, to gain both understanding and comprehension. You are the only one that can get you to application of that knowledge.

If you receive a low grade on an exam or in a class, it’s time to ask, why? Did you prepare for classes? Did you outline all semester (in whatever format works for you)? Did you attend classes and engage in the material through class discussion and just being present? If you answered “no” to any or all of the questions above, maybe coming back is as simple as fixing that which you know was broken. However, if there isn’t a clear point of failure that you can trace back to your poor grade, this refection process becomes more difficult.

What is Your Learning Style?

It’s possible, especially as a 1L, that you have not yet figured out the right approach to mastery of the material. There are several learning styles. It is not uncommon for one person to have more than one that really works. The best way to leverage your learning style is to identify which one works for you.

There is a high probability that someone at your school can help you find an assessment that might help you find the tree in the middle of the forest. The VARK® Guide to Learning Styles is one resource you can use to help detangle your strengths and weaknesses. Once you have identified your preferred style, it’s time to tackle your next class or exam with the resources and methods that resonate with that style. Four well-known styles include:

Visual Learner;

Auditory Learner;

Read/Write Learner; or

Kinesthetic Learner.

Knowing your learning style can really open up your capability in law school.

Get Back to The Basics

Already know your learning style and don’t think that you failed in any of the areas identified at the beginning of the article? Okay, but something went wrong. Was the subject just too difficult? I reject that notion immediately. You are a law student. You wouldn’t be in law school if you weren’t intelligent and capable. Maybe it’s time to get back to the basics.

- Are you reviewing the syllabus and casebook table of contents?

- Are you case briefing and reading for each class?

- Are you spending enough time outside of class studying?

- Would you benefit from joining a study group?

- Should you escape from the study group you were in before?

- How does your outline look (regardless of the format you have chosen)?

- Have you taken advantage of office hours with the professor or TA?

- If all else fails, is there a commercial product that might help you (be cautious of these)?

These are all areas in which you can make minor adjustments to ensure greater success after a rough class or semester.

Cut out the Extras

Every incoming law class has its share of 1L students who treat law school like an extension of their recently-completed undergraduate program. It takes a very intelligent, talented, and remarkable student who can focus on karaoke Thursdays and one-dollar draft Tuesdays and still excel in their classes. Can they pass a class? Sure. Will they find that they are as competitive as their more serious and determined classmates? Most certainly not.

Take some time to figure out what social activities you can eliminate, or at least cut back. Of course, the work-life-school balance is an important part of making it through the challenges of law school, but when the life weighs more heavily on the scales, bad things happen to a law student’s grades and focus.

Door Number 1, 2, or 3?

A little self-reflection and confrontation will likely reveal the area where you may have faltered if you got a lower-than desired grade on an exam or in a class. Maybe a new study approach based upon your learning style. Perhaps you just need to refine the foundational skills you learned when you first arrived, from outlining to case briefing. If these areas seem good, perhaps you just need to cut back on the social activities or co-curricular activities and beef up the study time for each class.

Poor grades can serve a devastating blow, but many law students have bounced back from an otherwise lackluster class or semester. You can too. All it takes is a little honest reflection and tweaking the areas you know are lagging behind. You can bounce back, but it will require work and perseverance. You can do this!

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl’s Guide to Law School®, which is a leading resource for women (and some men) embarking on a legal career. Alison is also a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox® and Bar Exam Toolbox® which provide free resources, tutoring and a variety of courses and tools to help law students and bar exam takers succeed with less stress and anxiety.