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December 5, 2008

Eager for student thoughts (or venting) about law school grading systems

We spent a little time during our casual moments talking about law school grading realities.  And, with finals coming soon, I suspect grades and grading systems may be especially on your mind this time of year. 

Of course, as fall semester 1Ls, you do not yet know how law school grading realities are directly likely to impact you because you've not yet even gotten a first set of grades.  But the very fact that you've not personally and directly experienced the Moritz grading system is why I would be grateful for some opining in the comments here about law school grading and curves and nerves and whatever other grading-related thoughts (or kvetching) you would like to share.

In addition to wanting our class members to talk about grading issues and concerns, I encourage everyone to share this link with other Moritz students and/or students at other law school.  Though lots of people worrying and talking about law school grades (including faculty members), I am often disappointed that few spend much time worrying and talking about how law school grading systems can be improved.

For some useful background reading and for another setting to share thoughts, check out this new post at the Law School Innovation blog.  You will see over there my own (crazy?) ideas for how I might create a law school grading system from scratch.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts and kvetches!

December 5, 2008 in Reading about law and law school | Permalink


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This is a topic that quite a few of us were discussing the other day in the lounge, and among the various issues with grading discussed was Moritz seemingly being behind in keeping up in grade inflation. I am not positive that is true, but the fact that grades are inflated to me is confusing and contradictory in a sense.

I remember orientation not so long ago where we all received mix messages as to how law school would be. One speaker would get up and preach "work hard, its a competitive grind, which you all won't make it through." Then the next speaker would get up and say, "Law school's not so bad, we don't want you to flunk out, and probably none of you will so just relax."

It seems like grade inflation seems just about as contradictory as those two above statements once you put thought into it. We only need grade inflation because the system is competitive. If it was the typical system we all experienced in undergrad I at least, don't think this would be a problem. Instead, we are told to not get a "C" you can't be in the bottom 20% (or whatever it is) and to get an "A" you have to be in the top 20%. Certainly this seems fine, because law school is what it is, a fleshing out of the best.

But then, apparently we have a system that is too competitive, or more appropriate a system that does not allow enough people to succeed (assuming success is defined by getting "A's"). What the school decides to do then is change the percentages of people who can get A's. My understanding could be wrong but it seems like grade inflation de-values a grade of "A." For example intuitively it seems that someone could get straight A's but still not be in the top 20% of their class. So although we have more people getting A's, that doesn't allow more people to be in the top 10% of the class, which when it comes down to it is whats important.

So why have grade inflation? Your employer as we have been told looks at your class ranking, so yes it will be great to go home and say "mom, dad I got straight A's" but then you face the reality of you're still not in the upper percentiles of your class. Basically my conclusion is that grade inflation just makes it seem like more people are doing better, when it actuality it really changes nothing.

I realize that argument is not well fleshed out, but the basic point is that grade inflation only makes it possible for more people to get A's it doesn't make it possible for more people to be in the top 10%, so really what has changed? The only thing that has changed is some of us have a false sense of security because we got an "A", but unless its a high A who cares. We could allow everyone in the class to get "A's" so then even the bottom 10% could say they got straight A's in law school, but it wouldn't change the bottom line, which is where you are ranked in your class.

I don't see the benefit of grade inflation.

I also know that University at Buffalo school of Law (whose football team just crushed the undefeated ball state in a huge upset) is your typical grading system. They still have class rankings, but there is no limit to how many people can be in the upper percentiles of their class, because technically they could all get 100's on their exams. It still maintains an element of competitiveness and at least seems like a less stressful system. And I am sure that there would be the people who would take advantage of the system and those who didn't. I would also bet that the same people who made up the top ten % at a competitive school would be the same who made it up at a non-competitive school.

Posted by: Craig R. | Dec 6, 2008 11:40:22 AM

This is something I've given way more thought to than someone should ever do, but in the end, I'm really split on the issue because I see valid arguments on both sides of the line.

On the one hand, grades in and of themselves are extremely subjective, especially when measured up against other schools. How can you compare someone who ranks in the top 10% from Harvard with someone who ranks in the top 10% at Akron (not to discredit Akron, but the point is hopefully well taken). It's like comparing apples and oranges. Or maybe it just seems that way (at least I hope or else I'd have gone to Akron as opposed to OSU) and as a law school culture we've just accepted the fact that those who attend Harvard are brighter, smarter, and more suited to be lawyers than those who attend Akron, in large part based on the fact they scored better on a multiple choice test which rewards heavily those who can speed read (the LSAT). In my opinion this is just absolutely ridiculous. Why is the last ranking person at Harvard more qualified than someone who finishes "around the middle 50%" at any other school? Maybe that person really is an idiot and finished in the bottom of their class for a reason (if we are to take so literally the notion that grades are the end all determining factor in who is more likely to land "the job" and be successful).

So, that's my first take on grades. They are an obscurely measured, terrible predictor of how someone will fare as an attorney (or whatever they do with a law degree).

In the same light, how do you get graded in the real world? "Oh, great case, really sound, strong arguments. Even though you lost, you did an awesome job and turned in at least a B+ performance." Again, absolutely absurd. You either win or you lose. Your boss likes the work you do or dislikes it. There is hardly any room for a middle ground. However, on the other hand, I suppose firms need a way to gauge which students are more likely to consistently do a good job, but even then grades are a horrible measure. If performing well on a few 3-4 hour exams better qualifies me (or at least gets my foot in the door) for a job than someone who has participated and critically engaged the material, that's very sad. Unfortunately, that's what it seems like at least, but only time can tell.

Maybe I'm over cynical, maybe I hit the nail on the head, but in the end, what good are grades anyways? Nobody cares about our high school grades anymore, our college marks will soon but a distant afterthought, and in about 5-10 years after we graduate from Moritz, our grades will be of little, if any importance. I think what's more important is engaging the material to gain as full an understanding of it as you can, whether or not you score well on exams. In the end, those who can do that will (I hope for my sake) be better suited in the long run. Lord knows my ambition in life isn't and never was to finish at the top of my law school class (unless it came with an up-front million dollar bonus from the school). I'm sure all of us have larger, fuller goals to chase down than that and plenty of employers hire from outside the top 25%. The way I like to think of it is, 75% of those with law degrees didn't finish in the top 25% of their respective class, and I'm sure there is much enjoyed success among those in the lower 75%.

On a side note, in some ways I feel a lot like a college football athlete (minus the money under the table and 95% off discounts at JCPenny's) who is being graded/measured for the NFL draft. Those who go to OSU, USC, and any other football powerhouse have a better chance of receiving a job than those who attend mid-majors, than those you attend even smaller schools. In some ways it's fair, in other ways it's not, but NFL teams need some way to measure future success, flawed or not. Much the same, law firms and future employers need some way to measure our future success and I guess the arbitrary indicator of grades is the best law school's can offer.

Posted by: Chad R. | Dec 6, 2008 1:12:00 PM

I was looking over my torts notes on custom usage applied to the reasonable man standard thought it might be applicable to law school grade inflation. Custom usage may be used as evidence to get to the reasonable man standard only of a jury finds a particular custom to be reasonable, or something along that circular line.

So with grading we have a law school / industry custom of grade inflation. I guess we should ask the jury if this custom is reasonable. So who is the jury? Our future employers? Take a look at the following article from the ABA titled "School Rank and GPA aren't the Best Predictors of BigLaw success": http://www.abajournal.com/news/school_rank_and_gpa_arent_the_best_predictors_of_biglaw_success/

This article is also noted on a student run blog, "The Shark" here: http://theshark.typepad.com/weblog/2008/10/biglaw-success-more-dependent-on-social-skills-than-rank-and-gpa-says-aba.html

But our jury is not success in a big firm, rather it is getting hired at a big firm (or wherever you want to get a job). Maybe we should ask potential employers how they feel about grade inflation / class rank to determine if this industry custom is reasonable.

Sorry that I do not have the skill to make links rather than pasting URLs.

props to Buffalo and roll tide.

Posted by: bill | Dec 6, 2008 2:19:04 PM

Craig, the way you wrote it makes it look like Buffalo's law school has a football team that beat Ball St.--if they did, that would be awesome....Chad, you're right on brother. Our grades now, just like the past ones you mentioned, will all fade away and all that will be left are our skills as a lawyer and as a person in general (as elementary as this sounds, I know quite a few people that don't have basic skills in just 'being a human being'...not necessarily here at Moritz, but just people I know). The tough part is that we all want to do so well to 'get our foot in the door' to start out, but I'm a firm believer in what you said--our goal should genuinely be to understand and yes, maybe even enjoy, the material we are paying a lot of money to study, and the grades and assessments of ourselves will take care of themselves. Yea, the odds are that we won't be in the top 'whatever' % we're talking about because by definition, only a small minority of students achieve that status, but obviously the field of law isn't solely filled with people who graduated in the top 10% of their class.
... I know college football players get a lot of perks, but 95% off at JC Penney might be the best one I've heard of yet (isn't that from the Peter Warrick days at FSU?)

Posted by: Josh | Dec 6, 2008 2:38:29 PM

Josh, UB's law school does not field a D1 football program but the University as a whole, so my mistake there, haha. It would be cool if there school of about 600 did beat ball state however. We can dream.

Chad, I think your points are well taken that grades as an indicator might not be the most useful tool for success. I struggle with what would be the best indicator then. Any ideas?

My own suggestion would be to have practical examinations. In essence, allow the students to actual perform tasks modeled after the real world. The easiest example to point to is Moot Court. I am not sure how litigation class works, but how cool would it be instead of having 1L exams, to have at the end of your second year a couple of cases to argue, one that is criminal the other civil. You could then be graded as a final on the Civil procedure aspect or criminal procedure aspect that would occur before the case is argued and during it. You would be graded on the arguments put forth in the case which would reflect your knowledge of criminal law, tort law, property law etc.. whatever they case may be about.

And as crafty as our teachers are im sure they could develop a case that has elements of everything that could truly test our knowledge and allow us to litigate openly.

There is obvious issues with that notion, but I imagine law school finals would be way better if it was more of a Practical, then a "lock you in a room for 4 hrs and write write write!!!" And I still think i could make a solid 8th amendment argument against that...

Posted by: Craig R. | Dec 6, 2008 3:02:42 PM

I think what is frustrating about law school grades is that, in the end, it could be only a small amount of points that separates a C and an A. If everyone does well on an exam, or everyone does poorly, then professors would have to really work to find a measurable difference to base grades on. There is a huge difference between an A and a C or a B and a C on a transcript, but the difference in the quality of work might be negligible. I am aware that the legal profession is competitive. I am also aware that most of the people in the school would do what it takes to get an A if they were only competing with themselves because we are type As and good students. However, I don't think arbitrary percentages are really fair when performance is close.

Posted by: Philip | Dec 7, 2008 1:56:27 PM

As a person who is not inherently competitive and enjoys autonomy over her destiny, I have found myself in one of the most forced, competitive atmospheres around. I am not complaining; I brought myself here. However, the idea that, as has been hinted at in above posts, especially by Phil, I can work as hard as I can and perform incredibly well on the exam, but not get rewarded for that with an "A" (and as a result, with the best job ever), is counter intuitive to me. This is most likely a result of my aversion to competition, but the fact that everyone in our section could do A-worthy work, but not all receive the proper recognition as a result leaves me feeling disgruntled and frustrated.

We live in a society, only amplified in the legal profession, where such emphasis is put on the A. I'm not suggesting that this can be changed (or maybe even that it should be) nor do I have an alternative that actually allows students to get recognized for good performance, but the hypothetical world where everyone in the section does excellent, A-worthy work leaves me with nothing but disgust for the system in which we find ourselves.

I also agree with Craig on his analysis of actually allowing the students to perform with what we have learned thus far. I believe that on paper, those who will do better in the actual legal profession, will not necessarily be able to portray that as well as they can when actually interacting with others, presenting oral arguments, etc. However, those who can write incredibly well in a timed situation may not be able develop the important, required relationships and present themselves in a socially-appealing manner. This is another flaw in the system.

Though perhaps the opposite of what one would assume with this system, my aversion to this system leaves me with a more indifferent, nonchalant attitude toward exams because I know that no matter what I do, I ultimately have no control over the grade I get. I could study like nobody's business and do incredibly well and still receive (not earn - there is a difference in my mind) a C or do the bare minimum to survive and still receive an A. It's out of my hands and that's what bothers me the most.

Posted by: Ann L. | Dec 8, 2008 2:29:21 PM

I think the best thing to compare the grading system in law school to, is the parking system at Moritz...A little bit random, a little bit lucky, and insanely frustrating when you realize that no matter how early you get there (i.e. how hard you work/study), you still aren't guaranteed that "A" spot.

Good luck on finals everyone!

Posted by: Molly | Dec 8, 2008 5:00:44 PM

As an undergraduate in economics all of our classes were graded on a curve. The deal I made with myself is that I will do my best and let the chips fall where they may. I understand there will be people smarter and able to type faster than me in this world so what are you gonna do? I could howl at the moon about the injustice of a system, but isn't this really how life is after all? If I cannot deal with it know am I gonna jump off a bridge when someone is promoted over me in a few years?
Do not get me wrong, I am a very competitive person and do not like to lose but I have made peace with it and it saves me a lot of time and energy.

Posted by: Joel Lund | Dec 9, 2008 11:38:06 AM

Hey everyone:

In the name of fair play and substantial justice, I have a hypothetical for all of you:

After stopping into the treehouse and telling Rod and Todd flanders about his experience in seeing god, A very high Ryan goes looking for his shitload of mushrooms, and comes across Faulkner, who tells him they are on board a ship in the harbor. On his way, he stops by a warehouse, which contains Dillards illicit booze manufacturing facility. He lights a match to see better and burns the mother down. fred, who was fired from his job at the quarry and now works as a firefighter, is killed in the blaze. Barney, distraught from the loss of his friend, comes home to find Joesphine sleepy, yako from Israel and tim tebow in a ménage a trios of absurdity. Afriad of tim tebow’s superman-like abilities, Barney, armed with his prehistoric shotgun, aims and shoots at him. He misses, but josephine falls asleep. Thinking she is dead, Yakko in a rage wrestles the gun away from barney, and pulls the trigger, only to find that prehistoric shotguns only carry one bullet. In a panic, barney runs out of the house, wearing his typical gear, which makes him look very deer-like. Joe shooter, seeing him running, guns him down with a perfect shot to the heart (and whose to blame?). Meanwhile, Josephine has woken up, and seeing yako with a gun, she vaults herself off a nearby parking meter and kicks him in the face. Yako falls out of the window and into the backyard where there is a party taking place. He hits poor little baby joesephine, and she falls into the pool. Her deadbeat father is too busy making out with the babysitter. Ms bray zen seeing her chance to finally possess a firearm, picks up the prehistoric shotgun and runs out of the party. On the steps is John Stenneth demanding that she gamble with him and threatening her with a knife. She aims at him and he runs away. Meanwhile a bunch of teenagers start heckling her from their passing car. Not ready to give up on shooting someone yet, she pulls the trigger and hits one of the pretty teenaged girls. She decieds to flee and runs to her car. As she is driving, it starts to rain, and knowing the danger that that would put her in she stops at an apartment complex. She walks up and finds the door to one place left open, and finds wetmore wandering around in clothes that are not his. Before she can object, an explosion rocks the area Joe Isuzu has just destroyed the factory across the street with a homemade explosive made by joe mcangry and left by him after he decided to stop his master plan after step #14. In the ensuing chaos, Ewing steals a golf club from a store near the blast, and stops at a driving range. He hits a ball, which slices badly and goes through a window, striking the oil lamp in Ms. Watsons hand, and lighting her on fire. Officer Lunning arrives immediately and yells “do you want me to blow your M_ _ _ _ _ F_ _ _ _ _ _ _ head off?” Thinking he’s toast for (to him) the spontaneous combustion of his wife, Watson wrestles Lunning to the ground, and shoots him with his own gun. Knowing that he must escape, he runs to the harbor and he signs up to be on board a yacht bound for Australia. A storm hits, and after 21 days, he, Dudley and (Senator Ted) Stevens decide to kill the cabin boy and drink his blood for sustenance.

Watson comes to you and asks:
How many types of murder are there in the Model Penal Code?

Where's Bill when you need him...

Posted by: Andrew M | Dec 9, 2008 3:42:36 PM

I feel like grade inflation is only a problem if employers did not have access to, or didn't care about, class rankings. I suppose it would be a problem in any situation where we'd be judged by our GPAs later in life (continued grad school perhaps? careers in academia?)

Assuming grade inflation IS a problem, I think the approach we take toward solving this problem is still off the mark. I've been told (perhaps inaccurately) that the students in the 1L class are distributed into sections based on a review of their individual performance predictors. The intent would be to form a section that is expected to roughly break down by a certain number of As, Bs, and Cs. If this is the case, then I take issue with the administration's notion that "past performance is a predictor of future performance." I think admissions offices often operate by that motto, but it doesn't seem perfect to me. What about the student who was a B student in college but has a natural talent for law school or exercises an exorbitant amount of increased effort in law school? I have a friend who was a mediocre student in college, with a GPA in the 2.5-2.8 range. If we were to expect him to continue that kind of performance, we wouldn't expect him to score well on the LSAT or in law school. He actually did fairly well on his LSATs and is attending a top 10 law school. As for myself, my SAT scores, which were terrible, predicted that I would perform at a level that I easily surpassed when I was in college. I think the system needs to have an opportunity for the surprise student or two, because, as Ann said, most of us like to feel like we can chart our own destiny, even if we don't actually make it to the A group.

Could a system that is a bit more flexible work? Instead of mandating 25% As, perhaps a professor could be given a possible range to choose from based on the class performance, like from 15-35% As, and no stipulations on the number of Bs or Cs. (I only think a professor should give a C when he/she really thinks the student was deserving of one.) I think this could help accommodate the surprise students without harming the ones who have been consistently working hard for the As.

That is all.

By the way, the top performers list for a subject category sounds like a great idea for those students who really want to advertise their particular strength to a prospective employer in the law field. (It might give the student a better idea of whether a field of law would work well for them as well.)

Posted by: Ryan P | Dec 10, 2008 1:25:59 AM


You are a super-genius.

Posted by: jake | Dec 12, 2008 8:00:00 PM

Andrew: You sir, have won.

Posted by: Aman | Dec 13, 2008 9:29:03 AM

I know quite a few of us in this class have been given the opportunity(?) to be on the other side of the classroom as teachers. I know when I was a teacher I originally placed FAR too much emphasis on grades. I assumed that my students would be motivated by grades, much as I was when I was their age. I quickly learned how wrong I was when NO ONE was getting an ‘A’ and they didn’t seem to care. I ended up in a situation reverse what we are debating- I had to give As to students who clearly didn’t deserve it and pass student who clearly deserved to fail (as a teacher I was reprimanded if too many of my students didn’t pass my class, because OBVIOUSLY that meant I expected too much out of them, it couldn’t possibly be because they couldn’t read or multiply). Anyway, I soon learned what motivates 8th graders is not A-grades, but ‘brain-food’ (candy, no, I am not above bribing), ice cream parties, creative math activities, the show ‘Numbers’, simply making math more applicable to their lives and impressing Ms. Wolfe. As is the case in most classrooms, I learned quite a bit from my students. First and foremost, learning should always be fun. Now ‘fun’ might not be a rollercoaster ride 24/7, but what we are reading and learning about in law school IS interesting- admit it- you know you want to!! Second, I think it is important to find out what motivates you and let that lead you into learning. Even if it is study breaks of watching episodes of ‘Numbers’ (I admit nothing).

I like Chad’s comment about grades giving us a foot in the door, because really that is what they are going to do- get us that first job. And while it will certainly be easier to climb up the ‘ladder of success’ if you start near the top, where is this ladder leading? But then- what is success? We mentioned in the last study session that Mr. Cole (Prof Cole’s husband) gave up his teaching job to have 5 (?) times more money as a partner in a law firm. So is money success? Prof Berman mentioned the reason he is teaching and willing to take the pay cut was because he has more freedom to do the things he enjoys; so is freedom success?

I propose to change this question a bit and reflect back on why we all entered law school. Was it for the money? Was it for love of law? Was it to make a change in the legal system? I think by reflecting on the bigger picture it makes exams a bit less scary. There are multiple ways for us all (not just the top 10%) to reach our goals.

Posted by: Alexandra Wolfe | Dec 14, 2008 11:09:09 PM

Blogs are good for every one where we get lots of information for any topics nice job keep it up !!!

Posted by: digital dissertations | Dec 30, 2008 12:25:14 AM

Can anyone shed light on the faculty discussions that led to the recent change in grading policy? I'm just curious.

Posted by: Ryan P | Jan 14, 2009 8:57:48 PM

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