Maybe it’s simply a sign of the times, but it feels like with each day we gravitate closer toward becoming a world of measurables. Potential seems to be determined only by numerical figures and evaluating tangible things that are capable of being quantified. For instance, instead of looking at a football player who excelled at the collegiate level, the NFL now puts enormous stock into their draft combine performance which involves speed, strength and agility drills that are supposedly indicative of the player’s ability at the next level.
With that being said, as a law student, I can’t help but feel like many employers put too much of an emphasis on a student’s GPA. While grades are certainly important and their significance should not be diminished, they rarely tell the entire story. There are several qualities beyond one’s academic rank that can enable their path to success to be illuminated and sadly, many of these things cannot be categorized or computed. How do you calculate someone’s work ethic, people skills or enthusiasm? I’ve always felt these qualities are major contributing factors in succeeding, but it seems to me that many deserving students or job applicants are summarily dismissed because of employers’ maniacal obsession with maintaining a misplaced sense of prestige through the use of a GPA cutoff.
Generally speaking, a great GPA in law school is correlated with a great work ethic, but the same does not necessarily hold true for someone with a decent or moderate GPA. There are many students who work tirelessly to perform well but their work ethic is not reflected by their grades. Hypothetically speaking, if someone interviews at a firm that specializes in personal injury claims and they got an A in Torts and an A in Products Liability, why should they be penalized for underachieving in the other classes that may not be as pertinent to this person’s future career? Admittedly, not all students with modest GPAs have a great work ethic but sometimes, it’s not a problem of work ethic but incentive. Accumulating academic awards do not motivate them; making money motivates them. Some students simply are not inspired by academic theory, and although admittedly anecdotal, the majority of successful people I have encountered have mastered their craft on the job, not in the classroom.
Many students with average GPAs have the type of incalculable personality traits that can enable them to succeed down the road. One such characteristic of these students is people skills. In the legal profession, you are usually dealing with clients on a daily basis and many times, they can be demanding. Unless you plan on clerking for a judge for the duration of your career, you will have to interact with a broad range of people and be able to break down complex information in a way that a person unacquainted with legalese will understand. Some of the best professors I’ve had were not Ivy Leaguers with immaculate GPAs, but instead were reasonably intelligent people who could disseminate confusing material in a way that made sense to the rest of us. You can be a scholar, but if you lack the ability to explain things to your client in a way in which he or she can relate, your legal intellect has effectively been rendered useless.
Another great work-related quality that is impossible to measure is enthusiasm. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” and what could be more attractive to an employer than someone who genuinely wants to be there every day and fully commit to the task at hand? A reasonable argument can be made that the man of average intellect with remarkable enthusiasm can accomplish just as much as the complacent savant.
Since things like work ethic, people skills and enthusiasm can’t be valued with any type of numeric system, they are usually not given as much credence as something concrete and universally understood like a GPA. Many potentially great applicants never get a chance to get their foot in the door because of an arbitrary system that neglects to entertain the idea that someone can overcome modest grades and utilize their own unique repertoire of skills to be successful. I can only hope that one day, employers give more credence to the intangibles that distinguish us all and realize that not every successful person travels the same path.
Thomas Cribbin is a student at the Roger Williams University Law School.