Before You Feel Anxiety About Your Grades…

Student Government’s Faculty Grades Initiative distributed the following letter primarily to 1Ls (edited for style): 

Before you feel anxiety about your grades, think about the following:

Former Dean Elena Kagan received several B’s during law school, especially her first year. She went on to become the first female dean of Harvard Law School, the U.S. Solicitor General, and the 112th Supreme Court Justice.

Tax Law Professor Daniel Halperin received his worst law school grade in: tax.

Dean of Students Ellen Cosgrove received a Property exam back that had a note from the professor saying “this is exactly what I warned you not to do”—followed by her lowest grade since kindergarten. She went on to work at a top law firm before becoming a dean at Harvard.

At the time Judge Richard Posner hired Professor Robert H. Sitkoff to be his law clerk, Sitkoff had received his lowest grade in law school in Law and Economics, which had been taught by Posner. Thereafter, he had one grade that was worse, in Legal Ethics. He graduated law school with High Honors.

Professor Joseph Singer earned a B- in Property. After graduating, he clerked, worked at a law firm, and has written one of the leading casebooks and treatises on—wait for it—Property. He has also authored two theoretical books on property and teaches Property courses at Harvard.

Professor Jeannie Suk received her worst grade in law school—and ever—in Criminal Law. She went on to practice and research in criminal law. No employer has ever asked about her grade, and her Criminal Law professor has remained a powerful mentor and reference for her throughout her career. “I care much more about students’ preparation and performance in a course throughout a long semester than about performance on one timed exam taken on one day,” she said.

Professor Frank Michelman’s worst law school grade was a C+ in Property. He has written and published repeatedly in the field and has taught Property courses at Harvard for over 40 years.

Professor Jim Greiner received his worst grade on the exam he felt best about after finishing. And he nonetheless was retained as a research assistant for the course’s professor.

Professor Hal Scott got a D in Constitutional Law. “We do some of that here,” Justice Byron White told Scott when he went for a clerkship interview. Scott nonetheless was selected to serve as one of Justice White’s few Supreme Court law clerks.

Professor Daniel Meltzer’s father was a law professor who taught Labor Law. His lowest grade in law school was in Labor Law. His Labor Law professor later said to him, “I thought you might have done better, so I re-read your exam and it was every bit as bad as I thought it was the first time.”

Professor Mark Ramseyer received a B on an exam at Harvard Law School and went into the professor’s office to complain. On the professor’s desk was a plaque that guided his grading: he reserved B’s for “excellent, perceptive exams.” The professor told Ramseyer he had gotten a B because he “wrote an excellent exam.”

In the second semester of his two-semester Contracts course, Professor John Goldberg earned himself a B-. The next year, his former Contracts professor hired him as a T.A. to help 1Ls with the class. Years later, as a Vanderbilt professor, Goldberg was awarded a teaching prize for teaching … Contracts.

Professor Mark Barnes received a Pass on his Trust and Estates exam while a friend whom he tutored received Honors. Upon review of their exams, Barnes realized that his friend had given the obvious answers while he had read nuances into the questions that were not intended. He learned two important lessons: one, when you hear hoof beats, think horses first, and not zebras and, two, the line between “Honors” and “Pass” is blurred.

Professor Einer Elhauge said“I know a guy who got mainly C’s his first year at Harvard Law. He went on to become general counsel of a major federal agency, leading lawyer in his field, and author of the leading casebook in his field. It is much more about the passion you have for your field than anything.”

Dean Martha Minow’s sister’s law school grades were so troubling during her first year that she never picked up her grades after that. Last year, she was honored as a distinguished alum for her professional accomplishments, and no one even thought of her grades.

Professor Gerald Neuman’s first semester grades were quite mediocre and his Criminal Law professor, Charles Nesson, told Neuman that he didn’t know how to take a law school exam. Neuman spent time with Nesson learning how to take exams and revising his approach. Neuman went on to graduate first in his class at Harvard Law, though no one asked about his grades when he ran for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Be well,

Your Harvard Law School Student Government