I remember the year our firm offered jobs to two students. The first was about the smartest young student I had ever met in my life. He was a straight A student. I don’t think he ever got a B in anything in his life. I was a little concerned about him because he was so smart he rarely attended class. He didn’t stay with us very long and it is difficult for me to picture him or remember his name today.

The second student was a young man who grew up poor, worked very hard to even get into law school and mostly got Bs. He never missed a class and was like a sponge trying to learn more each day. He stayed with us and worked as hard as a lawyer as he had as a student. I still remember Tyler, and he still asks me questions.

I thought of these two law students recently when I spoke to 4th graders on career day at the school where my daughter teaches. The parents of the kids in the school do not have much. They work hard and struggle when things don’t go exactly as planned. Many of their kids are like the sponge, anxious to learn every day. In one of the classes I noticed two young girls sitting there taking notes on everything I was telling them.

Several years ago, Seth Godin posted a blog On Self Determination. He makes two interesting points. The second of his two points reminded me of the two law students I hired so many years ago. He talks about the A students who took mainstream courses and did the minimum amount of work they needed to do to get an A. They learn for the test.

Those students who didn’t need to work for their A’s are joining law firms every day and they are a challenge to supervise. Why you ask? Put simply, they do not see things that are not immediately obvious. They don’t dig deeper than the exact assignment. They mess up and do not even understand how they messed up. They also do not take criticism very well. After all, they have been told their entire life how smart they are.

Give me the student who should have gotten C’s but worked so hard she got B’s. She has the emotional intelligence it takes to be successful and she will see things her all A’s classmate misses.

  • Ruth Ann Hepler


  • DJFelix

    This article reminds me of the Incompetence demotivator:
    If you earnestly believe you can compensate for a lack of skill by doubling your efforts, there is no end to what you can not do.
    Your article reeks of classicism and faux guilt. You think that the rich kids have it so easy growing up rich and smart, and that the poor kids without cash or brains have it so much harder. The bleeding heart liberals in your local Democratic action committee may agree with you, but the majority of Americans will see through this kind of politically correct guilt pandering.

  • Cordell Parvin

    I fear you missed my point. I was not saying poor kids who are not very talented are more appropriate to hire than rich kids who are talented. I know many incredibly successful people who grew up rich and grew up smart. They actually went to class to learn rather than missing class. They work hard to continue learning after they are successful. My point is it takes more than being in the to 10% of your class to be successful as a lawyer.It also takes emotional intelligence.

  • Alison Rowe

    DJFelix–I believe you missed the point. I believe the point is that it’s better to be a hard worker who steps up to challenges than someone who “plays it safe” by taking on easy tasks so they can ensure success. If you believe Cordell Parvin is a “bleeding heart liberal,” you cannot have ever met the man!

  • Liz

    I was an “A” student who didn’t have to work very hard through high school and college. It wasn’t quite as easy in law school, but I didn’t struggle. When I started working as a law clerk in the firm I eventually was hired as an attorney in, I found myself making mistakes similar to the ones you described–not digging deeper than the exact assignment. Thankfully I was not too proud to realize that I needed/wanted to do better. I have since changed the way I think and approach an issue and have become a better attorney for it.

  • Christina

    DJFelix–I think you may have misinterpreted this post. At my BIGLAW firm, I have repeatedly seen cases where attorneys from lower-ranked schools have ended up being better lawyers, in part, I think, because they are used to (1) dealing with criticism and (2)working hard–both requirements for life in BIGLAW. On the other hand, many of my smartest peers from my top-3 Ivy undergrad and top-5 law school–those who were so smart they never had to study or go to class–have already left BIGLAW. The fact is that BIGLAW is a really tough environment, and those who have had to work harder in life are more used to dealing with tough environments. This, however, does not mean you should hire UNQUALIFIED people. It all goes back to the concept of book smarts and street smarts–book smarts are NOT enough to make it in BIGLAW.

  • Lene’

    Christina – Thank you for your comment. As a recent graduate of a 3rd tier law school, I can attest to your comment that you deal with much criticism. As a B student, the criticism only gets worse. I attended law school while balancing a family, participating in numerous oral advocacy teams, working, and continuing to volunteer for several organizations in the community. Unfortunately, you hear very little about how those things are valubable to a firm. It is refreshing to receive a different and inspiring viewpoint from experienced attorneys such as yourself and Cordell. For that, thank you.