Unfortunately, the assumption that undergraduate study methods will serve you well in law school is just one more false turn in the Labyrinth. The reality is that the law school pedagogy- featuring the Socratic method, appellate opinions (called "cases"), and the concept of "precedent"- are designed to teach you to "think like a lawyer." Learning the legal reasoning process is more akin to learning a trade- you learn by doing.
Regardless, some students "get it" early on- they ace exams and finish the year with top grades. Generally, these are also the students that receive the fruits of this success- invitations to Law Review and coveted law firm clerkships. What about the others, you might ask? (especially if you happen to be one of the others). What happens to them? Can they still have satisfying careers as lawyers? Hold that thought- I'll answer that question in a minute.
It is axiomatic in college that your GPA is really only as important as your first job. Good grades get you in the door and help you land a job. After that, your real intelligence, work ethic and initiative take over, in terms of your career success. My own experience in an almost twenty-year business career was that my work ethic, above most everything else, determined my ability to climb the corporate ladder. After that first job, one's GPA rarely, if ever, comes up. Simply, your actual results speak much more loudly that an arcane artifact from college.
However, in my legal career, I have found that my academic credentials have remained with me substantially longer. It's interesting to review lawyer bios on websites and the various listings, such as Martindale-Hubbell. Lawyers who have been practicing for twenty years trumpet the fact that they were on Law Review or Moot Court. Candidly, I'm not sure I fully understand the reason behind this, because in my opinion, results are every bit as important in law practice as they are in a business career. Good lawyers who achieve the results their clients want tend to thrive.
Which brings me to the answer to the question. Can the less-than-stellar law student have a rewarding career? I think the answer to this question lies in part with the old fable, "The Tortoise and the Hare." The analogy deviates in that "Hare" law students aren't necessarily those who favor speed over results; similarly "Tortoise" law students aren't necessarily those who are always "slow and steady" but win. However, the analogy holds in that many law students who started off in law school without the proverbial clue, had rocky academic success and weren't on Law Review, can still have spectacular careers. (a parallel question is whether someone who graduates from a non-top 10 law school can enjoy a rewarding legal career).
The simply answer is "absolutely yes." One of the first lawyers I worked with was a senior partner in the firm. He was a bit of a curmdgeon, but one of the smartest lawyers I have ever met. More importantly, he understood human nature. In fact, he was a student of it. He could anticipate what the other side would do, what a client would say and what a judge might rule with incredible precision.
He confessed to me one night as we worked on a deal together that as a student, his performance had been mediocre. "I wasn't one of those bright hotshots who made Law Review," he said. " I had a 'C' average. But I was determined to make it as a lawyer. So I worked harder than anyone else." He may have underestimated his own intelligence (which I think we all tend to do); I viewed him as pretty close to brilliant. But his law school grades did not reflect his brilliance. And in my practice, I have run into many "mediocre" law students who were brilliant lawyers.
We all know the stories- Albert Einstein flunked math (well this one is actually not true- Einstein was in reality a math prodigy. But he did have poor grades early in school). Bill Gates did drop out of college to start Microsoft. Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade. Abraham Lincoln lost in a number of elections. And so on.
So, your grades in law school are important. But if you don't make top grades, it doesn't mean your career is over. The reality is that the practice of law is exactly that, a practice. And practice makes perfect. One of the greatest benefits of practicing law is that the opportunity is always there to learn more. I work periodically with one of the leading antitrust law experts in the country. And yet, occasionally when I call him, I "stump" the expert. What happens next is sheer joy. I have the opportunity to observe first hand his brilliance as he reviews facts and law, performs analyses, argues scenarios and the like. This is his "practice" in action.
If you are a "hare" and have made great grades and Law Review, I congratulate you. But don't confuse your short-term success with long-term career satisfaction.
If you have not done as well as you would have liked in law school, don't give up; don't evenbecome discouraged. View it instead as a challenge. Rise to the occasion. Keep working, keep pushing. If you do, you will prevail. You will have a rewarding and satisfying career. Remember that there are countless others who have gone before you. They made it and you can too.
Become the tortoise.
Best wishes in your legal career.