My Life As A Minority Law Student & Why Law School Grades Are Predictably Unpredictable
Do you struggle to determine what your law school professors expect of you? Do you feel that your professors are constantly moving the mark with evasive answers and no clear guidance? Do you do your best to write law school essay exams and get a sense that your grades are not an accurate reflection of your effort? You're not alone - here's why:
Growing Beyond Elemental Legal Analysis Into Abstract Legal Analysis
In 1L, I took contracts, torts, and criminal law. These subjects are elemental in nature to analyze, meaning that each rule statement has a clear step by step black letter rule and sub-elements to refer to while making your analysis. If the fact pattern doesn’t match the rule, then it’s obvious that the rule or element has not be satisfied and then you go on. It’s relatively simple to make a high grades with these rules if you have perfect recall and a general understanding of legal analysis. Thus, it’s why these subjects are on the California Baby Bar, a notoriously difficult exam for those reading the law or going to correspondence law schools.
In 2L, I took Criminal Procedure, Real Property, Remedies, and Business Associations. Before I took 2L, I interviewed alumni of my correspondence program to ask for their insight and advice going into my second year so that I was emotionally and mentally prepared for the course load.
This is what one alumni said:
He said that the school does not adequately prepare students for essay examination. He said that the assignments before midterms are essentially busy work and do not adequately prepare the student to know the rules, let alone, have a strong understanding of the analytical structure required for a strong legal analysis demanded in written examinations (akin to the bar exam essay exams) come midterms. After midterms, he said, you’re left scrambling on your own to figure out how to approach your essay examinations and are at the whim of a randomly assigned professor/grader.
If Law School Examination Grades Seem Arbitrary, It's Because They Are Designed To Be
With that insight in mind, I went further to understand why this was the case. I hired a tutor from a top ten American law school who has expert knowledge in California Bar essay examinations. I explained to him the conditions of my learning experience at the correspondence school. I asked him advice on essay examination analysis. What he said to me during the course of our study sessions together was so accurate, it was if he predicted my grades and every word out that came out of my grader’s responses.
This is what he said:
First, you’re going to be graded on a curve. Count that your grade will be knocked 1 to 2 letters down right off the bat.
Second, if your grader doesn’t like the style you write in, then they’re going to make a big stink about it and knock your letter grade down.
Third, they will say they don’t like your rule statements which will then make your analysis “wrong” or, they’ll accuse you of not knowing the law.
Fourth, the hypothetical will be so poorly written that even someone like myself [an expert in bar exam writing] will not be even able to analyze it succinctly. Count on red herrings and raise and dismiss issues, but even then they’ll count that against you as “wasting time”.
He said the number one problem with my type of law school is that I don’t know who the grading professor will be and if they don’t know me they will not understand how I think. He said without knowing who the professor is and what kind of analytical structure they prefer, my exam will automatically get knocked down a letter grade. Furthermore, law school exams are usually written by white people and don’t count for logic of Asian, Hispanic, and Black students (which are in a serious minority).
I asked him the million dollar question: WHY?
He gave me to straight forward, sobering answer: legal education industry is a lucrative business designed for attrition. It’s designed to weed out and fail people, not help them succeed. It’s so institutionalized that they can’t see their own biases and failures in raising diverse, critical, original thinkers but rather legal administrators who can follow rules rather than challenge them. Nobody will challenge the system because there is too much time, money, and ego at stake for the student. Besides, if they do challenge it, they’ll just get ignored or pushed out of the school. There is always someone who will take a drop out’s place.
Why You Must Make A Choice In Your Study Approach
The advice he gave me was this: He said that if I didn’t know who my grading professor was that I’d essentially left to make one important decision:
Make the grader happy by knowing how THEY want my analysis to be structured and rules to be stated and achieve the goal of getting the highest grades possible…
Forego making the grader happy, take a big picture approach and prepare for the bar exam instead and take a short term hit to my GPA.
I chose the latter.
I studied every single available bar exam in all of the above subjects. I went through with a fine tooth comb each exam and both model answers four times each. I spent about 300 hours analyzing the California Bar Exam questions and model answers to look for patterns, typical rule statements, and analytical structures.
Be Prepared For The Consequences of Your Choice
The key difference in the California Bar Exam model answers and what the grader of my exams wanted was, as predicted, structure.
The instructions on the final exams specifically stated to write in narrative style with IRAC, which is how the California Bar Exam essays model answers are written.
When I got my grades, the grader’s responses literally, word for word, matched what my tutor told me would happen - in freakishly accurate order.
First, he complained that he didn’t like the narrative structure. He wanted them all to be analyzed the same way - which, if you study the bar exam model responses - there is no way you’ll analyze crim pro or criminal law in the exact same manner as business associations or real property.
Second, he said he didn’t like my rule statements - I modeled mine after the California Bar Exam model answers rather then the school’s.
Third, he said that because of these first two, he didn’t like how my analysis flowed and where my answers were positioned on the paper.
Fourth, I missed core/sub issues or spent too much time on red herrings.
When I got my grades [2 Bs and 2 Cs] and saw the grader’s responses, I wasn’t even mad. My jaw literally dropped. I called my husband into my office and asked him to see my grades be delivered in real time (the grader spent about 10 minutes reading, commenting, and delivering my results for each paper) and see his responses. My husband was dumbfounded because I told him about the “prediction” six months ago.
My husband asked, “What is the point of the feedback if you’re not even allowed to see your essays to learn from your mistakes?”
[For those who do not know: when you go to a correspondence law school, you will never see your exam essays ever again. There is a probability of cheating so they make you sign an honor code saying that you’ll never disclose the contents of the exam question and your answers. So, they give you generic comments on your exams, but there is no way of even seeing if they’re right or accurate. Nor will you because to apply their comments to see where you make mistakes. Their comments, essentially, are useless at this point.]
Determine Your Own Metrics of Success
After I got my grades and read the comments, I told my husband hiring the very expensive tutor to tell me this piece of valuable information was worth it to prove this point: you can know the law very well and you can analyze very well. However, because of institutional biases and unconscious self-preserving behavior of your graders your grades will not provide an accurate reflection of what you know and the progress you’ve made. In effect, your exam results are a reflection of your institution’s character and habits and what they expect to see based on subjective, personal preferences.
That’s why as silly as it is, even in Legally Blond, the love interest tells Elle Woods what she should know about each professor before she takes the exam.
So, now, from a human behavioral and spiritual standpoint, this is my advice to you:
People say, “Well, you could have just learned his style and gotten As!” Or, “You could have manifested As through the law of attraction” or some other silly notion that getting As is the end all be all.
First, the grader only teaches one subject. Not all of them. So even if I did study the styles of four professors, only one would appeal to him.
Second, getting As doesn’t mean you know the law, it just means you know how to pass an exam. Besides, if you’re tested on a part of the outline you know really well, great, but it doesn’t mean you would have gotten an A on another part of the outline you didn’t know well. So, really, your grade reflects a myopic view of what you know in just one small area of a body of 400 black letter rules or 100 areas of analysis.
Third, my goal was to do two things: 1) prepare for the California Bar Exam and 2) to really understand my own learning process vis-à-vis how legal education is taught in America and share my learnings with non-traditional legal scholars (ethnic/racial minorities, individuals with visible/invisible learning disabilities, women, varying minority identities).
I’m not in law school to make a grader happy. Nor do I care about a pristine GPA because I don’t intend to work for someone else when I graduate law school (I’ve been self-employed since 2008). I graduated with honors in undergrad and nobody in 17 years has asked me what my GPA was - ever. Maybe, if I had invested $250,000 in a legal education and I want to work for Bro Legal Firm in L.A. or N.Y.C. I’d care. As an expert career coach I laugh just thinking about businesses that only want candidates with 3.7 GPAs because, for example, Ted Cruz graduated with honors and that tells me nothing about his ability to make money, his personal integrity or leadership ability.
Fundamentally, you have to know what your learning goals are. You have to know your learning style. You have to know what excites you about your legal education journey and how you plan to use your education in your OWN life. You must know what, fundamentally, is your own metric of success in life.
You can’t expect your professors or school administrators to think about - let alone care - about your journey. They know what they want to see and if they don’t see it, they’re blissfully asleep to everything else.
Yes, if you can, get to know your professors. I got my best grades from undergrad when I regularly visited my professors during their office hours and got personal tutoring from them. That’s just not going to happen in my law school, but if that is an option for you I highly encourage that you do it.
At the same time, ask yourself what is more important: getting the best grades now or taking 3 or 4 years to prepare for the Bar Exam (instead of the six months crunching and paying $5,000+ on bar prep courses after graduation and facing the statistical probability that you’ll fail it the first time anyway).
A Message of Hope For Minority Law School Students
And, if you’re a minority student - take a sobering pill and understand that American legal education - just like the American legal system - was not designed for you. It was designed by and supports white males.
In 2019, 62% of law students were white, 12.7% were Hispanic, 7.8% were black, 6.3% were Asian and 4% were biracial or multiracial. [Bloomberg]
From a sociological standpoint, how minorities learn, process logic, and feel about legal issues is different from the standpoint of white dominance and privilege. In short, we feel differently about legal concepts and thus analyze them differently. If you have a white person grading your work, you’re likely to experience them say that you’re “making up facts” or “seeing it all wrong”. It’s unconscious gaslighting in insidious form.
How Your Educational Institution Treats You Is Not A Reflection of YOU
If you’ve seen any of my professional work, I am a big proponent of creating your own destiny, “manifesting”, and using your imagination to achieve the results you want. I’m also very practical and am going to tell you something that most spiritual by-passers don’t understand:
What you witness during the course of your life is not always a reflection of YOU. You also have the opportunity in life to witness another’s behavior and have the right to not take it personally. In short, you can do your very best, be excellent, and someone - because of their own biases - will not be able to see, nor appreciate, that. They’ll only look for what they expect to see. You have to ask yourself if you want to let that define you and if you want to participate in the charade.
As Dita Von Teese said, “You can be the sweetest, juiciest peach and there will always be someone who hates peaches.”
So, you can conform you mind or expand it. You choose.
Do not let this put you in despair or ask yourself, “Then why should I even become a lawyer if I can’t change the system?”
As an executive coach, I can tell you from hands-on experience of working with hundreds of corporate executives that you can’t change a large, established system. Even the best leaders and greatest business minds can’t change a system from the inside. They always eventually find themselves ousted because the environment was not hospitable for their new ideas or different viewpoints. You must have the courage to be you, do you, go about your business in your own way, and work with others who connect with what you’re doing. Eventually, the fruit of your efforts becomes so disruptive that others abandon the old system’s ways of thinking to receive the benefits of world you’ve created. In short, don’t try to change the world. Create your own and the right people will meet you there.
And a former professor and educator myself, I’m not in the education business to help people fail. I’m in it to help them succeed even if it means noticing the pitfalls, making all the mistakes along the way and being unabashedly honest about my experience so that you can learn from them and do better than me. That’s just how I feel about the learning process and the role of the educator.
I hope this article helps someone feel better about themselves and their own legal education journey. There is more to law school than cute photos, immaculate outlines, and pretty highlighters and post-it notes. You are on the path of being a lawyer; not becoming but being. You will encounter judges, other lawyers, and clients who see things their way and won’t appreciate the effort, wisdom, and advice you have to offer. They won’t act reasonably, professionally, or even consciously. You have to be an adult enough person to see that and know, with total serenity, that it has nothing to do with you. You must, additionally, not let the absurdity that you witness discourage you in any way. See it, but don’t accept it as your reality. Stay focused on your big picture and trust your intuition.
As my mentor told me after I told him my grades and reflections, “Take the wins.”
And now I’m inviting you: Take the wins.
Remember: In the wise words of Helene Hadsell, “Failure is only a delay in results.”
Keep applying yourself, keep being you, keep enjoying your unique ways of learning and being, and never give up on yourself. Everything starts and ends with you.