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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 | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 2, 2008

Can there be too many (innovative) law schools?

This week's National Law Journal has this lengthy and interesting article, titled "A Deluge of Law Schools: As Many as 10 Are in the Works — But Are They Needed?".  Here is an excerpt, which highlights the innovation potential in these developments: 

As many as 10 new law schools are in the works, with the majority of them proposed in the eastern part of the country. While their proponents insist that the schools will serve the needs of their communities and beyond, the plans are drawing sharp criticism from those who argue that creating more law schools is irresponsible....

Planners assert that their schools will offer specialized programs and innovative curricula to J.D. hopefuls. Critics, however, point to a tight job market and starting salaries that do not cover the ballooning costs of tuition for the majority of students already graduating from the nation's hundreds of law schools.

"I have no doubt that those concerns are valid, but it's whether they end up being compelling reasons to pull back on starting a law school," said Loren D. "Chip" Prescott Jr. He is the newly appointed dean of the Wilkes University Law School Planning Initiative, which is pushing to open a law school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., by 2010....

Prescott cited a number of reasons to launch a law school in Pennsylvania. First, the closest law school to the area is a two-hour drive away, he said.  Second, he sees a need for creative, hands-on training absent in legal education today.  Third, a "brand new school," he said, can provide such innovation more readily than older schools constricted by outmoded traditions. "A school starting from scratch can make a unique contribution," he said.

If new schools are serious about making a "unique contribution" to legal education, my reaction is "the more, the merrier."  But because there are already, in my view, far too many law schools "constricted by outmoded traditions," I hope only those schools with a serious commitment to innovation will get off the ground.

June 2, 2008 in The mission of law schools | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack