To the OP: No, the bottom of the class does not necessarily reflect upon your intelligence or potential as a lawyer. There is more than one way to get a bad grade. In fact, there are several.
I've made a couple bad grades. I've typed up the two ways I know how to make a bad law school grade. Hopefully some 0Ls will see here what not to do.
Both ways to do poorly are obvious. Though obvious, both ways are somewhat common mistakes of 1Ls in the first semester.
You are forewarned.
1. Be a slacker. (Civil Procedure in my case). Below are the steps I followed to slack my way to a bad grade.
a. Don't learn the law very well and rely on your outline hard on test day.
b. Make sure your outline is shitty and not designed for test taking... preferably one you didn't make yourself, but downloaded from the internet. If you're outline is designed for test taking (flow charts, canned answers, etc.), it is more difficult to perform poorly, and you may even do well. So to do poorly, you don't want a good outline designed for test day. Also, do not make a table of contents for your shit outline, so that it takes you a long time to find what you need.
c. Do not take any practice tests at all, and if you do take them, don't take them using your shit outline.
If you follow these three easy steps, and you're not some kind of beast genius, rest assured you will get lower than a B because you will not have nearly enough time to find the relevant law in your shit outline and apply it on test day. If you're lucky like me, you might hit that B- or C+, instead of the dreaded C-. However, the risk of C- is high, so DO NOT FOLLOW THESE STEPS.
This path towards a poor grade is pretty obvious. But as an additional warning, realize that a law school slacker is different than a college slacker because the law school slacker at least has a general understanding of what's going on throughout the term. The law school slacker read and learned much of the material. However, he fails to learn enough material to compete on test day. Law school is filled with hardworking kids that are all gunning for the A. Understanding the material may not be enough, you should also learn it.
2. The second way I know how to make a bad grade (Torts) is to over-study and try to impress your teacher, while generally ignoring the task at hand on test day. The steps below will not apply for all teachers and tests. However, it is a good example of how to do poorly when your teacher wants a functional analysis and you give him a philosophy essay.
Here's the steps I followed. (Note: the most important step is to ignore the task at hand, found in steps C and D).
a. Learn all the law cold. Read all the cases and read the horn book. An outline will be irrelevant, because even though you'll make one, you won't need it during the test, because you'll know the law so well.
b. After you've learned the law well, make sure you learn the underlying policy for all the law and how different jurisdictions view such rationales. Understand how every area of this field of law is interconnected and largely based on the same basic foundation. When you find any contradictions, reflect on them thoroughly. Perhaps even write your own little notes and arguments for a purely intellectual purpose in your free time. At this point, you are on track for a very good grade. The crucial steps for your bad grade are next.
c. Come test day, when you read your long hypo(s), find all the issues you can. Begin your analysis. Be excited that you found endless issues to discuss. But do not focus on the big / most important issues. Go for quantity of issues found and not quality of discussion. Do not "advise the client" or whatever task your professor gives for the test. Forget the fact that your teacher grades with a checklist (or other kind of objective criteria). Instead try to impress him/her with your policy discussions and the amount that you studied. Proceed to d (most important.)
d. When you write your answers, do NOT spend much time applying the law to the facts. Instead, focus your discussion on the law. Do not use CREAC / IRAC. Instead, use something like IPRCP (issue, policy discussion, rule explanation, conclusion, more policy - see example). When your teacher wants a functional analysis, such as asking you to advice a hypothetical client like a real lawyer would do, the more original philosophical thought you write, the better for your poor grade.
Here's an example of my IPRCP. It's not exactly nor intentionally what I did, but just a general reflection of the terrible way I approached an issue spotter in a non-functional way; the opposite of what my teacher wanted.
When you see negligence, first discuss how and why the law of negligence developed why it will bring / does not bring an appropriate remedy at law for these facts. Then, discuss the rule for negligence, and argue some philosophical justifications for it. Next, make your conclusion for the facts of the hypo, but be very careful not to apply the BLL to the facts much...only do so very briefly. Basically, relate the facts much more to policy than to the rule. Do not explain how the conclusion follows from the facts via BLL. Finally, discuss different policy reasons for why and how the court should rule on the issue. Explain how different courts could go different ways, and your general opinion for the way the law should be compared to the way the law is, and why. And remember, generally, the more original philosophical thought you give, the better for your bad grade.
Undoubtedly, your answer will be much longer than your peers' answers, and you'll be very pleased with yourself right after your test. However, you will have failed at your task, and the grade will reflect the failure.
This is the worst way to make a bad grade, because you could have studied half as much and performed better if more focus were dedicated to the task at hand. Furthermore, more time could have been devoted to that other subject that you slacked in.... Civil Procedure (see above).
Moral of the story: Don't try to be fancy. Realize what your professor wants, and give it to him.