Why Academic Grades Matter for Training Contracts
While your vacation scheme and training contract application answers are incredibly important, the greatest determining factor of whether you are invited to an interview is your academic results.
It doesn't matter how flawless your application is if you are applying with a low 2:2 - almost all of the top law firms will immediately reject your application without even reading it (unless you have mitigating circumstances). These firms will receive thousands of applications each cycle and the only automatic filter they can use to reduce their review burden is filtering on grades. Some firms are even notorious for immediately rejecting candidates who have below a 65% average (e.g. Slaughter and May), while others expect to see no (or very few) 2:2 results. Other law firms (e.g. Davis Polk and Shearman & Sterling) place very heavy emphasis on contract law, and so are unlikely to consider your application unless you have achieved a high 2.1/1st class in this subject.
It is therefore of paramount importance that you maximise your chances of getting an interview by performing as well as you can academically. While a 69% and a 60% average still get you a 2.1, law firms ask for your percentage breakdown because they know there's a world of difference between students with these grades. The firm you train with is the only law firm that you will work for in your career which will ask for this breakdown up front. Once you have got your training contract, the distinction becomes irrelevant. By contrast, if you get a first, you will always stand out from candidates who have a 2.1.
Two of the Next City Lawyer founders received a low 2:1 in first year and graduated with first class law degrees. If we can do it then you certainly can too!
How to Succeed in Your Law Degree
Choose your modules carefully
The most important decision you make when it comes to succeeding in a law degree occurs before you attend your first lecture that year: your modules. Every university's law program has modules that are renowned for being hard, normal or easy. Some professors may also be known for marking papers far more harshly than others. If you're unsure about a module's reputation, you should ask students in their penultimate or final year for advice.
What you need to understand is that law firms do not really care about the modules you choose. Law firms look at (in order of importance):
- overall result for the year
- individual results in modules (i.e. to identify very high or very low grades)
- that you selected and performed well in “commercial” modules (e.g. company law, contracts, tort, etc).
The only reason they care about your modules is because if you have taken human rights related modules for three years straight it's hard to make a convincing case for why you want to become a commercial solicitor.
We completely understand why you may want to take difficult modules that interest you. If the sole point of your law degree is to learn interesting things then by all means go ahead. But if you want to get a first class degree and truly boost your training contract applications (and future financial earnings for life) then you need to be tactical. There is no way to sugarcoat it.
This doesn't mean you should only take easy courses you have no interest in, but do include them as part of the overall package. For example, one Russell Group university offers a notoriously easy Criminology course. One of the NCL co-founders scored an 82% in this module, which single-handedly brought his average up to a first class honours law degree. He would have been crazy not to take it!
Use lectures as a skeleton for your notes
Your lectures form a basic introduction to each topic. You don't necessarily need them to pass the course, but they're the best briefing you will get on the topic at hand and a useful clue to examination topics (more on this later!).
Your lecture notes should form the skeleton of your general revision notes. You'll be lucky to get a 2.1 if you rely on them alone, but they're a great foundation on which to build the sort of opinions that examiners love.
Read around the topic strategically
Once you have your lecture notes down, you should pad out your notes by reading the relevant chapter in the textbook. If you are given a choice of suggested textbooks, use the most advanced (e.g., Megarry and Wade for Property Law, rather than Dixon's Modern Land Law) but consider consulting multiple textbooks to extract the most relevant information.
When it comes to advanced readings during term time we would suggest you skip them, but be prepared to dive into this material when exams approach. Let's be honest: it doesn't really matter what the academics (or you) think on a technical legal issue. But in order to access the highest marks, you need to demonstrate that you have at least read around the topic and thought about it. The point of reading journals is that it enables you to strategically drop relevant quotes and arguments into your exam essays which demonstrate the breadth and depth of your knowledge, separating you as a first class student from upper second class law students.
Reading long form cases is usually a waste of time unless your tutor has directed you to a particular piece or interesting dicta. The textbook summary is usually sufficient: it will highlight key passages to quote in essays and enable you to understand the views of different judges. At most you need an abstract from Westlaw/LexisNexis. If you're interested in learning more for your own sake and have time then feel free to read entire cases, but if you want to get top marks while enjoying university there is really no need to spend that much time on each case.
Enhance your notes in tutorials
We recommend you work hard and complete the required reading prior to tutorials so you can engage with the material. Note that we are NOT saying you need to be debating everyone or arguing with the tutor! The key is to come, listen and improve your notes so you leave each session actually understanding the material better than when you arrived. First class grades aren't awarded based on who aces the tutorial; it's about what you can take from the tutorial into the exam hall.
There aren't many contact hours in law so it really is worth coming to each tutorial prepared (or nearly prepared!). Developing a good relationship with your tutors is also important because:
- you will need an academic reference when applying for vacation schemes and training contracts; and
- you can learn more from them in the lead up to exams (keep reading!).
Getting a first class result in the coursework element of your law degree is hard, but getting a 2:1 is pretty easy. We personally favour exams, but law students some students are coursework aficionados who know they perform best when they have time to muse over a topic at their leisure. There's a balance to be struck here - taking a few coursework modules will give you more revision time per module at exam time, but we think it's easier to consistently do well in exams - more students seem to misinterpret coursework questions than exam questions.
Treat your coursework like you would any essay:
- Form views upfront. Based on your understanding of a topic from lectures and tutorials, think about the question before you start reading. Do you understand it? Are you 100% sure you know what your examiner is getting at? If not, speak to other students or - if possible - your tutor for clarification.
- Research heavily. Read with the question at the forefront of your mind and read widely. The longer word count of coursework essays means that you need to go into more depth than in exam essays, so name dropping isn't sufficient here.
- Build a good skeleton to frame your thoughts. This will save you time down the line. Copy pithy passages into a quote bank and note the references down as you go
- Brainstorm ideas with your peers. It's not a zero sum game - if you're sharing strategies with clever people, you'll probably both do better than you would individually.
- First impressions count. Your tutors are human and susceptible to the ‘halo effect' - they place greater weight on the first half page of content than the second. You need your first and second paragraphs to be absolutely sensational - it sets the tone for how your examiner will perceive the rest of your essay as they're anchored to that initial view.
- Answer first - Your introduction needs to provide a clear roadmap for the essay. State your argument clearly from the outset. We like the “answer first” approach - acknowledge the controversy, clearly indicate what your viewpoint is and then go ahead and make your argument.
- Use clear language - Let's face it, you're probably not Ernest Hemingway. Ditch the flowery language that helped you stand out at school and focus on writing concisely and clearly. Clarity of thought follows clarity of expression - your examiner will appreciate seeing fewer words like “thus” in your essay. You can forget about “plethora” as well.
- Don't forget the fundamentals - there's no point reading widely unless the examiner knows about it. Weave in useful quotes to demonstrate the breadth and depth of your research.
- Think like a barrister who wants to make a case for a particular point of view. You should consider some counter-arguments to the points you are making. But don't just passively set them out: explain why they are wrong or irrelevant to the point you are making.
- Conclude authoritatively - think of a newspaper columnist trying to hammer home their key points and set their argument up as infallible.
- Cut superfluous words - If you have researched and written at a high standard you will usually be over the word count, so cut it down. This is hard to do but vital. If you're stuck, ask a friend to read it cold and pick out the weakest parts in exchange for doing the same with their essay.
- Proofread - Review your work to check for spelling errors or poor grammar by printing out your essay and reviewing by hand. This is a much better way than trying to catch errors on screen. It's the same thing most top lawyers do when reviewing documents.
And then submit!
If your course is taught by one person and he/she marks all the papers you should ask past students if they have any tips. For example, one NCL founder took a module where it was known that the professor loved left-wing interpretations and that he placed great importance on long bibliographies. We produced an essay to fit the mould and got a high first class mark.
This is in contrast to another essay one NCL founder wrote in which he wrote an impassioned defence of a principle he knew the examiner strongly disagreed with. This time he scored a low 2:1 and it nearly cost him his first class degree. Lesson learnt - examiners are human and like reading things they agree with!
How you use your time in the lead up to exams is what separates the good from the great. There are plenty of good note-takers and organised students that don't achieve firsts, and the occasional student who has spent his/her year so far partying can also pull off a first if he/she uses the 6 to 8 weeks prior to your exams properly.
Mindset for revision
Aspiring to get a first class degree is very different from getting a 2:1. Most universities tend to give firsts close to the grade boundary (e.g. 70-73%), which doesn't seem that different from a 67-69%. Unfortunately the difference is actually greater than how it may feel, and you need to be willing to make sacrifices during these final weeks if you're going to get a first. Your exams need to be your #1 priority and everything else you do (sleep, exercise, socialise) should only be done if there is an indirect benefit to your revision. So sleep enough that you're well rested for the day of revision ahead, but not so much that you're cutting into revision time; exercise enough to de-stress but not as prevarication from your core focus...and probably leave the socialising until after exams (the best part of the university term). This may sound extreme, but you can thank us after law school when you've nailed your degree and landed a training contract at your dream law firm or pupillage at a top chambers!
A key mindset point to understand is that you need to do things differently at exam time to other students. If your exam will have four questions on it and you did 10 tutorials then the conventional wisdom would be to revise for 7-8 answers in case what you prepared does not come up. This works fine if you're aiming for a 2:1 but doesn't suit if you're going for the top grades in your law degree. Instead we would recommend revising 5-6 topics but knowing them inside out with wider reading you can bring in to truly shine. Make no mistake, this is a high-risk, high-reward strategy - but one that we believe necessary as revising eight topics will stretch yourself too thinly. By going deep rather than broad in your law degree exam subjects, you can differentiate yourself from all other candidates. However, you need to understand how to select the right topics.
You will need to use tutorials and, more importantly, past papers strategically to identify likely exam topics. Try to get your hand on every single past paper available in the module (from your uni and even others). From your analysis of past papers, you should be able to identify a set of topics which are mostly likely to come up at exam time. If you have a long enough history of papers, you might even be able to spot patterns in how your tutors rotate papers.
To prepare for essay questions, there are usually only one or two areas of controversy in most legal topics that you study. You should be able to identify these from a combination of tutorials (i.e., areas of focus by the tutor) and past exam papers. Questions are often repeated year-to-year with slightly different wording. If you look at past papers for the maximum historical period available, this is apparent. You should focus your revision on these areas of controversy.
Problem questions are best prepared for by churning through past papers and checking your answers. You will begin to learn to issue-spot effectively and will be prepared for any question thrown your way. Here you should focus on pattern recognition, a solid structure to your answers and a grounded knowledge of the law. More than anything, you excel in problem questions through technique and a thorough understanding of the law.
Take advantage of any optional formative essays that your tutors offer in the run-up to exams. And when writing past papers (outside of the optional formatives where you want to test the polished article), practise writing your essays under timed conditions to get a flavour for the exam experience and the amount you will actually be able to write. This is challenging, but effective. If your tutor agrees to look at any essays, take careful note of their feedback and rewrite the essay based on their comments.
If your tutors are willing to meet with you this is a great opportunity to ask them questions about the syllabus that you are wrestling with. It's also an excellent way to try and get hints about what's on the exam paper. We were able to revise only 4 tutorials for 4 question exams a couple of times because we had good relationships with the tutors and so knew exactly what was going to come up on the exam. This is a huge advantage!
Students write much less in exams today than they did 10 years ago. Everyone sits in lectures tapping away at their laptops - they don't have to grapple with the challenge of keeping up with the cadence of the lecture when writing by hand. As a result, most students are slower writers than previous generations. We definitely endorse laptops for notes, but make a conscious switch to writing by hand in your third term when prepping for the exams so you can maximise what you're capable of writing in exams.
Stress is natural during this period. Try to avoid over-caffeination if you can and get on a consistent sleep schedule for the 4 weeks prior to the start of your exams. Exercise, meditation and sex (yes we just said that!) are all good things to incorporate as well.
Make sure to get enough sleep the night before each exam. Studies show that sleep is more beneficial than extra revision at that stage and you should take full advantage of your brain resting.
Writing the exam
On the morning of the exam make sure you stay hydrated but use the bathroom before the exam begins. You don't want to waste time getting up and going in the middle of the exam. Every minute matters.
Do not be the clown that gets up and hands in his/her paper with 30 minutes of time left in the exam. Instead, if you are finished early then review your answers, check your spelling and make sure your handwriting is legible. But if you're done early (especially finishing essay questions early) then you probably haven't written a first class answer.
And last but not least: GOOD LUCK!
You can learn more about how we can help you secure a training contract here.
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