Law in Contemporary Society

Problems with Justifications for the Grading System

-- By AaronShepard - 04 Mar 2009

Two of the most cited reasons for maintaining the current grading system in the law school are the need of employers to differentiate students and the incentives the system creates for students to study and participate. If these two justifications are scrutinized, however, it becomes apparent that the current method of differentiation is weak, the incentives it creates are minimal, and the best interests of the students should outweigh such concerns anyway.


The most cited reason for maintaining the current grading system over a pass/fail regime is that it affords greater differentiation among students. Employers strongly support the current system, according to Dean Schizer. Grades allow them to sort through applicants, disregarding those who fail to meet a certain threshold. While grades are certainly correlated to some degree with ability and potential, however, such a linear system provides very limited information, missing some of great importance. Top grades tell an employer something about the student who receives them, but it is impossible for the employer to pinpoint exactly what the grades mean. It is possible that a student who receives straight A’s was able to do so by studying night and day, attending every office hour of every professor, rereading cases and class notes daily, and outlining throughout the semester with fellow students. It is also possible that a student might receive straight A’s by possessing an innate ability to identify issues from fact patterns and analyze components of doctrines thoroughly and persuasively. Likewise, a deviation from perfect grades undoubtedly shows a lack of something, at least in the eyes of the professor grading, but just what is lacking is impossible to know from the grades alone. For example, if a student receives a B- in a particular class, there are many possible explanations. That student might have missed a large number of minor details or might have missed one major concept of great importance. The student might have been unable to analyze important concepts thoroughly and persuasively, might have been unable to organize thoughts on particular issues, or might have simply run out of time on the exam.

While it may be difficult to determine generally what strengths or deficiencies are of greatest importance, this might be readily determined by an employer seeking a student for a particular job in a particular area of work. Though the ideal candidate for a position would possess strengths in every area assessed by the grading system, with no significant deficiencies, such a candidate is extremely rare. This should encourage employers to seek those students who possess the skills of greatest importance for the particular job. Because the grading system gives employers very little information to differentiate among students in this way, however, this cannot be done effectively, leaving employers to select students with the highest grades in the hopes that these students will possess the necessary skills and strengths.

If differentiation is truly important to employers and to law schools, there are alternative methods that could do a far better job at differentiating one student from the next. Professors already presumably take note of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each student’s exam answers, so it would seem no great burden to require them to produce brief comments on each student’s strengths and weaknesses rather than assign point values to each component and tally up each total. This would allow employers to select students who possessed strengths in the areas that mattered most for a particular job.

Additionally, what employers want should not be of the utmost importance to law schools. Law schools should answer to the students themselves, looking out for their best interests rather than those of employers. In all likelihood, employers will continue to hire from the top law schools whether or not they maintain this grading system. Harvard, Yale, and Stanford have all made the change, and employers have yet to freeze recruiting from these schools. Any reduction in hiring rates would surely be outweighed by the reduced stress on students and the increased focus on learning, thinking, and sharing of ideas among students.


Another concern thought to justify maintaining the current grading system over some form of pass/fail system is that such a change would reduce the incentives of students to read, come to class, and participate. This, however, assumes that law students will not make an affirmative effort to learn and participate solely for their own benefit, and must be motivated by the threat of poor grades. This does not explain why students read, come to class, and participate in Legal Methods and Legal Practice Workshop, both of which are pass/fail classes. Students know that the skills developed in law school will prove vital in their careers. Many even read optional materials, with the knowledge that such materials will not appear on the exam. Preparation for most classes also seems to be motivated not so much by fear of poor grades as by the desire to avoid public humiliation. These factors, combined with the genuine interest many students have in the law, explain the motivation of law students to study more than the mere fear of poor grades. In addition, a modified pass/fail system, even simply incorporating a high pass grade, would likely make up for any slight difference in motivation between letter grade and regular pass/fail systems.


The primary justifications of the current grading system are not only weak in theory, but also highlight the misplaced priorities of the law school. Even if the current grading system were essential for employers in hiring law students, the law school should be more concerned with the best interests of its students. The significant doubt surrounding the proposition that the current system is indeed essential or even the most beneficial for employers only further supports a reformation of the system.

  • This edit undertook what was obviously necessary to give structure to the first draft, to simplify its diction and to make its grammar regular. These were important steps. But the essay is still ludicrously long-winded. It uses 970 words to say less on the subject than I say in the first 350 words of the introduction to the EvaluationPolicy. Once you had made order out of Aaron's first draft (a process very much like the one that your own first draft required and your revision of that draft did not fully achieve), which you did well, you should have been able to cut its size in half, leaving you with 500 words in which to accomplish something more.


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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:27:07 - IanSullivan
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