P=JD is a frequently repeated phrase at Berkeley law. You hear it mostly from faculty and 2L and 3L students trying to ease the pressure 1L students feel about grades. But when your entire grade depends on one 4-hour exam, and you’re thinking about keeping as many career paths open as possible, this advice can be difficult to take seriously. Maybe P’s will get you a JD, but can you really have a fulfilling career if you don’t do so well your first year? I interviewed four Berkeley alumni to find out.
Some employers care about grades a great deal, but Jaime Feder (‘04), who works as a public defender in Santa Clara emphasized that “For so many people, grades never matter. It matters more who you are, how you practice, and what you want to do.” After getting all P’s in her first year, Jaime was disappointed. “Everyone who goes to Berkeley is used to doing well. I called my dad saying I was mediocre, but he wasn’t having it at all!” As time went on, even though Jaime’s grades improved, getting H’s and HH’s, her attitude about grades changed. “Some people are better and smarter but that’s alright. I’m still doing good in the world and I still have skills. We can all be great as practitioners even if we weren’t at the top of our classes. Even being at the bottom of your class, you can still be an incredible lawyer.”
Varya Simpson (‘91), who retired from Dentons in San Francisco and now does pro bono asylum work, underscored the importance of figuring out what kind of legal work is the right fit for you, rather than fretting over whether you have the “right” grades. Simpson received all P’s during her first year and graduated as Class President. Having started law school at 42 with two young children, she came into the process with a wider perspective and was not very concerned about grades. “It’s important to find a job where you feel comfortable and where you will be appreciated. Some of the more prestigious firms that require high grades are not necessarily the best fit for everybody.”
So what skills are important for having a fulfilling career after law school? The common theme is communication. Denise Hardy (’90) got mainly P’s (and even a sub-P in Contracts) during her first year, then went on to work as an in-house staff attorney at PG&E. After she graduated, she worked as a lecturer at Chico State University, as a school librarian, as an HR director, and as an attorney at Legal Services of Northern California. She is now a Title IX investigator at Chico State University. She says, “Being able to get along with a variety of people is really helpful. It’s helped through all the different work I’ve done and they don’t teach you that in law school.” Similarly, Simpson says, “How to deal with people in a mature and patient manner is important for all lawyers. Learning how to relate to people well and using common sense is more valuable than any coursework.” For Feder, learning to build relationships and reputation was important. “In this profession, there is nothing more useful than your integrity and your reputation. There’s so much about relationships and reputation and people being able to trust you – there’s so many ways that figures into the work.”
In terms of what to focus on in law school, Hardy emphasized writing as a necessary skill. “It translates over all kinds of areas.” For Simpson, “How to do legal research was number one. Classwork didn’t contribute much to legal practice or legal career. Moot court taught me that I didn’t want to do litigation. By taking classes I was personally interested in after my first year, I was able to enjoy myself and get higher grades as well.” And for Feder, “getting ready to join the profession and learning the ethics of the profession” were important. “Especially as a public defender you’re on your feet all the time, and you have to roll with things that you can’t prepare for.”
For students who may be unhappy with their grades, these alumni had some advice. Simpson emphasizes that “Anybody at Berkeley Law will be able to get a good, fulfilling position. It’s much more important to understand what you’re interested in and follow that path, than to look only towards grades.” Figuring out your particular study habits is what Hardy recommends. “Study groups weren’t very helpful for me. It’s important to figure out if you need to study differently.” Feder’s advice was to look at the big picture. “Don’t sweat your grades. It matters for some people – clerkships, certain firms, but it’s a long career.”