Thoughts on First-Year Law School Grades:
[Note to readers: I posted this last year, but thought I would bring it up again, with a few minor modifications.] 'Tis the season in which law school grades are announced, which means that tens of thousands of law students around the country are trying to figure out what their grades mean. The VC has a lot of law student readers, so I thought some comments about grades from the other side of the podium might be helpful. In particular, I wanted to address two questions that I suspect are on the minds of lots of law students: First, how important are first-year grades, and second, are law school grades random? Both are big topics that are hard to cover well in a blog post, but I'll at least try to touch on a few ideas and hope an incomplete answer is better than no answer at all.

  I'll start with a few thoughts on the importance of law school grades. It's hard to offer a one-size-fits-all perspective, but yes, 1L grades ordinarily are very important in the short term. There are so many law students and so many employers out there that employers tend to rely on proxies to to determine which law students will make the best attorneys. The most obvious proxies are an applicant's school and GPA, in part because there isn't much else to go on when the applicant is only a student. The basic problem is limited information: employers need an easy way to screen candidates down to a small enough group to interview, and the school/GPA combo is a quick and easy screen. Different employers look for different combos: some employers favor school A over school B, others B over A (generally depending on whether big shots at the firm went to school A or B). And some employers focus more on grades than others. In general, though, the school/GPA combo is used as a sorting mechanism by many legal employers hiring people out of law school. The use of proxies can continue out in to the future, too: One employer might use the proxy of a prior employer to get a rough sense of ability.

  With that said, fall 1L exam grades are probably less important than most people think. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, lots of people find that their first-semester grades are pretty different from their later semester grades. It takes some students more time than others to get "the game" of how to answer a law school exam question, and when they do their grades go way up. Second, your law school GPA is much less important — and in many cases, completely irrelevant — after your first job. Once you're out of school for a bit, people care whether you are a good attorney, not your law school GPA. Third, the fact that a) judges are hiring clerks later, and b) law review at most schools is becoming less grade-based and more write-on based is tending to make 1L fall grades less important than they used to be. If law review at your school is based on a write-on competition, your grades don't matter for it; and if judges are hiring clerks based on more than their 1L grades, your 1L grades are comparatively less important than they used to be.

  Finally, it's important not to let lower-than-expected grades become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Recognize the psychological game going on here: many students expect their fall 1L grades to give them a lightning bolt of insight about their future in the legal profession. Too many students think that grades are destiny, and begin to take steps to readjust their expectations to what they think is their destiny. A student who gets a B+ in Torts and a B in Contracts just might think to herself, "Well, maybe I should practice tort law, because I'm better at that." Some students react to the sting of lower-than-expected grades by tuning out, by deciding law is dumb, and by concluding that they just aren't good at it.

  I urge all students not to take that path. All grades do is measure how well you did relative to your classmates on a few 3-hour exams taken at a particular place at a particular time. They're only a snapshot of how well you displayed your ability at one particular time in the judgment of one particular professor, rather than a Scarlet Letter (whether A, B, or worse) sewn on for life. Plus, it's just this kind of attitude that makes it less likely your grades will improve. By tuning out, you'll only make it more likely that you won't do as well as you should next time. My advice is to stick with it: get your old exams back, review them, and make sure you know what you did wrong. Then have faith in yourself and your smarts that you can improve your grades in the spring.

  Okay, on to the next question: Are law school grades random? Many students think so. They usually reach this conclusion after getting back their grades, and finding that they had better grades in the classes they hated and expected to fail than in the classes they loved and expected to ace. There's no rhyme or reason to these silly letters, the thinking goes; the profs must just throw them down the stairs and see where they land.

  Not quite. To be sure, grades are at least a little bit random. For example, different professors have different approaches when they grade. Some pore over exams for hours, others read them pretty quickly. Some use a point system that gives you credit for mentioning an argument, others focus more on how skillfully you make the arguments. Some take off points for incorrect answers, others just don't add any. Some care about how well you write, others don't. Plus, it is by nature extremely difficult (if not impossible) to turn essay exams into a reliable and objective numerical score that accurately measures legal ability. The process requires judgment, judgment brings discretion, and discretion can be unpredictable.

  But there are two important reasons why grades may seem random when they are not. First, in law it's hard to know how much or how little you know. It's surprisingly easy to have a false sense of security, or a false sense of insecurity, about a course or an exam. Consider exams. Most law school exam questions are "issue spotters," and it's quite hard to gauge how well you answered an issue-spotter. If you miss all of the big difficult issues, you will think that the problem is easy for you and that you aced it. If you see all of the big issues, you will think that the problem is impossibly hard and consider yourself a failure for being unable to know for sure how to resolve all of the difficult questions. The more you know, the more you see the difficulties of the problem and the more you know how little you know. The same goes for courses, too: the more you understand an area of law, the harder it seems to be. Of course, the student who sees all of the hard issues in a course and on an exam and grapples with those difficulties gets a high grade; the student who misses the issues and wrongly thinks the hard questions are easy does not.

  The second reason grades may seem random when they are not is that grades are almost always curved. You are graded not on how well you did in an absolute sense, but rather on how well you did relative to everyone else in your class. This means that your grade won't necessarily correlate to how much you knew, or how well you answered the questions on the exam. If you totally clicked with crim law, but hated and never understood civ pro, you may get a higher grade in civ pro than crim because lots of other people in the class felt the same way and spent way more time mastering crim law than studying civ pro. (And as a crim law prof, I have to say, who can blame them?) Similarly, if the exam in a particular class was unusually hard, you may end up with a top grade in the course simply because you were less lost on the exam than most of your classmates. Again, perceptions of your performance won't always match the curve-induced reality.
Humble Law Student:
Very well put Professor K. There seems to be an inverse relationship between one's grade and how one feels after taking an exam (at least for me!). My best grade was in a class that I thought I bombed. While in the class I thought I had aced, I received my worst grade. go figure
1.23.2006 6:05pm
Humble Law Student:
One more point. I had a perfect correlation between how much I liked the professor and how well I did in the class. Maybe i'm young and stupid for being swayed so easily, but my fondness for the professior, prior to the test, tracked exactly to my grades.
1.23.2006 6:07pm
Bitter Lawyer (mail):
You make many good points in this post. But you are commenting from your relatively comfortable position as a law school professor. Talk to some recent law school graduates, and they are likely to give you a different, less circumspect view. In my experience as a 2004 graduate(and not to strike terror into the hearts of law students out there), 1L semester grades are the alpha and omega of obtaining employment after graduation.

I got Bs and a B+ in my first semester at a top 25 law school, and followed up in later semesters with a smattering of A's, A-'s and B's. When interview season came around second year, I got precisely one interview with a private law firm. One interview. Not suprisingly, I did not get a job as a summer associate for the all-important 3L summer. I worked instead for the local DA's office and garnered actual in-court experience. Upon graduating, I didn't yet have a job and was reduced to working for a contract attorney agency for the last year and a half (during which time I estimate I have sent out 150+ resumes).

I attribute this in part (until recently) to a bad economy, and in part to being in a competitive job market. But there is no question whatsoever that my first year grades set me off on this disspiriting road.
1.23.2006 6:09pm
Jarhead315 (mail):
Orin: I appreciate the effort to put students at ease, but that dog won't hunt. I saw very little variation in grades after 1st semester. It seemed like wherever people's grades were after that semester is where they stayed for the next three years. My own first semester GPA was practically identical to my final overall GPA.

The grading process did seem random, for all the reasons you cite. It seems to me (in hindsight) that some students "saw" the issues, and others, no matter how hard they studied, didn't. On professor (I can't believe he copped to this) said that he basically graded by "gestalt, " i.e. how the exam struck him on first blush.

But I think for all that, law school is a good reminder that life is not fair, that hard work will not get you everywhere, and that failure can be a useful (albeit tough) life lesson. For many of my fellow students, law school was the first time in their lives they they were not number one. It was an important lesson in humility, I think. The important thing was being able to get up after falling down.
1.23.2006 6:20pm

I agree with you about the importance of getting up after falling down, but I'm not sure what to make of your comment about grades changing over time: Is your argument that because your own grades didn't change over time, grades must remain the same for others, as well?
1.23.2006 6:31pm
Chico's Bail Bonds (mail):
In my opinion, a grade in an individual class can often be very poor indicator of how well someone learned that subject area. However, I think a student's GPA over all three years of law school is fairly accurate measure of a student's performance. I agree, though, an overall GPA can be skewed low for those who were late to catch onto "the game."
1.23.2006 6:33pm
JLR (mail):
Prof Kerr -- I have found your post very informative. A question: is it better to get As at a second-tier law school (say, Syracuse) than Bs at a top 20 law school (say, GWU Law)?

Similarly, is it better to get As at a law school like BU or GWU, or Bs at a Yale or Harvard?

1.23.2006 6:38pm
boonelsj (mail):
I'd say in the long run that 1L grades aren't that important, but in the short run, they're very important, at least if you want to get that high-paying, big firm job out of school. In the mechanical FIP process that begins 2L year, grades (and journal/moot court to lesser extent, IMO) are what get you out of the stack of a billion resumes and into at least a screening interview. At that point maybe you can overcome subpar grades with a great personality, but you won't even get in the door without decent 1L marks. I'm sure that varies depending on where you go to school and what market you're targetting, but that was my experience at a top 25% school.

Also, first semester grades have a big impact on what kind of job/internship you can land after 1L year, which in turn has an impact on your 2l FIP prospects (i.e., looks better that you interned for a judge than that you were a barista).
1.23.2006 7:20pm
Guest poster (mail):
People's grades can radically improve after their first semester. After a very disappointing first semester, I went to every professor and asked them comments. I rewrote every single exam from start to finish until I was confident they were perfect, and set up a structural game plan to do every future exam. My second semester, I received A,A,A and my third semester, which I recently completed, I received A,A,A again. (This is at a top 6 law school.) I realize this is atypical, but it is certainly not impossible.
1.23.2006 7:22pm
Justin (mail):
Just to chime in with Guest Poster, I also got mediocre results over my first year from a top 6 school, but made intospective changes to my behavior (in part ignoring grades and focusing on having a desire to learn for learning's sake, ironically), and my grades went from about middle of the pack to top 3% my second and third years. I also landed a federal appellate clerkship.

As guest mentioned, such results are atypical. But as Orin noted - what law school graders look for ur first year compared to your second and third years are different. While the 1st year is designed to see if you "get" the law, something almost every law student accomplished by the time they graduate anyway, the 2nd and 3rd year courses are designed to test your ability to manipulate and apply the subject matter - a far more useful skill, given what I've seen in practice so far.
1.23.2006 7:30pm
m (mail):
"All grades do is measure how well you did relative to your classmates on a few 3-hour exams taken at a particular place at a particular time."

This raises an interesting question, which is why the one-shot exam system is both ubiquitous in, and unique, to law schools. I have yet to hear a compelling defense for this grading system that does not rely on some type of efficiency argument (i.e., professors don't have time). Somehow, professors in all other disciplines manage to grade hundreds of mid-terms, exams, papers, etc. But, for the most part (aside from the seminar now and then), law schools professors have managed to escape this responsibility. Fairness can't be an argument here because mid-terms, quizzes, and even papers (in large classes) can be blind-graded.

There is an element of hypocrisy here as well. As Orin mentions above, there are hardly any law reviews that define membership solely according to grades. If they did, the faculty or administration would surely intervene, arguing that a pure "grading-on" policy disadvantages those students who fair better in competitions that incorporate research and writing (arguably a better method for tracking success in legal practice and academia). But if that's true, then on what basis can professors defend the use of exams (which are constitutive of first year grades) for evaluating their students? Professors would oppose the use of exams for grading on, but not for their own determinations. That seems rather inconsistent, and there seems to be an obvious (if rather uncharitable) explanation: when others are making evaluations, professors would rather they use complex metrics, which inevitable take time and careful judgment. But when professors do the job, anything more than a one-shot exam is too much trouble.

(As an aside: it's probably false that law review membership makes grades any less important in the judicial clerkship process. There can only be anecdotal evidence for this, but grades are still by far the primary determinant in the hiring process.)
1.23.2006 7:31pm
T E (mail):
I don't dispute that 1L grades can be important in determing who gets the "prestige" jobs right out of law school.

But isn't the bigger question whether or that that should be the goal in the first place? Yes, you will get north of $100K to start. But that is for 1) working 80 hours a week 2) having about a 10% chance of making partner after 6 or 8 years of doing so and all for the privilege (often times) of assisting large corporations screw people. Is that what you want out of life?
1.23.2006 7:54pm
In reviewing law student transcripts, looking at first year grades can provide a good guidepost. At that point in time, students are not picking an "easy" professor, an "easy" class, or gaming the system in other ways such as taking a pass/fail class to create more time for studying for other exams.
I have heard it argued that 1L grades are the only time you can really compare law students. This is perhaps especially true in the clerkship context where there is a desire for raw intellect, someone who "got it" early. Bad news, I know.
1.23.2006 7:58pm
"Randomness" is often produced by a lack of crucial information. In this case, as Orin points out, the missing information is usually exactly how a given professor goes about the process of grading exams--in other words, the students have to guess about a given professor's grading habits and preferences, because they have little useful information about those factors when they take the exam.

That sort of information is difficult--indeed, nearly impossible--for the professor to reliably communicate just by description. And even reading prior exams and model answers is of only limited use to the students. In part that is because the professors are often not clear about the criteria that were being used to grade prior exams (and why should they give much feedback, since that particular student will be doing no more work for that class?). In general, it is difficult for students to assess how a given professor will grade's one own work from how that professor graded another's work.

In most academic contexts, this problem is addressed by having multiple graded papers, exams, and so on, usually building up in weight during the course. Good professors will give informative and constructive comments on these earlier tasks. This process gives the students the opportunity to learn the habits and preferences of their professor as applied to their own work.

Like M, I have never been satisifed with the reasons I have been given for why law school courses typically don't follow this approach, but rather are usually graded on the basis of a single exam. And in my view, such a system is inevitably more "random" in the sense above, which is unfortunate.
1.23.2006 8:29pm
Pooh (www):
Sadly, I have to agree with the posters who find that 1L grades are of great importance. Annectdotally, none of my classmates not in the top 25% got "BigLaw" 2L summers, and very few even got call-back interviews. (I had one experience where I drove home from the initial interview to find the thin envelope in my mailbox).

A related issue was that not all professors grade equally. Even with a 'fixed' curve, the willingness of professors to give very high or very low grades has an enormous effect. For example, in my 1L year, my section had two profs (contracts and ConLaw) who gave a grand total of 3 A+'s (and a similar number of very low scores) while other sections experienced a much broader range of scores. (Whether this was due to actual difference in grading habits or a greater homogeneity of my section, I can't but speculate). Now, the average was constant across sections, but it was far easier to make top quartile from the higher variance professors.
1.23.2006 8:47pm
Christopher M. (mail):
and all for the privilege (often times) of assisting large corporations screw people

To be fair, most of the time you're either helping large corporations screw each other, or helping stop large corporations (who have no doubt screwed certain people) from being screwed by overly aggressive plaintiff's lawyers (whose clients aren't the ones that the corporation screwed).
1.23.2006 9:26pm
My experience is that the grades, especially 1L grades are an indication of law students' skill at being first year associates in a big firm. At the end of the day, whatever slight variations there are among professors does not elide the fact that you are graded on your ability to (i) spot issues; and (ii) apply the substantive law to those issues. That's it. Spotting issues and applying the law. The students that do that well score highly in 1L, and the rest of law school. They also make great back office attorneys. (There are completely different skill sets necessary to be an in-court litigator or to develop a client base. But law schools aren't trying to develop lawyers. They are trying to develop big firm associates - and the issue spotting exam is a good way to do it. )
1.23.2006 9:44pm

Your rundown is an excellent explanation of some of the factors that go into grades and their perception among law students. By the time we graduated, most of my classmates had agreed that the phenomenon could easily be described thusly:

1. It's impossible to know how you did based on how you feel leaving the exam.
2. Nothing good can come from discussing it.

(By the way, the B+ you gave me was the lowest grade I received in law school)

1.23.2006 10:01pm
I think exams are generally a fair assessment of basic lawyering skills, but it's unfortunate that so much turns on only first year grades. On top of the problems mentioned above regarding professor variance, I think two semesters is simply too small a sample size to draw reliable conclusions from. Especially since the difference between top 10% and top 30% can often turn on a half-grade difference on one or two exams. Correct me if I'm wrong, but in my experience it seems the difference between a B and a B+, or a B+ and a A- can often come from a single missed or mishandled issue, or even something more subjective. I suspect that a fair amount of good students don't make it into the top 10% and a number of students luck their way into the top 10%.
1.23.2006 10:02pm
Dustin (mail):
etseq, that may be true, but none of that top 10%, even the ones who lucked into a slightly better GPA, are poor students.

Grades are the only way to discern some tendancy for competance.... unless you want to submit your LSAT!

In other words, the employers have no choice. This method isn't perfect, but it is crudely fair.
1.23.2006 10:14pm
Mobius (mail):
I agreed with EtSeq. The difference between an A-, B+, and B was one or two missed or mishandled issues. This is based on professor comments and my grades in relation to others. This is a very fine gradient. This could lead to two individuals who are very close in intelligence getting very different grades.

I was surprised that individuals that understood the black letter law did not get good grades. This lead me to question the validity of the grades. These students are well spoken, have outstanding writing, and know the black letter law verbatim.

Also, I made the highest grade in a course I studied least for. Not because I thought the subject was easy to me or that I liked the material, but because I was burnt out by the time I got to that exam. Maybe less is more; I don't know. I felt I should have come out of the exam with a much lower score.

Finally, the position I am in relation to other members of the school does not correlate to the my LSAT score or my UGPA. I scored not only higher than expected but much higher than expected. I cannot resolve the issues of intelligence, study habits, and law school admittance indicators in relation to the grades I received.
1.23.2006 10:19pm
I'm not questioning that grades are by far the most efficient means of finding good first year associates, but why the emphasis on first year grades to the exclusion of second year grades and everything else? I would think by the second year one could have a much more reliable picture.

Again, in the scheme of things, I'm not sure there's a better way, I just find it unfortunate. Perhaps it's not even worth getting a fuller and more reliable picture, since such a large percentage of first year associates at big firms end up quitting after a few years anyway. And for this big firms throw absurd market-clearing wages at first year associates? The legal job market just makes little sense to me....
1.23.2006 10:33pm
Humble Law Student:

Since when do that many profs care about the black letter law? Black letter law gets you a B at most.
1.23.2006 11:19pm
Mobius (mail):
Humble Law Student,

Good point, but one can make the point that not knowing the BLL can hurt your analysis. I would not dream of discussing some of the subjects on this board without at least looking at some of the substantive law first. Without knowing the law first I can only make policy arguments and one only needs a political science degree to do that.
1.23.2006 11:29pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
I am sorry but my experience is different from your post. I got a 3.1 GPA my first semester, a 3.2 my second semester, and a 3.73 my 3rd semester. I still don't have a job lined up this summer, even though I am now top-25 in a class of 120. Yet, everyone who made the Dean's list the first 2 semesters has a job. I may be wrong, but my experience is that you'd better start strong if you want a decent job in your 2nd year.
1.23.2006 11:45pm
If one was picking tasks to test for future ability as a lawyer, I don't think three hour in-class exams would be high on the list. Something like researching and writing a memo or brief in a few days would be more line with legal practice.
1.24.2006 12:01am
I think the frustration among law students is derived from the fact that, at least among the top 25 schools, most students who give an effort clearly have a very good understanding of the material covered in class. In my study groups I was constantly amazed at what my peers had learned and at their ability to analyze sample questions. Many of them were brilliant and many those same students made fairly poor grades.

I also completely disagree with the "first year grades don't matter" argument. In my experience they are the Alpha and the Omega. If you are not top 20% you will almost assuredly NEVER work at BigLaw (depending on your school) and if you are not top 20% at a lower tier school you may never even practice law at all. I can't count the number of friends I have who had to give up on their law career because they couldn't get ANY job other than document review contract work (which is barely legal work at all).

The dirty secret among the law schools is that they are selling a qualification that there is not much of a demand for outside the market for top 20% attorneys. You won't find the story of the other 80% in any of their mean salary or employment statistics though.
1.24.2006 12:19am
Wintermute (www):
There are several paths through law school as there are many paths through life. One of the least distinguished students in my class is now a household word because of his use of advertising.

If you want to go the judge clerkship route, you're going to need the writing samples law review provides, and grades at a certain level are usually necessary to get there. OTOH, #1 in my class had a nervous breakdown and quit the firm that thought she was a catch. I had the highest LSAT in the history of my school but only managed top 1/3, staying busy helping professors with their computers and editing their articles.

Sometimes I thought regurgitating what each professor stressed, rather than attempting your own original thought, was key to the best grade. This not being my natural inclination, however, I came to realize that I got the best grades from my smartest professors. 8-)
1.24.2006 1:55am
anon 2l:
I'm a 2L now, and all I know is that my C in LR&W is still hurting me, even though I'm on journal and my school's moot court team.
1.24.2006 2:12am
Wintermute is on to something. Once tactic that led me to get some of my best grades in LS was to simply go and pull profs papers. Invariably, the hypotheticals on tests, or perhaps the policy questions that made the difference between and A and a B+, were variants of one of the prof's pet theories. Regurgitate their point of view back to them and profs think you are smart. Challenge them and you will get a lower grade - even though you may be correct in your conclusion, they have been researching the issue for a long time.

After not caring my first year, pulling the mean, I went to every class second year, swallowed my pride and regurgitated to the profs I didn't agree with and I received very high marks across the board. After I had a job I wanted, I went back to not caring and only doing well in classes where I liked, respected and agreed, conceptually, with the professor.

I don't think that 1L grades are as important as a lot of people make them out to be. At my relatively large firm, I interview people with marginal grades from a lot of 'top 25' west coast schools. This year, we had a very hard time finding people to take a job. And most people do not get dinged in interviews or callbacks because of grades - it is because they have no interviewing or interpersonal skills.

If people want jobs, I'd suggest reading a few books on body language, interviewing and how to behave in an organizational environment. The proportion of students with good grades who just do not have even the slightest clue how to present themselves is ridiculously high. From slovenly dress, to constant nodding of the head, to interrupting you when you speak, to having absolutely nothing to say and seeming robotic to using vulgarity or just seeming desperate - I have seen it all.

Ultimately, success as an associate is predicated on basic workplace skills - showing up on time, being pleasant, knowing your place, being assertive at the right time, being prepared so that when you are needed to give an opinion it is a well founded one and taking instruction (this is huge - so few of the junior associates even pay attention to what i am asking them to do and hand in useless work product as a result). Too bad law schools don't teach students how to be good employees.

The best thing I ever did was to not go straight to law school and picked up some managerial and other business skills.

Grades do matter, they get you screening interviews. And maybe at big, big, big law firms (and why one would want to work at these places is beyond me - doing document review is not good training) they won't look past grades because they do not have to. There are a million different ways to get jobs at bigger firms, though. And, btw, all the wealthiest, happiest lawyers I know do not work at the big firms. You cannot work your way to the top at these places, only the middle, which is a lot of work, grief and responsibility to still be an employee.

Just my $.03
1.24.2006 2:16am
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Before the 1st Gross Anatomy test the 2d week of medical school, one of the professors cautioned us to study hard as students medical school performance usually could be predicted from their first exam grade. I hate to admit it, but hes probably right.
1.24.2006 6:44am
nc_litigator (mail):
what i remember most about 1L year (top 25 school) is how during the first semester, there was such joy in learning the law among the student body.

then first semester grades came out. many people who had been very successful in life (grades, jobs, etc.) were not happy. in fact, they were crushed.

lectures were not same after that. there was no joy in Mudtown.

did it have an effect on job prospects? for BigLaw, yes yes yes. for clerkships? yes. did it suck to get that dose of reality? Yes. Did the future law school professors fully digest the effect of all this on their less fortunate comrades? Yes and no.
1.24.2006 9:26am
JLR (mail):
I realize a day later that I did not phrase my question in the most artful way.

Prof Kerr's post provides much information as to the value of 1L grades vertically -- i.e., from 1L to 2L to 3L to post-law-school career. I am curious about the value of 1L grades horizontally -- across law schools around the country. If one gets some Bs the 1L fall semester, does it matter which school you're at in terms of tiers? (i.e. tier 2 vs. tier 1; law schools 20-50 vs. top 20; etc.)

But perhaps this is a question with no answer, since it depends on a case-by-case analysis, and what each student wishes to do with his law career. However (and I'll put this very bluntly), it would be nice to know (as a prospective law student) that someone with a mixture of As and Bs from a tier-two law school (i.e., 50-100) his first semester of 1L still has a decent shot of landing an associateship at a quality law firm. Otherwise, the pressure will be too intense for my taste.

Thank you.
1.24.2006 9:28am
Ahh, now I realize why my law school posted 1L grades 4 hours after the last tuition-refund deadline passed. They were doing me a favor!
1.24.2006 10:10am
Bitter Lawyer (mail):
Let me associate myself with bcnd's comment. Bad grades, or even plain not-great grades in your first year equals the very real possibility of not finding meaningful legal work. Period. By "meaningful legal work," I don't necessarily mean being hired by a large and prestigious law firm. I mean finding a job doing anything more substantive than document review.
1.24.2006 10:16am
TechieLaw (mail):

Every time in life that you want to jump from one situation to another, you're evaluated by others using proxies. Nobody really knows how you'll perform at the next step until you're actually there; they're taking an educated guess based on what's worked in the past.

And therein lies the problem. Law school exams are proxies for how well you will perform at a BigLaw firm. Undergrad grades and LSAT scores are proxies for law school grades. (I could go on: does anybody else remember that scene in the movie Baby Boom where a mother becomes depressed that her baby didn't get into the right preschool because of the effect that decision will have on the kid's application to Harvard?)

If these proxies were 100% accurate I should have never gotten into law school. I was probably in the bottom 5% of my undergrad class. Applying to law school was an excruciating experience of rejection after rejection. Thankfully, a single school decided to look beyond the usual proxy of undergrad GPA and decided to give me a chance. (I could discuss the hypocrisy of complaining about how U.S. News and World Report uses GPA as a proxy for law school, at the same time that I used USNW as a proxy for choosing my schools. But that's a different topic.) After all that, it's rather amusing that a single year of law school grades "decided" that I will be a better lawyer than the 90% of my classmates I outperformed, including a number of people with Ph.Ds, some of whom were quite bitter about the whole process. I can honestly say that some of these folks were far better at arguing in front of a judge for our moot court assignment than I would ever be.

While I applied for jobs last fall, I spoke with a U Penn student who was in the bottom third of his class, but had 7 offers. A partner at a major firm told me that he was about to make an offer to a student from a top-10 school with "lousy" grades. But, if you're at my school, grades in the top third won't even get you the screening interview. Last year, two colleagues who were hiring partners for top firms advised me to apply as a transfer student to Harvard because of the difference it would make in my education and job prospects (I didn't). If I'm the same competent attorney, why should the name of my school matter as a proxy for my potential for success?

The problem isn't proxies themselves, since everybody uses them to make decisions where perfect information isn't available, but that those in the position to make decisions have placed themselves in a straitjacket of "acceptable" proxies, and won't (or can't) re-evaluate the usefulness of their proxies. Perhaps USNW is partly responsible for this on all levels from law school admissions to law school hiring: if a school drops in ranking because it admitted a few promising students with awful GPAs, that school's students suffer in their future job prospects. Personally, I think the system is very broken, but I doubt that any individual school (or firm) will have the courage to break the mold on its own.
1.24.2006 10:23am
Lamont Cranston:
The amusing thing is how little satisfaction anyone has with their legal education.

I loved undergrad. Going to school was generally the high point of my day. I assumed that law school would be the same, but I found it to be the most intellectually sterile environment since high school.

If it were not for the ABA acting as a guild for the profession, the entire structure of law school would change overnight. Law school does not prepare you to practice, does not guarantee a job, and only allows you to regurgitate the ideas of others.

1.24.2006 10:30am
Houston Lawyer:
You cannot overstate the importance of first year grades. When I was in law school, we didn't get final grades until the end of the spring semester. Then you began interviewing in the fall of your second year for summer associate jobs. We used number grades back then, and the cut off for the top third of the class was a 78. I can definitively state that having a 77 cut your job opportunities tremendously. Fortunately, for me, my second year grades improved substantially, pulling up my average.

The system is cruel, but fair.
1.24.2006 10:36am
TechieLaw (mail):
Lamont: I don't find it a sterile environment at all. Law school exams are regurgitation of other's ideas in the same way that a calculus exam tests your ability to regurgitate mathematical formulas. Unlike a calc exam, though, a good law school seminar will let you debate the policy issues behind the application of blackletter law. You can't discuss how the system should work until you understand its current rules. (My opinion, as a 2L. Give me a few years in the real world and maybe I'll change my mind.)

As far as whether or not law school prepares one for real law work: I have absolutely no idea. I thought that my 1L classes gave me a good structural background for my first summer law job, but YMMV.
1.24.2006 10:54am
Lamont Cranston:
TechieLaw: I'm a 3L. I got to work at a firm last summer, but the summer before that I drove a tractor (I had anomolously low grades my first semester). At the firm, I drafted motions and pleadings and I wrote research memos. The only one of those things I have done in law school was write one research memo in legal research and writing.

To illustrate my point, how many new graduates do you think could, immediately after being liscensed, competently conduct a trial by themselves (or with only paralegal assistance)? How about negotiating a settlement while filing motions and pleadings? I think the answer is none.

If medical students knew as little about practicing medicine when they graduate as law students know about practicing law, we would have a lot more med malp work.

Instead of training people to be lawyers, law school trains them to serve other lawyers who will in turn teach the student the craft. It's a shame they don't just reinstitute a form of apprenticeship, where we might actually learn something. I certainly learned a lot more about practicing law in three months at a firm than in 2.5 years in law school.

Debating policy is fine in class, but it's a good way to get a C on an exam, and I find that most students are so concerned with doing well on exams that they're not interested in policy debates in class or elsewhere.
1.24.2006 11:09am
I, like Lamont, found my undergraduate work (Economics) to be much more interesting. The four elements of fraud are neither very interesting nor very hard to comprehend.

Outside of the black letter law, all you really learn is "how to think like a lawyer" and 100k is a lot to pay for quasi-skills such as that.
1.24.2006 11:15am
TechieLaw (mail):

I think you may have misunderstood me. I agree with you that a law school exam is about regurgitation of blackletter law and showing some competence in applying it to a facts pattern. This is no different than a calculus or engineering exam, except that law school fact patterns allow for more wishy-washy results. Policy played very little part in the grading of 1L classes. But the ability to argue policy well plays a much larger part in upper-level seminars where the grade is based on class participation and a final paper rather than an exam.

I have an undergrad engineering degree (which, as I said above, I did incredibly poorly at). As with law, my undergrad degree didn't train me to competently manage the technology environment at a large financial company. It just gave me enough background that I could learn from a more-experienced supervisor, until I reached a level where I could teach myself what I needed to know. Could I have done this all on my own without my education? Possibly. Over the years, I had a single colleague who was entirely self-taught. But I ascribe my ability to get that job, at least in part, to having a few letters after my name which said that I'd received basic training.

Most medical students I know aren't capable of practicing medicine directly out of med school. That's why they do poorly-compensated residencies where they put in 36 hour days.

My school has a program for those who want to do trial work. Those in the program must conduct a trial from beginning to end over the course of a few weeks. It's supervised by actual trial attorneys rather than professors, and supposedly a few students who excel get offers of employment from the attorneys.
1.24.2006 11:37am
Lamont Cranston:
At my school seminars are not that common, and most students only take one or two. I agree that there was plenty of opportunity for policy talk in the one that I took, and it was the most fun I've had in law school.

I agree that doctors do not emerge from med school able to do brain surgery. But they can treat bronchitis, or an infection, or a broken arm, or many other things, and I don't think that they need the constant hand-holding that new lawyers do.

I think that your analogy to engineering is not entirely apt. I don't know what the basic unit of engineering work is, but for (litigating) lawyers, it is motions, pleadings, negotiating a settlement, and occaisionally trial. I suspect that most new lawyers can do none of those things competently without supervision.
1.24.2006 11:47am

A lot of the problem, of course, is the differences between different areas of the law, in terms of both subject matter and geography. In other words, doctors all work on the same basic structure--the human body--but lawyers have to deal with different laws, different tasks, and different procedures in different fields and different places.

For that reason, any attempts by law schools to develop a lot of specific skills would be largely wasted by most of their law students in the future. Instead, it makes sense for lawyers to acquire the specific skills they need in their field and jurisdiction during some sort of apprenticeship period.

But I do think those considerations suggest that law school could be shorter than three years, since the benefits of a general legal education are plausibly exhausted relatively quickly. And in the meantime, lawyers are simply delaying their necessary apprenticeship.
1.24.2006 12:49pm
vcoheda (mail):
I graduated in the top 5% of my class from a non tier-1 law school. I had a few interviews with big firms, some of them meaningful. However, I was not made an offer. I don't know if my interviewing skills were poor, or my personality bland, or, at the end of the day, my school was just not up to par, but I was very disappointed and struggled to find decent work with respectable pay for my remaining two years. I now work at a big law firm in a non-associate capacity (although not a temp). The work is bland but the pay is decent.

My point is that, outside of connections, getting good grades in your first year is the only way to give yourself the opportunity to work at a big firm as a associate, although it does not guarantee it. Also, if you think grades are not terribly important, then you must be content working for 40-55K at a small law firm or a state job. You may learn a lot (maybe) but the pay is very low for a 3-year, professional degree. Ten percent or so or every class makes well over six figures; the rest, almost nothing.

I think that is why many lawyers are bitter.
1.24.2006 1:02pm

I think there is in fact a greater margin for error in grades, particularly in terms of big law firm and judicial clerk hiring, the higher-ranked the job applicant's school.

In fact, it appears to me that at least in theory, firms and judges may be on average too generous with the students from higher-ranked schools and too strict with the students from lower-ranked schools (based on my comparisons of reported grade/school cutoffs and the LSAT/UGPA distributions of the relevant law schools). On the other hand, that theoretical over-generosity with higher-ranked schools may be justifiable in light of search costs (eg, such costs may motivate limiting how many schools a given employer will visit for recruiting), value-added considerations, signalling effects, or so on.

In any event, if I am right about all this, then attending a higher-ranked school may in fact give one the benefit of this generosity, regardless of its justification or cause. In other words, it may be true that it is a good idea to attend the highest-ranked school you can get into, all else being equal of course.
1.24.2006 1:15pm
Fancy Lawyer:
I've tried posting this message twice, both times having it fail and get cleared. This time it will be very brief. I would like to respond to Orin's mealy-mouthed "All grades do is measure how well you did relative to your classmates on a few 3-hour exams taken at a particular place at a particular time." This is a standard anti-elitist canard, but it also gets trotted out by very elitist professors as a way of trying to calm students and prevent a flood of angry young adults at office hours.

Grades measure a lot of things. Prominent among them are:

1) Raw intelligence (what Murray calls g).

2) Work ethic (i.e., willingness to put in the time to read, go to class, and then cram for the exam).

3) Writing ability, because the exact same exam content-wise gets different grades when written by a wordsmith than when written by an ESL student.

4) Cleverness (i.e., knowing what you actually need to be studying, the ability to find easy classes, etc).

5) Networking (i.e., did you get a study group who did a lot of the work for you, or, better, were you able to bum the A+ student's exam and outline from last year, did you find students who could tell you what the prof. cares about, etc.).

6) Empathy (i.e., the ability to know what the professor wants to hear, which is not always what he says in class, though it often is).

7) Self-confidence (i.e., the ability to fall asleep the night before the exam and to write without second-guessing yourself and thus wasting time).

8) Typing speed, because professors grade additively and longer exams invariably get better grades (though professors either in bad faith or with bad intelligence claim otherwise).

9) Luck / fate / etc. (i.e., did you study the right material, did you happen to get put in a class with dumb people, etc.).

I'm not sure these are perfectly in the correct order, but they are roughly so. Of these things, every employer should care about 1-7, though each will weight them differently. Firms obviously want people who are smart, work hard -- and are willing to kill themselves during crunch periods, network well, and can understand what a decision-maker (judge or jury) wants to hear. Judges want people who are smart, work hard, and write well, and many ambitious judges want clerks who network well and are confident because they want their clerks to go on to the S. Ct. or to the SG's office or whatever, so as to further the judge's own prestige. Law schols hiring faculty want people who are smart, write well, and work hard -- particularly those willing to put in the constant grind without immediate reward -- because such people are likely to produce ample, publishable scholarship.

The problem is that after first year, cleverness becomes, if not the controlling variable, at least a very strong one, b/c students pick easy courses, become more familiar with professors and therefore with how to game their exams, etc. Because cleverness isn't worth *that* much to most employers, grades become less valuable.

Moreover, everyone who's not an idiot has their GPA go up significantly after first year, for three reasons: (1) classes are less often curved (particularly b/c people start taking seminars, which guarantee a B+ to all and an A to anyone smart); (2) a lot of students drop out of the game after either first year or second year, relaxing what curves are left; (3) most students discover what they're best at and then pursue those classes.

If it matters for assessing the accuracy of my advice, I went to HLS out of a second-tier Ivy expecting to be an A- student, but wound up being an A/A+ student and have had good luck with firms / clerkships.
1.24.2006 1:18pm
Fancy Lawyer:
I should rephrase "everyone who's not an idiot" to "everyone who's not an idiot and is interested in raising his GPA." A lot of smart people simply lose interest after first year, and their GPA's accordingly drop in many cases.
1.24.2006 1:28pm

I think that is a very useful and comprehensive analysis.

On the subject of how to order the factors you identify: I think one of the reasons why law school grades feel particularly "random" is that by the time one attends law school, a great deal of selection has already occurred. Indeed, this selection occurs on both ends—law schools select certain students, and students select certain law schools—and both sides are using highly-correlated criteria (law schools are heavily using UGPA and LSAT, and students are heavily using various rankings, but it turns out that the rankings are highly correlated with UGPA and LSAT).

Therefore, the inherent differences among the students within a particular law school class has been diminished by this selection process. And I think that is particularly true with respect to your first eight factors, with the possible exceptions of factors (3) and (8) (the importance of these particular factors in the selection process may depend heavily on major (insofar as they relate to UGPA), and are not directly relevant to LSAT performance).

Of course, that reasoning does not necessarily apply to everyone at a given school—for various reasons there may be outliers on the high and low sides of the relevant distributions. Still, I think the vast majority of students at the vast majority of schools end up in what would be a very narrow band if one considered the overall distribution of law school applicants (let alone the overall distribution of college graduates, or the human population in general).

So, while in theory your first 7 factors may be the most important, I'm not sure that is true once one has restricted the field to the main distribution of students at a particular school. At that point, I think your factor (9) (and maybe factors (3) and (8)) take on an exaggerated weight precisely because of the narrowing of other factors that occurs through the selection process.

And as I note above, factor (9) (as well as perhaps factors (3) and (8)) also take on unusual weight because of the single, three-hour, in-class, long answer exam format which is largely standard.

So, I'm not sure that law students are wrong to feel that their law school grades are particularly "random", at least in comparison to the grade effects one is likely to encounter at earlier stages of the educational process (like high school or college), or in other graduate education programs where either the selection process is less stratified, or the grades are based on a greater number and variety of tasks, or both.
1.24.2006 1:50pm
Mikeyes (mail):
I've always wondered why law schools are run the way they are. Most professional schools teach the nuts and bolts of the work in addition to the theory and data base needed to perform. When I was in medical school at Tulane many of my rugby buddies were law students. They just laughed when I asked them about filing briefs, going to court, etc. They would be set loose after three years while I had to work a total of eight years just to be able to practice competently. (As an aside, no one gets to practice medicine without a residency of three to seven years any more.)
Most professional schooling results in a job somewhere because the student has grasped the basics of the profession, has proven some level of competence that is acceptable to a licensing board, and has passed a variety of other certifications in the process. Law school, if I am to believe the comments here, only allows about 20% of the graduates to make a decent living practicing law as a clerk or in a large firm while others either do not pass the bar exam or are relegated to less important jobs because they are not ready to do anything but research. (I konw there are exceptions.)
If that is true, why would anyone want to go to law school?
1.24.2006 2:04pm
Fancy Lawyer:
@ Medis: I strongly disagree with the idea that there's not much variation among students at top law schools. Obviously, every time you skim off the top, you have a smaller range of variability. But there's an infinity of variation between 0 and 1, just as there is an infinity of variation between 0 and 100.

The question, then, is whether we have an instrument fine enough to measure or separate the variation between 0 and 1 (if indeed it's that compressed), or whether law school exams are too blunt for the task (like trying to slice a toothpick lengthwise with a chainsaw). I think the answer is yes, for a few reasons.

First, the variation isn't that fine. My experience at law school, even at a very good law school, was that it was possible pretty quickly to divide the students into something like quartiles of "aptitude." The wonderful thing about Harvard was that the bottom quartile was very smart and often hardworking and usually fairly thoughtful. But you could still tell, by watching class interaction, reading other students' exams or papers or moot court briefs, or just talking to people, who was really really got it and who just sort of got it.

Second, I think exams are pretty fine instruments. It's not hard to craft very close legal questions or to hide legal issues. That is, it's easier to make a hard exam than it is to answer one. Because law school professors tend to be very smart and tend to have thought a lot about their exams, they can craft exams that even the very best student will struggle with. That means that even if your student body is already top 1/100 of 1% of the overall population, there will still be a range of success and failure on the exam.

There are strong incentives for everyone to talk as though exams don't work well, though. Students who do well talk that way because it's modest. Students who do poorly talk that way because it assuages their egos. Professors talk that way because it avoids riots from the students who are invariably highly accomplished but nevertheless don't ace the exam. Employers talk that way because it makes them seem humane.

But all that talk is cheap, which becomes obvious when even the mediocrats who normally bash grades come out howling when Harriet Miers is nominated, or when Judge Liberal will only higher from law review editors in the top 5% of their class, or when law schools select students based on their college grades and LSAT score, or employers higher students based on their GPAs.

If grades were a poor proxy, then there would be ample room for a Moneyball-style employer to consistently beat out the competition. The fact that no one has done that strongly suggests to me that grades, while not a perfect proxy, may be the best option in most cases.

@ Mikeyes: People are exaggerating to prove a point. At top 25 law schools, the vast majority of students will be able to make six figure salaries straight after graduation. At a top 10 school, it's probably something like 90%. At lower tier schools, it does become more of a "why do people bother" situation, but the truth is that students who wind up at lower tier institutions probably didn't have the credentials to get high paying jobs, anyway, so law school represents a gamble that they think is worth it. Of course, even at relatively low-prestige schools, like Loyola in Los Angeles, consistently send numerous students to big law firms. And the students who don't make $125k their first year make $80k or $65k, either of which is more than most of my friends from a fancy private high school or my fancy second-rate Ivy are making four years out of college.

As for why law schools don't train people to be lawyers, it's hard to say. Partly it's that law school isn't *really* just a professional school. Top law schools are perhaps more analogous to, say, public policy programs, which prepare you for jobs to some extent but which primarily train you in the higher intellectual functions necessary for leadership positions. Harvard isn't out to train the very best divorce lawyers; they're out to train Supreme Court justices, Solicitors General, Secretaries of State, or, at least, leaders of big city legal culture, circuit or district court judges, major special ("public") interest lawyers, etc.

That said, I learned lots of practical stuff at HLS and, with a dash of Nos. 8 and 9, probably could have passed the bar without studying. (Being a risk-averse lawyer, I studied very hard.)
1.24.2006 2:40pm

Obviously, "variation" is a relative concept. One of my central points was just that there is going to be less variation between the law students at a particular school versus many other academic programs in those students' experiences, such as college or other grad programs, simply because of the way in which the law school selection process occurs.

Anyway, I think you are missing an important consideration from your "instrument" analysis. It isn't that difficult to get a "fine-grained" instrument, in the sense that you will get a lot divisions (this is relatively easy to do even with simple tests as long as you have a decent number of such tests).

But my point was not about the granularity of the tests, but rather about what I might call the overall "error" in the system. In other words, typically the more and more narrow the underlying band, the higher and higher the relative margin of error for any given instrument being used to measure within this band. And this problem is compounded by the fact that law schools have for some reason adopted a standard which limits the number and variety of the instruments that will be used.

Incidentally, I'm not sure your "quartiles" observation really contradicts my point. As I noted, schools will have some outliers on both sides of the distribution, but my proposition is that the main distribution will be quite narrow. So, insofar as you identified a decent number of people above or below the main distribution at Harvard, that does not really refute my proposition. Rather, you would have to be able to predict with ease the relative positions of the middle people. But maybe you could do that as well--although did you really know their grades that well?

On "Moneyball": I agree that it is unlikely that employers are systematically doing something dramatically against their best interest (although interestingly, "conventional wisdom" seems to be more resilient in the face of market pressures than one might initially expect). Indeed, grades have some clear advantages over their commonly-named competitors--most notably, they are extremely inexpensive to use, particularly as an initial filter. Moreover, the competing factors are often unreliable in their own ways (eg, typically interview evaluations correlate much more highly with physical appearance than with future job performance).

None of that suggests, however, that there is not a significant "random" factor in grades. It just suggests that trying to reduce that random factor may not be worth the necessary costs. Indeed, that makes the most sense if the schools and students have already done a lot of selecting for prospective employers during the admissions process.

So, I am not actually suggesting that employers should care less about grades, or use them less. But I do think that law schools are not doing as much as they could to reduce the error rate in their grading. In particular, having more graded tasks and a greater variety of graded tasks per course would likely significantly reduce the "error" in the system.

Of course, maybe this raises another "Moneyball" problem--why isn't some law school attracting students with a lower error approach? One possibility, of course, is that students would not want to pay the costs of such a system (eg, more graded tasks assignments). Another notable possibility is that students do not want a less error-prone system (that is actually a complicated question for a student). But a third notable possibility is just that the whole system moves very slowly in the face of market pressures--eg, it could take decades or more for an "innovative" school to work its way up the rankings, even if it did adopt some superior practice.

Anyway, I have no grand plan for reform. I do think it is unfortunate that law schools have adopted a pretty limited standard grading scheme, but I don't forsee law school professors agitating for more work for themselves anytime in the near future.
1.24.2006 3:22pm
Fancy Lawyer:
1) "Quartiles" effectively covers the entire grade range at HLS. Except for rare outliers, the grades given are A, A-, B+, B. B-/C+ and A+ students are also relatively easy to spot, although literally spotting B-/C+ students can be tough because they tended not to go to class. Because of grade inflation, you aren't making particularly many divisions among the students.

2) I'm strongly disposed against the "increase diversity in testing" argument. Partly, this is because of the genetic fallacy: the argument usually is advanced not be people who want a finer system of ranking students, but rather by people who want to do away with rankings altogether and take a "hollistic" approach. I distrust ranking systems designed by anti-rankers, because I think they have an interest in clogging the system to the point that everyone performs identically. As long as you concede, as you seem to have, that there *is* an infinity of variation between 0 and 1, and then concede (which you haven't, but must) that that variation is significant (i.e., that employers should prefer the .95 to the .90), then you can't want to clog the system.

Usually, the alternative grading mechanisms proposed are ones that you expect to test *different* skillsets, like "ability to understand the background of your clients" (totally useless to big firms who only want two types of client, the millionaire and the corporation). At best, they advocate testing mechanisms that allow professors to favor students based on extrinsic factors -- like papers that amount to personal statements. If what you're proposing is that schools actually use good systems, like multiple choice to test knowledge and reading comprehension to test skills, then I would probably agree that it might be a good thing to include those. Having schools test "practical" things like writing briefs is just silly, because there's little reason to believe that HLS professors would be as qualified to gauge one's practical abilities as they are to gauge one's intellectual / academic ones. After all, one of my best professors never even took the bar, let alone practiced law.
1.24.2006 3:54pm
jallgor (mail):
I want to take a stab at answering your question. If you go to a second tier law school (rank 50-100) and you want to practice in a large national law firm you probably need to graduate in the top 5 people in your class and even then you won't be guaranteed anything. The bottom line is that most big firms hire through on campus interviewing and there are only so many campuses they can visit. When you are considering a law school see if you can get a list of the firms that come to campus. better yet get statistics on how many summer offers the school had got from AM Law 100 firms. I personaly think it's unfortunate but in my opinion most NY firms would rather fill out their ranks with the bottom of the NYU and Columbia barrel than take the top quarter from Hofstra or St. Johns.

Fancy Lawyer - I agree with much of what you said but I wanted to point out that law school grades are not always a good indicator of work ethic. I know many people who put in very little study time, skipped many a lecture and still had great grades. Presumably this was due to an abundance of one or more of your other factors.
1.24.2006 4:03pm

I don't think anything I have said suggests that I am personally opposed to grades in general. Indeed, I've articulated why I think using grades as a filter is reasonable from the point of view of the employers. From the point of view of the students, I think the ideal system is a more complicated question, but for the most part, I think employers have effectively "bargained" for grading systems, and I see no reason to oppose that bargain.

And I do have in mind very simple and relatively uncontroversial ideas. One thing I have said is that there could be more graded tasks per course. This could be something as simple as having one or two midterms in addition to the final. Another thing I have said is that there could be a greater variety of tasks. There are many traditional alternatives. Among exams, for example, you could have more takehomes and multiple choice exams (in whole or as sections of exams). In addition to a greater variety of exams, you could have more papers, problem sets, and so on.

Incidentally, I am not proposing that we exclude the current "standard" law school exam from this list, nor am I proposing that any one of these options is better than the others. Indeed, my point is the opposite: each of the traditional ways of evaluating scholastic work has its advantages and disadvantages, and so the more overall variety, the less systematic error.

Finally, I might note that I am just describing the general mix of grading conditions in most academic programs. In other words, what I find remarkable is that there is such a thing as standard exam format, and a standard of only one exam per class, in law schools. Obviously these aren't rigid standards, but they are the most systematically dominant standards that I have personally encountered.

So, I think it is worth asking why those standards are so dominant. Personally, I fear that the answers would be more about inertia and law school profs clinging to a good deal than about the benefits to the students and employers, but I'd be interested to hear differently.
1.24.2006 4:21pm
Fancy Lawyer:
I think you can get by with a relatively[fn] weak work ethic if you're brilliant and with a relatively pedestrian brain if you're Boxer the horse. Among my highly achieving colleagues, we spanned a good range in all these categories. #2 was probably my weakest quality, but I think I work quite hard both in absolute and in relative terms -- I went to every class (missing only two classes for when I was interviewing for a clerkship), did all the reading, and crammed for exams. I'm skeptical of the myth of the "doesn't work at all but gets all A's" student, since I seemed to be the one falling into that role among the people I knew and between class, law review, TAing, and RAing I was probably working something like 60 hours a week on law school. (Nowhere near as much as others, but certainly not nothing. . . .)

[fn] I mean "relatively" it is true sense, i.e., relative to others, not in its colloquial sense of "somewhat."
1.24.2006 4:29pm
jallgor (mail):
Fancy Lawyer-
I went to UCLA not Harvard so my experience may be different but I would estimate that anyone who attended every class and did all the reading in my law school would easily have been in the top quartile for working hard. I am thinking of 2 or 3 people that seemed to be the most diligent in my class and even those people missed classes or didn't do the reading on occasion. I personally probably averaged about 10-15 hours a week on law school. I tried to go to most classes but probably missed at least 2 or 3 a week and rarely did the reading. I definitely know people who were much worse. One guy failed to attend a single class after the first 3 or 4 weeks (he had a 3.5 that semester).
1.24.2006 6:29pm
Fancy Lawyer:
I guess the work is being done by the word "did" in "did the reading." For me, doing the reading was reading it very quickly and taking no notes (not even underlining). Reading took between an hour and two hours a night, which, as I understand it, was signficantly less than my high-achieving colleagues tended to do on average. (Average seemed to be around three.) I also didn't outline (I took others' outlines) and probably only spent around 8 hours a day studying during exam period.

There were definitely people doing less work than me, but I got pegged as the "never works but gets good grade" guy, which is why I'm skeptical that there really is such a person. My dad, who went to Columbia law in the 60's (I'm from a shamelessly legal family), swears that there was such a guy, but given that my dad was a workhorse B+ student, I imagine anyone who was doing less than five hours of work a night and getting A-'s seemed to him like "that guy."

I still don't understand missing class, though. The cost of going to class is pretty low, especially when you schedule everything after 9, and, if done right, after 10. Especially in Westwood where you don't have to brave subarctic weather and where there is a bevvy of beautiful students (of either sex, depending on one's preferences) to be seen en route.

Indeed, for anyone here who's still in law school, I really think the best advice I can give is to go to all your classes and if you need to reward yourself for doing that, skim the reading rather than doing it closely. Class is infinitely more valuable. In class, I'd advise against taking anything even remotely like verbatim notes (I'd usually have between 40 and 80 pages of notes for a class, depending on the credit hours) -- for the most part, I would write down striking ideas the professor made (he usually would make it clear that they were important), a few key phrases, and then I'd spend the rest of the time playing Contra.

Man that game rocks.
1.24.2006 7:05pm
John Lederer (mail):
For about a decade I was the fellow who did the inital interviews and "first cut" for my law firm. My law firm was one of the top three in a medium sized city, and we were always inundated with applicants who wnated to either clerk or become an associate with the firm.

Most of our applicants came from a top 20 law school in the city.

I had two primary criteria. The first was that the applicant be able to write well.

The second was that the applicant have something that distinguished him. That could be being in the top 10% by grades, but it also could be that applicant had been a union steward in a steel yard, played the cello extremely well, had worked his way through school, had done military service, spent two years in Africa, had worked on a political campaign (for real), ran a business selling class notes, performed in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, was an amateur blacksmith, spent 8 months riding the continental divide from Canada to Mexico, whatever.
1.25.2006 7:44am
JLR (mail):
Thank you everyone who posed answers to my question (especially Medis and jallgor). The responses were very informative. I am interested to see if anyone else still has thoughts on the question about the value of 1L grades horizontally across law schools around the country: If one gets some Bs the 1L fall semester, does it matter which school you're at in terms of tiers? (i.e. tier 2 vs. tier 1; law schools 20-50 vs. top 20; etc.) [ see link to comment that originally posed the question here]

Also, re Mr. Lederer's comment of 1.25.2006 7:44 am; you write that most of your job applicants were from a top 20 law school in your city. Did you treat your two primary criteria the same way even for those applicants not from a top 20 school (even if it were a school in the top 100 or even the top 50)? Thank you.
1.25.2006 10:11am

Regarding your question on whether it is better to do very well at a second tier law school or less well at a first tier school, I would say that with respect to your first job, it can almost be a wash. At the top-tier firm at which I worked in NYC, there were basically cutoff points for class rank etc. for different schools. In other words, they would interview anyone who was in the top, say, half of his/her class at Columbia, but only the top 10% at Fordham and only the top 5 students at Hofstra. The big variable in actually getting a job then is the strength of the legal market. When I started in the mid-90s the market was still very tight -- our incoming class was about 35 people. Within about 3 years, that number had about doubled with a consequent loosening of hiring criteria. Moreover, associates from less prestigious firms were easily able to lateral to top-tier firms because those firms were desperate for bodies. However, I understand that things have tightened up considerably since then.

However, and this is a big however, after your first job, employers will for the most part only look at your law school, not your class rank (unless you highlight it), as well as your employment history. As a result, given a choice, go to the most prestigious law school you can.
1.25.2006 1:19pm
jallgor (mail):
Happy to help. I wanted to add something that I don't think was mentioned. Location is sometimes more important than rank. There is much to be said for going to less prestigious school in the city you want to practice in rather than going to a more prestigous school far away. For the very top schools location is pretty much irrelevant. A Harvard or Yale grad can get a job in any city. I went to UCLA and while I managed to get a job in NY I think it would probably have been easier for me to land a job if I had gone to Fordham instead even though Fordham was ranked considerably lower than UCLA. I think the reasons for this are obvious: networking and alumni contacts are stronger for Fordham grads in NY than they are for UCLA grads.

I also wanted to add to something MCO touched on. Lawyers, by and large, are status crazy. It's one of the few professions where you continue to put your education first on your resume even after you've been working for years. I worked for a prominent NY firm right after school and then worked for a less prestigious firm before going in house. Even at the lesser firm they had blanket rules about not interviewing candidates from certain schools when, quite frankly, they were in no positon to be so picky. For example, they refused to interview people from Brooklyn Law. I give that example not to slight Brooklyn Law but to show how unreasonable some firms can be when it comes to school prejudices. So my advice is to go to the best school you can get into, in the city you think you want to practice in. Worry about your grades when you get there.
1.25.2006 3:03pm
Stu (mail):
In my first big name law firm interview, an interviewer asked me to explain all grades less than "B." My response was that I had no clue as to why I got the C's and that my A's were equally unexplainable. (I ultimately got the job.)
1.25.2006 3:15pm

That is a good point about geography. Part of it is indeed the alumni networks at the firms giving a "boost" to candidates from their schools. My firm, for example, probably had a disproportionate number of Fordham grads because some of the bigwigs were themselves Fordham alumni. The other geographical factor is that the firms do not interview on campus at lower tier schools outside their immediate region. As a result, while you may be able to get an interview by sending your resume in, you will have to pay your own freight to get in for a screening interview.

My advice to someone at a lower tier school looking to work ouside their immediate metropolis would be to (a) do really well (easier said than done perhaps) and then (b) get a job with a large multi-branch firm in their city with an office in the destination city and then try and transfer.
1.25.2006 3:35pm
JLR (mail):
Thank you jallgor and MCO for your helpful responses to my question. They were very informative, and will help me make decisions as I go through the decision-making process.
1.27.2006 9:54am
TechieLaw (mail):
Just something to add based on a conversation I had with a fellow classmate this morning:

My school has a required mean of 3.0 rather than a specific breakdown of how grades must be allocated. Therefore, one professor gave a single 'A' and about 6 'A-' grades in a class of 110 people, while a different professor is rumored to have divided the grades equally between A's, B's, and C's.

Most people in the top 10% of my class are just a few hundredths of a GPA point away from being out of the top 10%. For many of us, a single grade changed from A- to B+ would have completely ruined our job prospects. (Yes, if you looked at who was getting interviews at the beginning of the year, there was a huge difference between the person with a 3.50 and the person with a 3.49.)

Given what I've said above about the different grading curves used by professors, and the fact that there's almost no discernable difference in raw intelligence, skill, or work habits between somebody with a 3.42 and a 3.41, it really seems that employers who draw a strict line are guilty of laziness in their hiring processes. Does it make it easier to pick candidates? Sure. Does it ensure that those candidates are truly the best people available? I doubt it.

On another note, one of my professors is an adjunct at a Top-5 school. I asked him whether he saw any difference between students at my Tier-2 school and the other school where he teaches. His answer? Not much difference at all, except at the very bottom of the class.
1.28.2006 11:40pm