Law School Grade Inflation

Law schools are artificially raising student grades, sometimes retroactively, to make them more competitive on the job market.

Loyola Law School Los Angeles is moving to Lake Wobegon.

One day next month every student at Loyola Law School Los Angeles will awake to a higher grade point average.

But it’s not because they are all working harder.

The school is retroactively inflating its grades, tacking on 0.333 to every grade recorded in the last few years. The goal is to make its students look more attractive in a competitive job market.

Doesn’t telling the NYT you’re doing this rather defeat the purpose? Indeed, won’t it have the opposite effect, making prospective employers dubious of high grades from the school? And won’t this mostly harm the people who actually earned the good grades?

In the last two years, at least 10 law schools have deliberately changed their grading systems to make them more lenient. These include law schools like New York University and Georgetown, as well as Golden Gate University and Tulane University, which just announced the change this month. Some recruiters at law firms keep track of these changes and consider them when interviewing, and some do not.

Law schools seem to view higher grades as one way to rescue their students from the tough economic climate — and perhaps more to the point, to protect their own reputations and rankings. Once able to practically guarantee gainful employment to thousands of students every year, the schools are now fielding complaints from more and more unemployed graduates, frequently drowning in student debt.

So, why not just give everyone an “A” and be done with it? Think what they’ll do for the reputation!

“If somebody’s paying $150,000 for a law school degree, you don’t want to call them a loser at the end,” says Stuart Rojstaczer, a former geophysics professor at Duke who now studies grade inflation. “So you artificially call every student a success.”

I forget: If we call a horse’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?

Unlike undergraduate grading, which has drifted northward over the years because most undergraduate campuses do not strictly regulate the schoolwide distribution of As and Bs, law schools have long employed clean, crisp, bell-shaped grading curves. Many law schools even use computers to mathematically determine cutoffs between a B+ and a B, based on exam points.

The process schools refer to as grade reform takes many forms. Some schools bump up everyone’s grades, some just allow for more As and others all but eliminate the once-gentlemanly C.

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.

Maybe at the truly elite schools. But, down the ladder a bit, if the schools won’t separate wheat and chaff, why the hell do I want to pay my HR department to do it for them? (I don’t actually have an HR department but you know what I mean.)

Students and faculty say they are merely trying to stay competitive with their peer schools, which have more merciful grading curves. Loyola, for example, had a mean first-year grade of 2.667; the norm for other accredited California schools is generally a 3.0 or higher.

“That put our students at an unfair disadvantage, especially if you factor in the current economic environment,” says Samuel Liu, 26, president of the school’s Student Bar Association and the leader of the grading change efforts. He also says many Loyola students are ineligible for coveted clerkships that have strict G.P.A. cutoffs.

Now this actually makes some sense. In an ideal system, “A” work would be “A” work and “C” work would be “C” work at any accredited law school. But, alas, it’s virtually impossible to assure that happens from class-to-class within a given department, much less across schools.

One notable school has managed to maintain the integrity of its grades through an idiosyncratic grading rubric. The University of Chicago Law School grades its students on a scale of 155-186, a system so bizarre that employers are unlikely to try to match it against the 4.0 scale or letter grades used almost everywhere else.

Novel!

It is unclear whether grade inflation is particularly effective at helping students get jobs, especially because many large firms adjust their expectations accordingly.

Many hiring partners say they read Above the Law, a legal blog, that gleefully reports (and mocks) grade changing efforts — from leaked student memos — even when schools themselves don’t announce the changes.

Employers say they also press law schools for rankings, or some indication of G.P.A.’s for the top echelon of the class. And if the school will not release that information — many do not — other accolades like honors and law journal participation provide clues to a student’s relative rank.

And that’s the bottom line: Grades are not perfect signaling devices even when they’re not being intentionally manipulated. But those looking at kids fresh out of school need some sort of signaling device as a starting point. If they stop trusting grades, they’ll have to find another.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Billy says:

    All the law firms I know look at class rank as the secondary indicator of the quality of the candidate (the primary indicator being the identity of the school from which the candidate graduates). Then it’s on to extracurriculars, work experience, etc. At no point does the number assigned to the student’s grades factor in.

    GPA is meaningless across law schools, and hiring partners have known it for decades. This move will change nothing other than to make a few students feel better about themselves.

  2. James Joyner says:

    That makes sense to me, Billy.

    IANAL, much less a hiring authority at a law firm, but, depending on what I was looking for, I’d think the quality of the school and selection for Law Review and/or Moot Court would be the key factors, with publication possibly a consideration.

  3. I’m a Loyola of Los Angeles Law School grad myself. Nothing like this was even remotely cricket back in the Bronze Age when I graduated (class of 1994). A school like Loyola will never be Stanford or Berkeley or UCLA or USC and I knew that going in to the place. Artificially inflating students’ grades to make them appear better than they actually are is hardly going to change Loyola’s reputation as a school that turns out competent lawyers and whose graduates hold more bench positions in California than any other law school.

    These students aren’t being done any favors, either, because any employer worth its salt will now mentally subtract a third of a point from every Loyola student’s GPA to get the “real” one when considering a Loyola lawyer’s resume — and this will particularly hurt recent Loyola grads who do not have the benefit of the artificial boost but will still pay the price for it.