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June 5, 2008

Is there an ideal grading system for law schools?

This piece at Insider Higher Ed reports that Stanford Law School is looking to move away from letter grades.  Here are snippets from the story:

The faculty at Stanford Law School voted last week to approve a grade reform proposal that would eliminate letters and replace them with four levels of achievement. The decision came after a long period of discussion among students and faculty that weighed issues such as collegiality, anxiety and fairness. The debate may be spreading to other law schools across the country....

Those who support the change at Stanford argue that shifting from the precision of letter grades to broader categories will reduce some pressure and refocus students’ and professors’ energies on classroom learning. Others worry that de-emphasizing students’ GPAs could disadvantage them with potential employers, although that hasn’t proven to be an issue with new Yale or Berkeley lawyers.

“The new system includes a shared norm for the proportion of honors to be awarded in both exam and paper courses.  No grading system is perfect, but the consensus is that the reform will have significant pedagogical benefits, including that it encourages greater flexibility and innovation in the classroom and in designing metrics for evaluating student work,” wrote Stanford Law dean Larry Kramer to students and faculty in an e-mail on Thursday, as first reported by the blog Above the Law....

Now that three of the most elite law schools in the nation have opted for alternatives to traditional grading systems, some eyes will inevitably turn to Cambridge.  Early in the decade, Harvard Law School considered a similar move.  With Stanford’s announcement, rumors have swirled that Harvard had already or would soon adopt a modified pass/fail system of its own.  Officials at the school deny that such a decision has been made but acknowledge that the topic is under discussion.

“Many law schools, including Harvard, are looking at ways to simplify grading.  We’re not at all surprised by Stanford’s decision,” said Michael Armini, assistant dean for communications at the law school.

Especially as I deal with my own school's nuanced grading system (and wonder about what students think about our system), I would love to get the comment thread going about what type of grading systems are best for law schools. 

My own sense is that elite schools can and will generally benefit their students by "shifting from the precision of letter grades to broader categories," but that this shift may not be beneficial for students at schools outside the top 20.  The again, if schools and employers develop and make public class rankings even with broader grading categories, these issues may in the end be mostly inconsequential.

Posted by DAB

June 5, 2008 in Legal profession realities and developments | Permalink


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Altering the grading system won't alter what the grades are based on. And that seems to be the ultimate problem.

Posted by: W.J. | Jun 5, 2008 7:58:31 PM

What I would love to see happen to law school grading would be the complete removal of grades and a heightened level of scrutiny to get in to law school. Right now any idiot can get into law school and that is the sad reality. Law schools are profitable for universities so why wouldn't they build one? There are far too many bad attorneys and these low-tier schools do nothing but continue to churn them out. Are there good attorneys at these schools - sure, but they are the exception.

If we drastically reduced the number of law schools and the number of students that schools could accept, grades would no longer be an issue. Getting into law school used to mean something, now it is all but meaningless unless you are in one of the top-10 (or a school like Georgetown whose name holds sway). But unless something drastic takes place, it is a complete pipe dream to believe that any school, other than the aforementioned, could do away with grades and have their students find jobs.

For the time being, grades are really all we have to distinguish ourselves. Many of us are in law school without any nepotism connection or trust fund. We have astronomical debts to repay and we need a BigLaw job, whether we are interested in it or not. The only way to achieve such a job is through good grades (and given the current economic situation, REALLY good grades or a bankruptcy specialization). Until there is a culling of the number of rising attorneys, every firm is simply going to run the numbers and make a decision based on that. Logically, why shouldn't they? They get a huge number of applicants, are you naive enough to believe that none of those who did well in school will do well as attorneys? Grades may not be perfect, but it is one hell of a way to reduce the applicant pool.

Posted by: anonymous | Jun 9, 2008 10:08:07 PM

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