2018 Grad With Highest GPA Shares His Secrets

Daniel Richardson Learned From, and Helped Along, Fellow Students
Daniel Richardson

“The most important thing for me was talking about the law with other people,” said Daniel Richardson ’18. Photo by Julia Davis

October 11, 2018

Daniel Richardson has earned the Faculty Award for Academic Excellence by graduating with the highest GPA in the Class of 2018.

“I had a rule that if I couldn’t explain something to someone else, I didn’t know it myself,” Richardson said.

The Leesburg, Virginia, native also had the highest GPA after five semesters, winning the Z Society Shannon Award at graduation, and after four semesters, winning the Jackson Walker LLP Award in 2017. In addition, he was awarded the Traynor Prize at graduation, which acknowledges written work by two graduating students each year.

He will be back at the Law School to offer his exam advice to current students on Tuesday as part of a program titled “Academic Success: Outlining Strategies and Techniques.” The talk begins at 3:45 p.m. in Room WB154.

Richardson served as the editor-in-chief of the Virginia Law Review during his third year at UVA Law. He was president of the Virginia Employment and Labor Law Association and vice chair for career and alumni engagement for Lambda Law Alliance during his second year.

Before law school, he graduated with a B.A. in political science and a B.S. in public management from James Madison University, and worked for the U.S. Judiciary and the Congressional Research Service.

Richardson recently answered some questions for UVA Law about his path to academic success, providing details about his study approach and his views about learning as a collaborative effort.

Congratulations on earning the top GPA among the Class of 2018. How does it feel?

Thank you! I feel tremendously lucky and grateful. There is no group of people I respect more than the folks I graduated with, so I know that some things had to break my way for it to work out the way it did. UVA Law gave me so many fantastic opportunities, but none was better than the chance to meet the other members of my class.

You obviously worked hard. To what, specifically, do you attribute your academic success?

The most important thing for me was talking about the law with other people. I had a rule that if I couldn’t explain something to someone else, I didn’t know it myself. Talking about issues makes you realize the gaps in your own understanding. It also gives you a chance to see how other people are pulling the pieces together. There are a lot of ways to grapple with law school material, and for me, it never hurt to see more perspectives.

It ultimately comes back to seeing your peers as your best resource. The professors at UVA are of course fantastic, but they don’t do it alone. Just as an example, one of my favorite courses in law school was Federal Courts. I took the class with former Dean John C. Jeffries Jr., who is probably the best lecturer I ever had. In an equally important sense though, I also took the class with folks like Anna, Clayton, Connor, Dascher and George, and I can’t imagine trying to figure out the material without them. You are surrounded by brilliant and kind people at the Law School, so it never made sense to me to treat it as a solo act.

Then again, there are lots of ways to thrive in law school, so that may not be for everyone. There is one thing that I had to learn early on that I do think is universal: Don’t be intimidated. It's normal to get to the Law School and immediately think that you are out of your league. The sooner you get past the conviction that Assistant Dean Cordel Faulk [the chief admissions officer] sent the letter by accident, the better off you will be.

Did you ever worry that taking on big tasks, such as serving as the editor-in-chief of the Virginia Law Review, would take away from your study time?

I tried to not think of the different commitments as a trade-off. I learned a lot from my experiences outside the classroom, and I think the time spent on the coursework and the other activities reinforced one another. I see it the same as finding the time to work out or do other things you enjoy. Studying for five hours at once might be less productive than three hours of study broken up by going for a run. It’s impossible to study all day, so if the time you spend away from the books is constructive and engaging, it can’t possibly hurt. I was just lucky to find experiences outside of the classroom that I found so rewarding.

What are some specific approaches you took that helped you perform well in your classes yet meet other demands? Do you have any advice for current students?

A really valuable exercise for me was to try to identify different connections between the doctrines and concepts. Material in a law school course necessarily goes one issue at a time. The professors do a really nice job explaining how the pieces fit together, but often the cases give you ideas in isolation. Most legal problems in the world (or exam questions for that matter) do not come in neat doctrinal boxes, and you never want your first time thinking through how two ideas relate to be when you see an exam. It is inevitable that law school exams will trip you up from time to time, but the more you see things as part of a coherent whole beforehand, the better.

With that in mind, I found it helpful to look for different ways to organize and group the material after finishing my outlines. For instance, I would structure the torts cases around some general ideas, like “rules vs. standards,” to make sure I knew an idea apart from its label in the casebook. This not only introduced me to new problems, but also functioned as a good way to review the full course.

As far as balancing class with other demands, I unfortunately don’t have much to offer that is unique. I tried to stay organized, start on assignments early, and communicate clearly with others about expectations and deadlines. Luckily, the whole Law School community is pretty good about respecting the exam prep period, so it works out well.

My only other piece of advice is to celebrate one another’s accomplishments. There will be times when law school feels overwhelming and causes a good deal of anxiety. But there are also wonderful moments when you get to see those you admire do amazing things. People you meet during orientation will soon enough be arguing cases in court, publishing papers, working with clients for their clinics, and getting offers to do incredible work after graduation. The best parts of law school are when you get to be alongside them when it happens. Those moments are worth prioritizing, even when there is plenty of work to be done.

Where are you working currently, and what are your future plans?

I currently have the good fortune of staying in Charlottesville to clerk for Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III ’72, who also went to UVA Law. It is a wonderful experience and I would strongly encourage students to consider clerking after graduation. I don’t expect there will be many jobs in my career that allow me to learn directly from someone with so much knowledge and dedication to the work, so I am enjoying it while it lasts. 

Things are a little open after that, but rest assured that I will try to use the law degree one way or another!

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