Law in Contemporary Society
I'm sure many of you have read the recent NYT Article, In Law Schools, Grades Go Up, Just Like That. I have enjoyed reading the comments of the article, which span from adamant support of tossing out the old regime to total disdain for a generation often described as entitled. I must admit, the article gives me a sinking feeling in my stomach, especially as we approach the Fall recruiting season. I fantasize about the minimal, or complete lack of, anxiety students at schools with no grades must be experiencing as they head into the process. What is most striking to me is that quite a few schools with students who compete with Columbia students for employment have made the determination that eliminating traditional grades altogether, or altering the curve, is in the best interest of their students. Even our friendly neighbor to the south has made alterations to its curve. This begs the question, what are Columbia's justifications for not rolling with the tide?

This topic has obviously received great attention in this course, but I still think this article is an interesting read. I would love to hear any comments or reactions people might have.

-- JenniferGreen - 24 Jun 2010

I actually read this article as well at the behest of a friend (not yet in law school). I really wasn't surprised, moved or concerned by the article. I think it cemented for me how arbitrary grades are. Every school has a different system, a different curve, or even just a different implementation of the "standard" system. I think the article further proves that there is just no way to control the grade "beast" so we can't be worried about it because there's just no way to contend or grapple with it.

While I don't believe inflated grades or changed grade systems is the best way to deal with and adjust to the economic situation and the changing legal field, I get why law schools are trying to do something or exhibit some control (which they obviously have none) over the situation. I have to admit, I'm not so concerned with Columbia rolling with (or not) the tide, but rather I'm concerned with the types of lawyers they are teaching us to be. This is a moment where all law schools need to adequately prepare students for what the field is becoming and also begin encouraging us to use all of ourselves, without limitation. I think the article for me missed the mark a little bit in pushing readers and potentially law schools to think about the field differently. If everyone's grades are inflated, what's really changing?

This is the moment for law schools to reinvent themselves, to be creative...not so sure that's happening by inflating grades.

-- KrystalCommons? - 24 Jun 2010

-- KrystalCommons - 24 Jun 2010

I completely agree, Krystal. I also think this is a time for law students to reassess our reasons for wanting to be a lawyer. In our parents' generation, a law degree was not a ticket to any pre-determined career path. Some joined firms, but many hung their own shingles, became public defenders or prosecutors, or worked for the government, for example. And taking the non-firm route was not the exception to the rule, or an implicit statement of moral superiority. It was just another way to practice law.

My problem with the way law schools position post-graduation opportunities to students today is that they tend to create a dichotomy: there are the tree-hugging advocates for endangered seals and the cut-throat, win-at-any-cost corporate lawyer. This is obviously an exaggeration, but it has been my observation that students generally think of themselves as belonging in either the public interest or big law categories. I don't find this dichotomy particularly helpful. The reality is, in this day and age, one will change sectors and employers many times over. Along that journey, it is very possible that one will practice in both the public and private domains. I think the problem is that by bucketing students into each category in preparation for their first job -- and I concede that helping students find their first job is a primary function and worthwhile goal of OCS -- the bigger picture is lost.

If we, as students, are willing to think of our first job as just that, our first job, then perhaps we can change the paradigm for ourselves. Though vigorously debated in this course, the reality is that grades matter. However, what matters more is being a capable and competent practitioner. I would like to think that, regardless of where you start, your proven ability to be an effective advocate will dictate your journey more than any law school grade, or whether you began your legal career at a firm, public interest organization, or elsewhere. Or, perhaps that's just me being overly-optimistic.

-- JenniferGreen - 25 Jun 2010

As Eben has mentioned over and over again in class, we, law students, are here to get a license. The question that naturally follows is what are we earning this license for? There are many answers to this question. Personally, I want to use this license to do things that I can enjoy. I think, Jennifer, you are absolutely right that many people will change sectors and employers many times over throughout their careers, which I suppose is a process that people go through to really understand themselves – to discover what they really want in life. I guess that much of this anxiety surrounding grades and EIP is rooted in the fear of uncertainty of what will happen to a student if he or she does not get a firm job from EIP. I think the answer is simple: it is not the end of the world. As Alfred said in Batman, why do we fall? So we learn to pick ourselves up again. If someone is truly serious about becoming a lawyer, whether at a corporate firm or a public interest organization, he would not think the result of EIP will define the rest of his legal career. Just like our undergraduate grades, they become immaterial once we are in law school, so will the result of this EIP after 10 years down the road. Here is a little story I would like to share. Just two days ago at a social event, I met a partner from a big law firm. He did not go to a law school that most of us at Columbia would consider as a top school. He did not have stellar 1L grades. So he never received a 2L firm offer. He did not give up after this. He worked hard in 2L and 3L; he even published a note. After graduating from law school, he applied to 100 places, and only received 2 interviews. That didn’t stop him either. He knew he wanted to work in a law firm and he never gave up. Now 10 years after graduating from law school, he made partner. We are what we set ourselves out to be. It really doesn’t matter how many times we try and how many times we fail, the only thing that matters is how we finish.

-- RyanSong - 25 Jun 2010

Haha, that school was Rutgers, which might be the best law school in New Jersey. Not to take away from that edifying example - I think the organizers of the rather poorly attended AABANY event were considerate in selecting panelists who graduated median from schools like St. Johns and Brooklyn and Rutgers so they can be examples of success to their currently lost student members. However, just from my conversations with some of the lawyers and students present, and from hanging out with my fellow interns, I think ironically students at lower ranked schools already know that they'll be alright in the long run, that they'll be lawyers, they'll learn how to set up and sustain a practice and the rest of their lives are by no means determined by one year or even three years of grades. I was so surprised to see that all the other law interns at my bureau at the Queens DA have done so much substantive legal work during the school year (supervisor passed around mini-bios of all of us) such as working part-time during the school year for small law firms.

Artificially inflating grades without actually messing with the curve is ridiculously futile when the whole point of a curve is to help employers rank us as compared to our classmates. As someone who has done well in some classes and poorly in others, I don't think grades are arbitrary. An individual grade reflect to a fair enough extent understanding of and effort in a class. At least at school, due to blind grading we are not being evaluated for our personal relationships with those in charge of keeping score of our non-social performances. Thinking about the future, what isn't arbitrary and at least somewhat based on seemingly meaningless factors. Like what is "fit"? At my internship the only lawyer who is ever asked about his kids, the only one whose children have been brought into the office to play, is the bureau chief. As long as we work for others, their moods and perceptions an idiosyncracies control us. At the same event I met a young lawyer who took two clients he met through his former employer and started his own. I was impressed by the simplicity of his business card and that he will never have to compete to impress a partner or senior associate, just do his work for his clients.

-- CeciliaWang - 25 Jun 2010

The thing that surprised me most about that article was that it was the NYT's "most emailed" article for a couple of days this week. Are there that many uneasy law students/lawyers/friends of same out there? Though it's definitely of interest to us, I was surprised by the broad appeal. There's certainly much more interesting content in the Times this week. I would recommend the fascinating five-part piece by Errol Morris.

-- CourtneySmith - 25 Jun 2010

Education reform (as I insist on calling it - grade reform encourages the illusion that systems of evaluation can be neatly cabined off from the substance of education) is an issue I care a lot about, so I'm happy to join in on a renewed discussion of it on the wiki.

I don't think the news here is about grade inflation as such. What's happened is just that few schools who had a lower curve adjusted it to match the curve of the majority of other law schools. I don't support the curve system, but I don't see a particular problem with fixing a situation in which student X, if he had gone to UC Hastings, would have gotten a higher mark for precisely the same performance than if he had gone to Loyola. It's relevant to consider curves at other law schools because students are not just competing amongst their classmates for jobs, they are also competing with graduates of other schools.

I am not convinced that Harvard, Yale and Stanford have gotten their evaluation systems right. A system that goes from A-B-C to HP-P-LP is not going very far. That being said, getting rid of the arbitrariness of pluses and minuses is a positive step. I think also that in some marginal sense, a terminology based on "pass" feels different from one based on the A-B-C system.

I think the larger issue at stake, as I've intimated above, is not actually how we're graded - it's about what law school is. I think the "industrial model," which requires large class sizes to finance the salaries of a large number of professors, which in turn produce a large amount of "prestigious" law review articles, is unsustainable. It fosters alienation and militates against the types of pedagogical relationships that build great lawyers. When new graduates could make hundreds of dollars per hour sitting in a high-rise and highlighting documents, this type of education may have been sufficient. I don't think it is any more.

My understanding of the reason that Columbia does not have a pass-based system is that students recently rejected it. I would like to know more about this, if anyone has any information about what the margin was, how the question was put, etc. In a sense, however, we have the education we have asked for.

Some links related to that debate:

Katherine Franke's blog post [expressing concern that women and minority students may still be disadvantaged if faculty relationships, not grades, become the new coin of the realm]

Columbia Spectator article [reporting on the debate, quotes Franke's post]

Finally, with respect to the Times Most Emailed section, it is relevant to note that an article on "Catios" also enjoyed a multi-day stretch as "most emailed" article in recent weeks.

-- DevinMcDougall - 26 Jun 2010

Grade Inflation seems to be a hot topic for the New York Times right now. Today, the Times published an article about increasing numbers of valedictorians at US high schools. It talks about Jericho High School, a high school in a wealthy Long Island town, where there were 9 valedictorians. The article presents two sides to the argument over the trend of "inflation": (1) students are getting better, so we should recognize it and (2) the more valedictorians we name, the less meaningful the title gets.

I think the second argument holds true for law school grades as well. The more that we tinker with them, either by imposing and changing artificial curves or by just adding points to GPAs to make students "more competitive" in the job market, the less meaningful they get. The title valedictorian was once one that was given to just one student, the top in the class. Now, it is impossible to tell what it means. If a 6.5% of a high school class gets the title valedictorian (as at one of the high schools mentioned in the article), the meaning of the term has completely changed. And as a result, people will give it less deference.

My main hope is that the media coverage of repeated changes to law school grading systems eventually induces people to rely less on law school grades. Right now, many judges and employers use them as a way of ranking students against each other. If they are unstable, as they appear to be, they can no longer be relied upon to do this. Hopefully more and more people will recognize this and will consider the applicants themselves for clerkships and positions as opposed to meaningless numbers, rankings and honors.

-- DavidGoldin - 27 Jun 2010

I fail to understand what the real drama behind law school grade inflation is. It's like the nominal value of money -- there is little to be learned from it. As far as the issue of grades being used for hiring purposes goes, the trend does not, sadly, seem to be changing at all. Law schools that hope to better position their own students (against students from other schools) via grade inflation are stupid. Forget about the long run (for there we are all dead!). Even in the short run, grade inflation hurts schools more than it helps them. An employer that has any sense of perception will be quick to catch on to the inflation (especially since schools will inflate across the board to outdo each other) -- thus, little change on this end. On the other end of the spectrum, students (with higher alphabets to flaunt) will develop a greater sense of entitlement and false security. Basically, when we all have gold stars, it might even help to be the only person in the room without one.

-- MohitGourisaria - 27 Jun 2010

David, I read that article and was quite surprised. I also share the same hopes with you about law school grades becoming less relevant, but I am not optimistic. Mohit mentioned the false sense of security that students "with higher alphabets" may be tempted to develop. I completely agree; we are so often told that good grades are a golden ticket to the most elite levels of the practice. However, good grades don't prevent this from happening to you, which is only but one of many examples we've heard about. This, in my opinion, is the larger issue and the reason that legal employers will always hold the trump card. We are pumping a supply of lawyers into the market every year that far outpaces the demand. Unlike the medical profession, which provides a supply of new doctors each year that keeps pace with market demands, the legal profession refuses to do so. In the end, though, we are in a better position than many of our counterparts, which is a somewhat disturbing proposition.

I also think grades give employers a false sense of security: a (sometimes unfounded) belief that they have won the lottery in luring the most intelligent, hardest working, and capable young lawyers to their organizations. However, given the arbitrary nature of grades, and sometimes sheer luck associated with them, it is hard to see why intelligent, hard working, and capable hiring partners would rely on them in this way. As Professor Wu wrote in his post-exam memo, the difference between a good and the best exam were not that great. Given this, as David suggested, one would think that grades would be one aspect of a more holistic assessment of the student as opposed to, in many cases, the sole determinant. Until this happens, I think it is and will continue to be employers' loss.

-- JenniferGreen - 28 Jun 2010

I would love the perspective of someone five or ten years out of law school on the grades issue. I know it seems very important now, but I am still not at all convinced that it will matter in 2020 whether your GPA at Columbia Law School was a 3.2 or a 3.7.

I also wonder whether grade-obsession is really a stand-in for other, deeper fears and anxieties that are harder to talk about, like the law school model itself, which Devin mentions, and the state of the profession in general (i.e. that some of us are going into great debt and working like mad to get jobs that we don't even want).

-- CourtneySmith - 28 Jun 2010

"Whether applying for clerkships or jobs in private or public interest, judges and employers use grades as the initial filter in sifting through stacks of resumes, but when deciding which of the best students to interview, they typically turn to the recommendations of faculty."

I stopped reading here. I find it absolutely pathetic that a CLS professor (who is making a claim about recruiting) would make such a broad generalization about recruiting that doesn't even include her own school. Which, for someone who has had Franke's experience (and inexperience in the private sector) is probably par for the course.

-- MatthewZorn - 28 Jun 2010

@Jennifer and Courtney - I don't have 10 years experience out of law school (I have 2) but I worked at a large firm for those years and have a tiny bit of insight into it. I discussed the issue with one of the partners at the firm, and he said that the reason that many (though not all) lawyers are obsessed with school/grades is that it is an easy way for non-lawyers to evaluate the quality of their lawyers.

Unlike construction workers, who produce something tangible (like a building), lawyers in many situations produce very few tangible deliverables for the large amount of work they put in. Thus, it can be hard to evaluate their work. Thus, people tend to evaluate lawyers on their pedigrees. If Lawyer X was a Blah Scholar from Harvard, he must be good.

I don't know if people in the real world evaluate lawyers this way. But it is a belief that some partners have about how their firms and work is judged. As a result, they strive to hire only the top students with lots of awards from the top schools, so they can say "look at our lawyers - they are all so smart and will do a good job". This isn't the best evaluation method, but it does say a lot about the profession.

Keep in mind, though, this is just one point of view that I happen to know about. I'd love to hear the views of others on this or if anyone else has heard a similar explanation.

-- DavidGoldin - 28 Jun 2010

On Franke's post:

What bothers me about Franke's blog post is that her biggest concern about any given grading system seems to be the extent to which it might lead employers to rely on recommendations.

I thought recs were intended to qualitatively supplement grades. I recognize that there are efficiency issues for employers which makes them want to rely less on recs, but overall I think it's good to force employers to evaluate potential employees as human beings, not numbers. Alas, Franke warns me that the recs disproportionately favor white males. Intuitively, the connection is tenuous at best but let's assume it's true. But wait, I thought the entire American educational and economic system ultimately favored white males. An alleged rec bias is therefore so trivial a concern as to be laughable...

I am left feeling as though Franke is concluding we should shut up and be happy with the grading system as is, because any change would either inconvenience employers or disadvantage minorities/ women (more than usual).

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 29 Jun 2010

Franke's post confused me as well. I think the only instructors that could give an employer more than "he went to class and didn't cause any problems" are Professor Moglen and my LPW instructors. Other than my Civil Procedure professor (who had us write a complaint and a motion, which I found very helpful), they're also the only ones who have seen written work with my name attached. For recommendations to play the role that she thinks they would in a gradeless system, the lines at office hours would probably be down the hall and into the elevator, or it would require professors to adopt a method of teaching law school more like this class or LPW. We could also eliminate first-year employment and move hiring to the third-year so students have time to get to know the professor. All of these things seem unlikely. What's more likely is that employers would use law school pedigree, or maybe even undergraduate institution/GPA and LSAT score to prove how smart we are. This is the closest they can get to approximating lawyering potential. First-year grades move them closer to that mark.

The article is valuable for the admission that eliminating grades won't remove the desire employers have to rank us. Even those schools without the A/B/C grading system still have High Pass or Honors, recognizing that there are certain legal jobs which still require employers to find the "best of the best." But for the majority of the students with just "pass," they're assuming a Harvard or Yale degree is proof enough of that student's ability to practice law. Maybe I am just very cynical, but this seems like an admission that first-year doesn't really add anything skill-wise that can't be picked up on the job by an intelligent person rather quickly.

-- JonathanWaisnor - 29 Jun 2010

It seems like the opportunity costs of having to actually discern who would perform better at law firms or other employers would simply be too great for the employers to handle in their current states. Somewhat understandably, they rely on grades and what schools their applicants attend. The same thing can be said about admission to law school or college, for that matter, assuming that there is a universe in which better decisions could be made.

-- JessicaCohen - 01 Jul 2010

I think your assessment is right, Jessica. I also think that the fact that law schools and law firms rely heavily on grades as indicators of future sucess speaks more broadly to how we conceptualize merit as a society.

-- JenniferGreen - 01 Jul 2010

Jennifer/Jessica - you bring up an interesting point which reminds me of this article that was in the New York Times this past week. The article discusses a French initiative to diversify the top universities. France is a particularly interesting example because of their focus on being a "meritocracy" where people aren't categorized based on race or background, but are evaluated based on their achievements alone.

What intrigued me so much about the article is the frank analysis of the way in which one's background plays a significant role in his/her achievements. It is easy to look at a set of grades and say "X is smarter than Y and will be a better student because X has a 3.7 and Y has a 3.3." Many employers and judges do this. But doing this ignores the many factors that affect one's grades. They are used as a measurement of merit and intelligence, but they don't accurately reflect this. Hopefully the French experiment will work and people will analyze candidates, whether for spots in top schools, for jobs, for clerkships or for anything else, in a more holistic fashion. It may be easier to use GPA cutoffs, but it leads to a lot of missed opportunities on both sides.

-- DavidGoldin - 02 Jul 2010

I wonder if previous Columbia classes decided to maintain a strict grading system out of a misplaced sense of self interest.

One current student at Harvard that I spoke with said that academic pressure there has lessened dramatically since the grading system changed. However, the Columbia Spectator article said that any policy change at Columbia would apply only to future classes, and not current students. If students at the time believed that a strict grading system would provide employers with a valuable hiring metric (quantification, more detailed differentiation, or the maintenance of prestige), then the misaligned interests of the decision makers probably vitiated the whole process. Looking at the comments after the first NY Times article mentioned above, it's clear that many of those who suffered in law school want current students to suffer as well.

I strongly favor a reduction in the complexity of the grading system. If increases to mean grades are meaningless because bases can be compared, then the change doesn't matter, and no harm is done. But I think that changes to the composition of a scale can be meaningful. This can mean either a ladder with fewer rungs, or a top rung wide enough for more people to stand on it. Moreover, a reduction in competitive pressure like what happened at Harvard (if my info is good) would free students to explore individual academic and career interests instead of kowtowing to final exams all semester. This would, in turn, attract brighter, more socially active, and more effective students. This strategy seems to have worked for Yale in years past, and it might work for Columbia now.

-- SamWells - 06 Jul 2010



Webs Webs

r21 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:13:31 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM