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What's Wrong with Grade Inflation?

Vivia Chen

June 22, 2010

IStock_000008905339XSmall I've always found the subject of law school grades to be a tremendous bore. How antiquated and feudal is a system that still regards a candidate's performance in first-year torts or civil procedure as a predictor of future success? 

I could rattle off a list of rainmakers who probably never set foot in a law review office, but that's irrelevant. The reality is that grades still define careers. More precisely, grades define who will get their foot into the door of a prestigious practice, and who will be shut out.

It took a while, but law schools are catching up to this game. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that "in the last two years, at least ten law schools have deliberately changed their grading systems to make them more lenient." The impetus for this change, says the article, is "to rescue their students from the tough economic climate" and "to protect their own reputations and rankings."

The NYT names some schools that have blurry grading systems:

Harvard and Stanford, two of the top-ranked law schools, recently eliminated traditional grading altogether. Like Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, they now use a modified pass/fail system, reducing the pressure that law schools are notorious for. This new grading system also makes it harder for employers to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, which means more students can get a shot at a competitive interview.

The article says that the law schools at New York University, Georgetown, Golden Gate, and Tulane also recently changed their grading systems, and that Loyola Law School Los Angeles is adding 0.333 "to every grade recorded in the last few years."

Personally, I'm all for grade inflation. I definitely could have used it when I was in law school. More importantly, I also believe that employers should take a more holistic approach to hiring. In fact, sometimes employers, who are not allowed to prescreen, are so impressed by interviewees with less than perfect transcripts that they end up giving them offers. Even Skadden's hiring partner admitted that recently. So a little attention to such frivolous things as personality might not be a bad thing. 

But will grade inflation and obfuscation benefit all law students? I think not. Unfortunately, only a very small sector--namely those already going to top law schools--will likely benefit. From my talks with law firm partners, it's pretty clear that Harvard, Yale, and Stanford law students are the blessed, chosen ones; they are assumed to be bright and qualified even if their transcripts are uneven.

Students at the other top ten or 15 law schools, like NYU, Georgetown, or Berkeley, are the ones who will truly benefit from a bit of grading ambiguity. They are presumed to be smart--probably waiting list material at the tippy-top law schools. So what they need is ammunition from their own schools to back up that presumption. An ambiguous grading system--one that conveys the message that our students are so uniformly good that we don't need to be explicit about their grades--can only help. If a school is secure about its vaulted ranking, it should be a bit arrogant about its own students.

As for lesser law schools, I'm not sure how jacking up GPAs will help their students. The fact is, these schools lack the clout to play the game. Worse, inflating grades might dilute the achievements of those who are at the top of their class--those who might have a shot at a coveted job. 

Yes, I know--all this smacks of elitism. But law is an elitist game, isn't it?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo / David H. Lewis/iStock


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"I definitely could have used it when I was in law school"

Most people work for their grades. Do not ask to be lifted high than you worked.

The article was informative, until it sounded like "Atlas Shrugged"

ALAS no one cares if you admit to being a slacker.

It's well known that a large percentage of those at the top schools didn't get there by merit alone. Legacy admissions like-kind boosts are similar to grade inflation. See academic.udayton.edu/race/04needs/affirm19.htm

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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