Success from the bottom: A new lawyer’s perspective

By Deborah Autrey

Often, we hear that only those with the top GPAs or top 10 percent finishes in law school get jobs that pay well and offer full benefits. This leaves those with GPAs that aren't so stellar with job prospects more than a little bleak. Or at least that’s what we’ve been led to believe. As a student who didn't graduate in the top 10 percent of her class, I want to let you know that being in the bottom 50 percent isn’t a career death sentence if you know how to stop sulking about the past and get creative. 

I graduated at the bottom of my class, and the closest I ever got to a valedictorian speech was sitting in the front row at graduation. Like many others, I fell prey to an awful first year. It wasn’t until my second year of law school that I finally figured out how to take a test. But by that point, my first year GPA dragged me down no matter how many times I made the dean’s list. 

I applied for every on-campus interview with the big corporations and law firms and never once got a call back for an interview. It was around this point that I realized I was never going to make it on my GPA alone. No one was even taking the time to look at my resume. Once they saw the GPA at the top of my resume, that was it. I knew that if I wanted to get my dream job, I needed to do something different.

Creativity isn’t just for art students

I was never going to beat out any of my classmates for jobs if all anyone ever knew about me was my GPA. I knew if I could just get in front of a hiring manager, they would recognize how smart I was and give me a fair shot. So what’s the best way to get in front of your hiring manager before everyone else? Internships and externships. I applied to every externship I possibly could in the areas that interested me. Landing an externship interview was a lot easier than landing a work interview. Internship and externship interviewers are generally more understanding and looking for a personality fit rather than someone who is at the top of their class. 

Eventually, I landed an externship at a leading Fortune 500 company during the year, and I made sure to go above and beyond what was asked of me. Working hard puts your name out there to anyone and everyone you come into contact with. When someone needs a job done, they will know they can rely on you to do it. I had finally given myself a leg up over my top-tier classmates. When openings became available, I was the first person in the interviewer’s mind before the top 10 percent of my classmates’ resumes even hit the desk. But hard work isn’t enough to get you a job every time—you also have to network.

Network smarter, not harder 

Networking is a great thing, but it’s meaningless if done incorrectly. You could meet one time with 50 people without advancing your career. Meeting three times with five people, however, can do amazing things. 

Start by remembering that there are two different types of networking meetings: those in which you want to establish a connection (someone who will sponsor you or sing your praises when you apply for a job), and those in which you want to get an upper hand with the hiring manager. Narrow down your specific interests and work on meeting people in those areas alone. 

For the networking meetings that you want to gain a sponsor, the most important question that you need in your repertoire is the one that gets people talking about themselves. People love to talk about themselves because it’s the subject they know the most about. The key thing to remember for these types of meetings is not to suck every piece of information out of a person to use to your advantage. The important part for these meetings is to establish a connection, so when they walk away from the coffee table or office couch, they think about the pleasant conversation that they had with a young attorney. 

Watch, listen, and reuse

Networking with hiring managers will probably be easier than finding a sponsor. Watch which areas seem to be expanding at a faster rate than others and thus might need more headcount. Listen to the people around you. You’ll be surprised how much people are willing to tell you if you just listen. Listen to who’s unhappy in their job, or who might be ready to take on bigger challenges and responsibilities. Once you’ve got this figured out, find out who the hiring manager is for the job you’re interested in. One of the greatest opportunities of an externship or internship is that you get first-hand contact with those who probably will make all the hiring decisions. Use that to your advantage. Sit down with the hiring manager and ask them about the position you’re interested in. Take notes. When you’re applying for the job, you can talk about the key qualities highlighted by the hiring manager in your resume and interviews.


Seal the deal

For those whose grades are not the best, you must make it impossible for your interviewer not to hire you. This requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work in your internships and externships to make sure you’re getting that first interview. Work hard and network, but most importantly prove your worth. At this point, you should be rubbing elbows with your future team.

In that interview, drown them in all of your good qualities, so they don’t even remember your GPA. Remind them of all the hard work you’ve done for the company already. Let them know you’re more familiar with the business than any other applicant. Even if the job does not require it, always come prepared with references from your sponsors. Don’t ever force the interviewing panel to take your word for anything when you can provide them with proof. 

If you feel your GPA is insurmountable, travel back in time to your Trial Advocacy course on direct examination and remember to remove the sting. Bring it up first in the interview so that you can direct the narrative. Let the interview panel know what went wrong and how you sought to correct it. Show them that you learn from your mistakes.


My externship eventually led me to the job I currently have today working for the same company. Even in my corporate role, I still try to make sure I’m developing transferable skills with my future career in mind. No matter what role you take on, make sure you develop skills that will be easily marketable to future interviewers.

I know how easy it is to lose confidence in yourself when you don’t perform as well as you thought you would in law school. No one goes into law school with the goal of being in the bottom 10 percent at graduation. Your below-average GPA just means that you don’t have the luxury of submitting a resume and hoping everything works out. You’ve got to be creative, work hard,  and network—and, most importantly, know you have options. 

DEBORAH AUTREY served in a corporate capacity for Walmart, Inc. in the Regulatory Compliance Division. She has recently transitioned back to Minnesota to pursue a career in health care, civil, and contract litigation. Deborah can be contacted for questions at deborahrautrey@gmail.com or at 501-545-0956.