Law in Contemporary Society

Who's running this show, anyway?

The subordination of intellectual development in law school policy

-- By LaurenRosenberg


On February 25, I attended a meeting with Dean Schizer to discuss grading policies and procedures. I knew this might leave an awful taste in my mouth, since leaders do not “discuss” situations with the masses until after a decision is made. I attended anyway and learned that Columbia was unlikely to change grading policies because: (1) employers prefer the current system for its ability to differentiate us from our classmates, and (2) the pass/fail policy at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford will benefit us since employers are more likely to hire students whom they can differentiate. I was awestruck. By subordinating student intellectual development to law firm hiring practices, the issue was already decided before it was raised.

Fundamental Flaw

It is a fundamental flaw to focus on quantitative results (employability, endowments, school ranking) instead of, and often at the expense of, student intellectual development. Columbia Law School originally gained prestige in these quantitative areas as a result of intellectual pursuits, teaching by renowned scholars, and learning opportunities in a variety of legal areas. Shifting the focus to grades and employability, the by-product of learning, misses the point. Grades are merely an assessment of what we learn (although the subjectivity of the current process conveys a sense of magic); yet Columbia has lost sight of intellectual development as its foundation. I identify three factors that may have led to this fundamental flaw.

Law Firm Sponsorship

Extensive law firm sponsorship allows the learning process of students to be dependent upon the desires of future employers. Law firms sponsor a range of activities, including moot court, student events, PILF Auction, and Deans Cup. These firms are also substantial donors, illustrated by plaques in the Jerome Greene lobby. A change in the grading system will likely require employers to distinguish among students through extracurricular activities, longer interviews, and faculty recommendations. These means of evaluation may be more time-consuming (and hence, more costly) than glancing at a transcript, but they are also likely to be more informative of individual legal skills. If Columbia’s economic interests were not tied to the interests of employers, law firms’ reluctance to change evaluation methods would not determine, or come at the expense of, intellectual development.

Faculty Priorities

Students suggested to Dean Schizer that feedback opportunities, such as written evaluations, would greatly improve grading policies. The Dean explained that teachers do not have sufficient time to provide meaningful feedback in lecture classes. This assumes the continuation of the current system, where teachers are encouraged to prioritize publications and to limit student interaction to class and office hours. Extra time facilitating student development is purely discretionary. But, feedback would significantly enable students to improve their legal skills and would provide employers relevant placement information. A focus on intellectual development requires more than handing out grades; to develop as legal scholars, students must understand their strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities for improvement from their teachers.

Competitive Rankings

As a top-tier law school Columbia tries to ensure that prestige is not diminished. Dean Schizer suggested that the recent changes at Yale, Harvard, and Stanford led to this reconsideration of grading policies. Although it is very important to discuss grading policies, the sole impetus should not be changes at other competitive schools. When the primary focus is competition rather than student intellectual development, we create a fundamental flaw where we improve the learning process only when it enhances our quantitative results in the legal community.

Towards A Proper Inquiry

When intellectual development is the center of the inquiry, the issues are distinctly different from those raised by Dean Schizer. What grading system would better enable students to collaborate? Does the current system stifle unique thought for fear that it will not be the generally accepted response? Would a pass/fail system lessen incentives to read and study? Does the subjectivity of the current system create arbitrary distinctions among students?

The Current Grading System

In discussing these questions with classmates, many students believe that the current system inhibits effective learning. First, the focus on grades creates an exam-centered outlook, where students only learn what will appear in examinations. The intricacies of legal theory are overlooked since they are unimportant in a short exam. Second, competition occurs when learning is a zero-sum game.

The Pass/Fail System

Students are also concerned that a pass/fail system may lessen incentives to learn. If the system provides only two options (pass or fail), then students may be less likely to attend class and complete reading. Alternatively, if the system includes a high pass, students may devote all their effort to only a few classes (to receive a high pass in those courses). Opinions differ as to the probability of these effects. Nonetheless, everyone agrees that we should observe the results at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.


Subordinating student interests precludes consideration of these issues. In uncertain times, the primary importance of intellectual development reveals itself. Students who attend a law school that prioritizes academic improvement can achieve this goal regardless of economic prosperity. These students will graduate with legal skills and general intellectual development that will benefit them in any field of employment. But, when students attend a school that prioritizes employability, why are they not refunded tuition when their offers are terminated or deferred? Now is the time for Columbia to straighten its priorities and return to the foundation of student intellectual development.


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r8 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:10:38 - IanSullivan
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