One critical tidbit law schools fail to tell incoming students is that, as a practical matter, the trajectory of one’s legal career is decided based on one’s grades in the very first semester of law school. That may sound like an exaggeration, but it is absolutely true.

One critical tidbit law schools fail to tell incoming students is that, as a practical matter, the trajectory of one’s legal career is decided based on one’s grades in the very first semester of law school.

How can that be? It’s all about how the post-graduation job game is set up (and rigged). As you may have noticed, I seem to make the wrong decisions at crucial forks in the road of life, and this was one where I didn’t even know I was choosing one path over another.

Landing a good first year summer position is crucial to the second year summer job, which virtually dictates post-graduation employment.

That first year summer job is decided based on only fall grades. Why? Because interviews take place during the spring semester and spring grades usually come out in late June or early July—long after the summer positions are underway.

Additionally, large firms and many agencies will only look at resumes from students in the top 10 or fifteen percent of their class. In the viciously competitive law school environment any first-semester time spent doing anything that detracts from one’s GPA and class rank will take a real toll on one’s career and earning potential—likely for decades, if not a lifetime.

First-year associates at large, prestigious firms (aka “Big Law”) come from almost only one source: the class of summer associates they had the year before.

Perhaps not every summer associate will be made an offer, but most are, and to land a BigLaw associate position without coming through the summer associate path is rare. Think high-level connections pulling strings to bump someone else out of a slot (i.e., nepotism).

The other routes to BigLaw are to be in the top 10 percent of your class at a top 10 law school and clerk for a high-level federal judge, or work for a federal agency for a few years and then make a lateral move to BigLaw. Smaller, and I’d say qualitatively better, boutique firms do not follow the same rigid process. However, if BigLaw is your dream, then you have to play their game.

If I’d spent my first year summer at the federal financial regulator internship I landed, then my second year summer with a fancy-schmancy firm, I might be a partner at some BigLaw firm right now. But instead I deferred my first summer internship to the fall and traveled instead.

Then I interned for a high-level federal judge my second summer. That was prestigious and valuable experience, but cut me out of the summer associate process to enter a large firm. Fellow students interning in firms were paid, sometimes at a monthly rate equivalent to a new associate ($6,000 to $10,000 a month), but my government internships were unpaid.

I didn’t realize at the time my experience was cultivating me for a government or non-profit role, and would cost me dearly for years to come.

What sort of cost? Easily over $100,000 in lower income the first few years of my career, but because getting back on a lucrative path in law is exceedingly difficult, it actually adds up to at least $100,000 to $500,000 in lower annual income for the remainder of my career.

Not going to BigLaw “pays” in other ways, such as lower stress, far more free time, and the ability to have meaningful relationships and hobbies in life rather than working six days a week, often for 12-16 hours days. Work-life balance has a definite value, though I think we each value it in different ways.

But looking purely at income potential, making the wrong turn at a seemingly inconsequential point of one’s schooling or career can add up to millions in lost income opportunity.

I finished law school and was among the lucky graduates to have a job already lined up before graduation. My particular experience and coursework opened the door to a position with a federal banking regulator at its headquarters in Washington, DC. But I had six-figure student debt and would make half the salary of a beginning BigLaw associate—$56,000 rather than $100,000+. Nonetheless, at the time it seemed the right thing to do, the only path before me, so off to Washington I went.