The second Thing I Didn’t Know is probably the most important Thing I learned (I know, friends are the most important thing, but I’m on straight law school knowledge now). That Thing is How Grades Work. It’s different here, believe you me.
I will focus here on grades your first year of law school, because that’s the biggest surprise (duh, you just started and suddenly all the rules are different). The following is a breakdown of how 1L grades work here at NYLS, partly because I am most familiar with that and partly because this is literally an NYLS blog. It’s pretty reflective of the systems all my friends at other law schools use, too.
This post is about to get very pedantic; I don’t think anyone reading this is an idiot, this is actually how I’ve been taught to write at school (it works!).
Attendance Actually Matters Here
Ok, so attendance. I’ll assume that we all attended as many of our college classes as we could, because we are excellent students who love learning for its own sake and knew we wanted to be lawyers our whole lives and lawyers are responsible people who are always on time (it’s not a joke, lawyers are very serious about time management). Welcome to law school, where you are learning to be a lawyer and you no longer have to make the decision to come to class; it’s made for you.
To become a lawyer in the USA, you have to take the bar exam, right? Right. That exam, and your education, is governed by the American Bar Association. Before you’re allowed to sit the bar exam, you have to attend law school. The way that the ABA assures itself that you have actually and adequately fulfilled that “attending law school” mandate is by requiring that your school certify that you have physically attended a certain number of hours of class in your time there. Recap: you have to sit in class a certain number of hours before you can sit for the bar exam.
Ok, so you’re going to just calculate what that number is and make sure you attend those hours? No, you’re not. You will attend every single one of your classes and sign in (or use whatever your professor’s chosen method of attendance-taking is), and use your allotted (by the school) absences for when you really need them (I don’t need to know your reasons, but I know I hate people who come to class and get everyone sick). This is not as annoying as you might think for two reasons: 1. law school is your whole job now, and 2. you will constantly worry that the day you skipped class is the day your professor says something groundbreakingly relevant to your entire existence. Recap: seriously, you’re not skipping class.
Your Finals Define Your Grades
This section will actually be pretty short and sweet: the vast majority of your 1L course grades will be based almost entirely on the final exam. Did you like how I hid the ambiguity in that statement? Of course you did, you want to be lawyers. You liked it.
Seriously though, your final grades are the grades that matter. Since we already addressed the seriousness of attendance above, I feel comfortable moving past the college tradition of basing 10% of your grade on just showing up. However, if you manage to participate in class discussions and acquit yourself well, some professors in law school will give you a little bump in your grade (which we creatively call a “bump-up”). Recap: being prepared for class every day can only help you.
Final exams are long, too. They can range from 3 to 5 hours, and they really are all exams (no papers). You can use your laptop to type the exam, or write in Bluebooks if you prefer that. It’s impossible to cheat; most schools use a program (NYLS uses Examsoft) that you type your answers into while it blocks every other program and application from running. They vary in style; some professors favor 50-50 multiple choice and essays, some have 6 essay questions of varying length, and still others will make up a creatively-structured exam. It’s up to the professor, really. Bright side: your school library has a bank of old exams from any professor who’s given an exam there. Go look at them. Recap: exams are weird, use all your resources.
There’s a Curve, a Real One
At some point in your life, an instructor said “I’m going to curve this test,” and you leapt for joy because that meant you were getting some free points added to your score. That is not the kind of curve law school uses. Most law schools grade to a bell curve, or a similar distribution.
Your 1L class will be broken down into smaller groups called sections. Each section will have its own schedule and coursework that runs parellel to the other sections, so you’re all on the same track but taking classes with a specific group of people. Each section will also have its own curve, defined by the grades each section gets on the final exams. Those curves are then normalized to the school’s curve, and the resultant grades (adjusted to fit into the overarching curve) are the grades you receive for each class. Recap: the curve includes everyone. It’s that simple.
don’t freak out. It’s easy to get this information and go into existential-crisis mode, but save your energy. Part of the fun of starting law school is having everyone around you say “but won’t it be difficult?” and “prepare for the toughest 3 years of your life!” and they’re all right, but trying to freak you out. Don’t let them, and you’ll be lightyears (over 6 trillion miles!) ahead of everyone else. See you next week!