Be prepared: Law school doesn’t even resemble your college experience


By Don Macaulay 

Your NCAA Bracket. Whether Daylight Savings Time negatively impacts Happy Hour pricing. Saving enough swipes on your meal card to get you to graduation.

If you’re like most college seniors, these are probably your top concerns during the spring semester. However, if you’re heading to law school next fall, let me add one more worry to your plate while you still have the mental bandwidth: how different law school will be from your undergraduate experience.

Sure, you may have scoured the Law School subReddit. Perhaps you’ve even watched OneL and feel like you know what’s in store. Even if you’re feeling pretty confident about what lies ahead, let me breakdown the three ways law school differs from college so you can truly ready yourself for the experience.


Law school is not a three-year marathon, it’s a one year sprint. Unlike undergrad where you’re afforded the luxury of a freshman (and even sophomore) year to gain your footing before grades start to really matter, in law school your first-year grades will likely determine your post-graduation job prospects and even what you end up paying for law school. Yes, you read that correctly.

1L Grades Determine Post-Graduate Job Opportunities.

Ask any attorney and they will tell you that law students who earn top 1L grades have more options than those who do not. This is because the most selective legal employers begin recruiting for summer associate programs (the springboard for full-time employment) immediately following the 1L year, placing significant emphasis on 1L grades and class rank.  Most legal employers only interview students who finish in the top ten percent of their first-year class and serve on their law school’s law review or journal - all determined by 1L grades. 

While many students with lower 1L grades can often improve their academic standing by working smarter during the second and third years, all - not most, ALL - of the top jobs have been filled by those students were able to appreciate the importance of the 1L year and capitalize on the opportunity by earning top grades.

1L Grades Dictate How Much You Pay For Law School - Conditional & Retention Scholarships

If your LSAT score and/or UGPA are above average, you likely have been offered scholarship that can significantly reduce your law school tuition. However, buyer beware. Many first-year scholarships are “conditional” — meaning you must maintain a certain GPA during your 1L year, or it can vanish.

In 2017, according to the American Bar Association (ABA) of those entering law students awarded a conditional scholarship, 28.2 percent failed to maintain the requisite GPA and had their scholarship award reduced or eliminated entirely.

Students who find themselves in this unenviable position must pay “sticker price” to continue at a school that they may not have otherwise attended if it weren’t for the now-lost scholarship — all the while knowing it will be a struggle to land a job without top grades.

Now, even if your entering predictors didn’t entitle you to a scholarship as you began law school, your 1L grades can earn you a significant “retention” scholarship during your second- and third-year.

You see, top 1L students often apply to transfer to higher-ranked schools and law schools know that, based on their 1L performance, these top students are more likely to pass the bar exam on the first try and also land a job within 10 months of graduation. Schools must report these two metrics to the ABA and, more importantly, they are incorporated into the U.S. News Law Rankings.

Consequently, schools would rather offer successful 1L students sizable retention scholarships, rather than lose them (and their metrics) as a transfer student to a higher ranked school.


In college, you likely enjoyed many lectures. You were expected to attend class, take great notes and then, during the final exam, regurgitate the material you learned back to your professor in order to earn an A.

Law School Professors Teach Using The “Case Method”

In law school, professors rely on the Case Method of instruction – students read a series of cases and come to class prepared to discuss their significance with respect to a particular body of law. Notice I used the word “discuss” because unlike what you may have experienced in undergrad, law school professors rely less on lecture and more on classroom discussion for illustrating the law.

Using the Case Method, your professor will engage in a building-block approach to the study of the law. You’ll show up for class having read one or two judicial opinions in a subject (say Contracts) and your professor will engage students in a discussion that boils the case(s) down to a fine point of law. Then, you’ll read other cases that will build upon the law that you’ve already learned.

So, absent a “big picture” understanding from the outset, it won’t be until the end of the semester when you’ll finally understand how the various rules of Contract law fit together.

On The Exam, You Don’t Earn Any Points For Knowing The Law (Seriously!)

Now you may be thinking that your stellar memory that got you through undergrad will come in handy when you’ll be asked to memorize thousands of legal rules as a 1L.  Sort of, but not as much as you may think.

Unlike undergrad where you are awarded points for showing what you learned, in law school professors award points for applying what you learned.  Like you, your classmates will possess the brainpower and work ethic to memorize legal rules.  However, when you show up your law school final exams you will never  be asked to recite the law, rather you’ll be expected to apply it. 

Your professors will draft complex, multi-page fact patterns that may (or may not have legal significance), and the prompt will likely ask: “discuss the rights and liabilities of the actors.”  As you can see, rote memorization of legal rules alone will not carry the day; rather, it’s a mastery of applying the rules you learned that will distinguish the top 10 percent from the bottom 90 percent of the class.


In undergrad, when you arrived for the final exam, you likely had a sense of how well you were doing in the class.  You may have received grades for several quizzes and even a term paper prior to walking into the exam.

In Law School, Your Final Exam Determines Your Entire Grade.

In law school, there are no term papers or quizzes and if you have a mid-term, it’s likely worth very little in your final exam.  Your entire grade will likely be decided by how well you do on a 3- or 4-hour final examination.

In Law School, You’re Graded On A Strict Curve.

To make matters worse, most law schools impose a strict grading curve – one that allows for only a certain number of A’s and, yes, F’s.

Unlike undergrad where your professors had broad discretion when handing out grades, in law school you will not be graded on what your professor feels was “A” effort; instead, your professors must award A’s only to those students who demonstrate a complete mastery of the material when compared to the rest of their classmates. It is for this very reason, many smart and capable students receive the first C’s of their academic careers during the 1L year.

Now, you’re probably thinking that even if there’s a grading curve it can’t really be strictly imposed because, to some extent, all grading is “subjective” and there are some factors (e.g., classroom performance, the personal relationship you build with your professor, etc.) that can positively influence your academic performance.

Well, the smart folks in law school have already corrected for this variable by instituting an anonymous grading system. This means that even if you were the “professor’s pet” and always came to class prepared and ready to engage, your professors will never know this when they are grading your examinations.

Your anonymous grading number is only matched to student names after final examination grades have been tallied and submitted to the registrar.

Don Macaulay is Law Preview President for BARBRI. He is a successful businessman and entrepreneur. One of his businesses became the largest independent legal education bookstore in the U.S., while the other two, Law Preview and, grew into recognized leaders in their respective markets and were acquired by BARBRI in 2012. Before founding his companies, he was an associate at Rogers & Wells in New York City (now Clifford Chance US).