In short, your academic record won’t be relevant forever. However, it will be considered important at the graduate/junior solicitor level and even at the intermediate level. Most employers will want to see your university academic record at the junior and intermediate levels. At the junior level in particular, it’s considered a strong indicator of future performance by employers.
We speak to clients in the legal industry every day and it’s a shame when two candidates with similar experience are put in front of a client and one doesn't get an interview because of their academics. While it might not seem fair, when you don't have a track record of working history it's an objective way of assessing your abilities. This becomes less relevant over time as the quality of the legal experience you've gained working becomes of greater importance.
You might say that your working abilities are a better reflection of how you will perform or that your grades suffered because you worked part time jobs at university. Likewise, you may have had a bit too much fun at university and put less focus or attention into your studies. While these are all reasonable explanations, and may factor in to a small degree, an employer will still put weighting on your academics as they don't know how you'd perform if hired and in a competitive market for junior level positions, it's what will separate some from others. It's not just the top tier/larger firms who want to consider your academics, smaller firms will too. The smaller firms may put less weight on them however because if you're working, for example, in the private client field then having strong interpersonal skills and soft skills could be treated equally as important.
Law is a career path that, generally speaking, requires academic grunt. Employers want to see that you have consistently been able to apply yourself at university to achieve good grades (whether juggling extracurricular activities or part time jobs, or not) and that you can draw logical, well-reasoned, conclusions based on hypothetical scenarios.
If you're fresh out of university, you may not have any (or little) relevant working experience so for employers the academics are the best predictor of future performance. Personality/fit are important also, but a good academic record is needed to enhance your chances of getting an interview. The personality/fit and how you interview then gets considered once you have that face time with an employer.
What are considered 'good' grades?
Generally, a B average or higher. Employers understand that not everyone does Honours but if you can show consistency and/or improvement in grades over time and a B grades in core law papers then you should have good options available to you.
What papers will employers be looking at?
Of particular interest to employers are grades you received in core law papers i.e. contract law, torts, public law, land law and equity.
Showing that your grades improved during your years at university is a good sign of your development and will help. If there are genuine reasons (for example, personal or health related reasons) then that can be explained when applying for a role in a cover letter or by letting your recruiter know.
What to do if you have a smorgasbord of C’s (or even a D) in your law grades?
You'll need to be creative and persistent in order to get your foot in the door with an employer. Perhaps approach smaller, suburban firms, closer to where you live to find a graduate position or try building up law clerking experience through work experience (whether casual, contract or part time work). You might even work in a legal administrative role to gain law firm experience. If you're still at law school, any experience in the legal sector gained while you're still at university will help when you graduate. It's also good to use any connections you have through peers in the industry or partners you might happen to know, to get a graduate position or assist an employer during a busy period.
If you'd like any advice on your career options, CV or legal opportunities in the market, contact Anand Ranchhod at firstname.lastname@example.org