How to overcome disappointing first year law school grades

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By Sophie Dillon on

Oxford law postgrad and Legal Cheek writer Sophie Dillon offers up her top tips

Picture this. It’s your first year at law school and you’ve just received the most disappointing grade sheet of your life. Years spent at the top of your school classes have left you pathetically unprepared for this early onslaught on your legal journey. “First year doesn’t count,” has been the holy mantra tailing your nights out all year, but dreams of that shiny first-class honour’s degree now seem dim and distant. The age-old qualm of the law student starts to rear its ugly head; imposter syndrome. “Am I good enough for this? Do I really belong here?” you think.

It can be a tricky situation to overcome, but it’s by no means impossible. As a law graduate who scraped through the first year of law school before going on to graduate with high first-class, I’ve created a compilation of my five top tips on how to do the same.

1. Do the reading

Yes, I know you’ve heard it a hundred times before. Attempting the reading list can feel like running on a treadmill. After your first two hours, you’re asking yourself – ”how on earth have I only read 30 pages?”. But, simply put: doing the reading is the best way to get your grades out of the dumpster and into that high rise glass building in the City that you’re hoping to work at after your law degree.

It helps to think of your reading list like a cake (stick with me here). The fluffy sponge of each topic comes from the lecture materials and the textbook reading. The icing comes from the “essential” reading. And the further reading is the cherry on top (the seminar reading, those couple of journal articles that are guaranteed to be the ‘hot topic’ in discussions). One must come before the other, but achieving those sugary sweet grades requires all three.

Secondly, when it comes to doing the reading, it’s important to know your reading style. Are you a fast skimmer? Are you a slow and careful absorber? Each is fine, but make sure you’re accounting for the time that this reading is going to take you. Bouncing back in second year is all about getting those reading lists under control and getting your time management tip-top.

2. Peel back the layers of your own opinion

As Shrek would say, “o[pi]nions have layers”. Like the humble onion, opinions are multi-faceted, and yet what may have originated as a knee-jerk or gut reaction may transform with enough work into a thoughtful and original critique in an essay. This can add that juicy sprinkle of “critical analysis” (that your lecturers are always banging on about) — guaranteed to get you past that 2:1 threshold.

But how can opinion transcend a simple judgement call and into the realms of critique? The answer goes back to the first point: reading. Getting to grips with other people’s opinions is the greatest gateway into figuring out your own. And, more importantly, in-depth reading can help you to figure out why you take that view. From the well-informed reasoning given by counsel on each case, to the critique of sharp-penned academics; the essential and further readings will give you those golden ideas to bounce off.

And don’t forget to take every opinion with a pinch of salt. Even if the eloquent prose of the Supreme Court judges can feel somewhat seductive, try to resist the simple copy and paste approach. Searching for the flaws in an argument — even one that you wholly agree with on its face — can be the key to ascending in your marks. It’s inevitable that in sifting through the reams of reasonable arguments on your essay topic, you’ll begin to peel back the layers of your own opinion.

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3. Essay technique

It’s no secret that school ill-prepares its future law students. There is a strong chance that if you’re a law student, you leaned into the essay subjects at school: history, philosophy, English, the list goes on. But – these essay subjects don’t really equip the first-year law student with techniques on how to properly write a university-level essay in law.

To successfully bounce back from first-year disappointments, law students need to throw away the school-leaver style essay. (The “argument then counter argument then discussion then conclusion” model.) A legal essay should focus on and argue ONE point of view.

This is an approach which seems quite alien coming from school – but one which the successful law student must master. Engaging in the opposing point of view should always be intentional. So, only bring in an opposing argument when you can safely smash through it with a sledgehammer.

In that vein, don’t be afraid of being persuasive. But, do be afraid of not getting to your point. Think of it like this: rather than taking your reader on a journey through the various arguments before a “big reveal” conclusion, instead try smacking your reader over the head repeatedly with your point.

Bouncing back in second year means hitting the nail on the head with essay technique. So, you may need to finally engage with those dreaded “essay writing” sessions (I’m sorry). Most law schools have great (if slightly boring) seminars or even writing centres to pop along to, which can really help with legal-style writing. Regardless, getting this technique firmly established is key in establishing your academic credentials.

4. Find your legal tribe

To quote a proverb; ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. It also takes a village to raise your grades at law school. So, do not underestimate the power of powerful peer group. A great legal tribe can help to steer you on the right course when it comes to managing your time (like being able to say no to those 5am afters the night before the essay is due!), and when it comes to achieving greatness in your writing. They can also prove to be an amazing sounding board for your essay arguments. And, really, the best way to know if you’re going to sound like an idiot in your essays is to run it past a group of law students first.


Finally, remember to get involved. Luckily for you, grades aren’t everything. Even though a perfect first-class can give you some headway on your peers, the book doesn’t stop at your academics. Becoming a successful (and employable) lawyer will require you to extend yourself outside of the curriculum. So, whilst trying to boost your second-year grades, try your hand outside of the law school. Get involved in law fairs, mooting, and legal societies. Give the new pro bono initiative at the law school a go or run for the social secretary of the law society. As well as being a great way to meet new people to add to your budding legal tribe, this is a sure way to curate an outstanding legal CV.

Sophie Dillon joined Legal Cheek as a writer and researcher in September 2023. She studied law at Newcastle University before completing a Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) at the University of Oxford.

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