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Still Bothered by Grade Inflation? How About Cum Laude Inflation?

Vivia Chen

July 1, 2010


Editor's note: In the original post, we incorrectly stated that honors graduates of SMU, Michigan, and Notre Dame must be in the top 3.3 or 3.4 percent of their class. The figures refer to GPAs. We regret the error.

I've been getting grief for my blog post celebrating grade inflation. One reader didn't like my statement, "I definitely could have used [grade inflation] when I was in law school," and called me a slacker. Another sent me an e-mail accusing me of being part of what's wrong with the legal profession. Others didn't care for my flippant attitude on such a solemn subject.

Lighten up everyone! A law school transcript is not a road map into someone's soul. Nor is grade inflation the harbinger of societal decay.

To prove I'm not a total anarchist, I'm highlighting a blog post by Drexel University law professor Daniel Filler, who argues for a stringent grading system. Here's what he has to say:

Why might a school choose to have a tough curve? It's not that lower grades are inherently more accurate. Grades are not in any sense natural, and law school grades are particularly synthetic. Why not build the curve around an A-?

First, a school might want to signal to the outside community that it's tough. An implicit, but not necessarily accurate, message flowing from a lower mean GPA is that the school is more rigorous and consequently produces better grads. For example, my sense is that the military academies give relatively low grades and we expect (and respect) that. One reason that grade inflation is such a scandal is that many people seem to infer that courses at these schools have suddenly become easier. (Of course, that may or may not be true.)

Second, tough grades help employers identify the strongest students. A lower mean typically widens the curve, creating more differentiation between students. Top schools, like Harvard, want to blur the lines between average and exceptional students. That's because an elite firm will hire Harvard grads no matter what--even if they are at risk of hiring a few underperforming students. At the 185 schools outside the Top 15, however, big firms are less interested in absorbing this risk. And any law school that inflates this risk will be less appealing to selective employers. This goes double when the prospective employer is a federal judge.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a wide curve helps law schools better identify at-risk students and thus allows the institutions to provide crucial academic support earlier.

What's refreshing about Filler's argument for stricter grading is that he's also realistic about how arbitrary grading systems are. He knows that lower-ranked schools have to grade harder to sift out their most outstanding students for the legal market, while top schools can afford to be ambiguous. 

Essentially, Filler and I are on the same page. He makes the same points I did in my post, but with more finesse. We both believe that law school grades have to be seen in the context of the marketplace. The notion that law school grades should or can be pure is naive.

Grade inflation doesn't bug me, but I was surprised to learn that there's also cum laude inflation in law schools. Legalgeekery.com lists the top 68 law schools' requirements for graduating with honors. Among the schools that are quite generous in doling out honors are Harvard, Georgetown, and Duke--where graduating around the top third will entitle you to add "cum laude" to your J.D. degree. Even more generous is the law school at the University of Georgia, where being in the top 48 percent of the class gets you admitted to the honor society.

Silly me, I always assumed that cum laude was reserved for the top 10 percent. 

In fact, very few schools are that stringent, according to Legalgeekery. Among the toughies are the University of San Diego and Penn State.

Then there's Yale, which is way too cool to play the game at all. Apparently, it doesn't think its graduates need those Latin words after their degree. 

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: I-phone


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I think you may be misreading the chart. For certain schools the chart is reflecting GPAs, not percentages. For example, for University of Michigan it is stating that you need a 3.4 GPA, not that 3.4% of the class graduate with honors.

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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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