Harvard and Stanford's Adoption of the Yale Law School Grading System:

Orin Kerr and I have plenty of disagreements. But as a Yale Law School grad, I agree with his criticisms of the YLS grading system, and am somewhat disappointed that other schools are copying it. For those who may not know, the YLS grading system replaces traditional letter grades with a constricted three grade scale (Honors, Pass, and Low Pass). In practice, most Yale grades are either H's or P's; Low Passes are rare. Technically, students can also fail a class. But this penalty is only imposed on an extremely unlucky and inept few.

The Yale system is very popular with students, in part because it enables those at the bottom of the class to post respectable transcripts that make it difficult to tell exactly where they stand relative to their classmates. It also enables students at all levels to slack off in some classes without damaging their records much. As Orin notes, the system greatly reduces the informational value of grades by ensuring that the vast majority of students get mostly P's, with perhaps occasional H's. In practice, the YLS "P" seems to encompass all the grades ranging from a B+ or low A- to a C or C- on the traditional grading scale. Thus, "C" students' transcripts look very similar to those of B students. Employers allow YLS to get away with this because even low-ranking Yale grads are usually considered good candidates for jobs at major firms. Harvard and Stanford grads probably also have enough prestige to get away with it for the same reason.

Still, it's unfortunate that Harvard and Stanford transcripts will now provide less useful information than before, thereby reducing the efficiency of employer hiring. And though I may not be as much of an old-fashioned meritocrat as Orin, I too don't especially like a grading system that reduces the cost of slacking off.

Maybe this is obvious to those already in law school (lowly undergrad speaking), but why was this system put in place originally?

What originally caused Yale to give up on traditional grading?
9.27.2008 1:57am
Robert S. Porter (mail) (www):
What's wrong with using percentages? There's no ambiguity.
9.27.2008 4:48am
I agree that the YLS grading system has many flaws, but I'm not sure making "slacking" "cheap" is a significant one. If the most elite schools in the country want to smoosh their grading curve, there will be costs, but it doesn't seem all that likely to me that a bunch of kids who have done nothing but over-achieve for most of their lives will--all of a sudden--turn into slackers because of a change in the grading system.

In my experience, many elite students might actually benefit from the opportunity to take a breath occasionally.

For clarity's sake: I don't consider myself an elite student and have never had any trouble covering the costs of slacking.
9.27.2008 7:02am
Modus Ponens:
to hell with letter grades of any sort. make these kids compete in feats of strength!
9.27.2008 8:12am
John (mail):
I think it's pretty obvious that the change is designed to bring in smarter students who aren't necessarily interested in the discipline and hard work needed for good grades. This will provide a more engaging environment for professors and help with school rankings. The schools are thus choosing fun for profs over any help for potential employers of the students.

I remember when I was on the hiring committee at a big NYC firm in the 70's and Yale had done this. We had such uneven results with Yale law grads that we reduced offers substantially, doubtless missing some stars but avoiding the drek.
9.27.2008 10:23am
YLS student:
Grades are such a bad indicator of future success anyway; just like the LSAT has no correlation with how well you perform in law school, grades are no indicator of how good a lawyer a student will make.

The bigger upside to no grades is that it frees you to enjoy the other great things the school offers: clinics and journals are the big ones. As someone who took a clinic as a 1L, I am in a good position to know that clinics are, as far as preparation for practicing law, a much better learning opportunity than most of my classes. Participation in journals is also a great addition to a well-rounded law school experience; it gives you valuable editing and bluebooking skills. Then there's all the fantastic organizations the school offers; Yale Law Women and their list of family-friendly firms is a good example of what law students who are motivated by something besides grades can accomplish.

I understand that I'm speaking mostly to professors who rightly value class above what else a law school experience can provide, but as for the commentator who, as an employer was so disgusted by the chance in Yale's grading system, I think that's a poor, short-sighted evaluation of what a student can get out of Yale Law School, grades notwithstanding. (And come on, "uneven results"? Are you serious? You will get "uneven results" only hiring straight-A students from the best law schools in the country. Give me a break.)
9.27.2008 11:37am
TruePath (mail) (www):
Don't undervalue slacking off. As a professor I've noticed that other academics seem to act as if doing well in classes is the only thing in life. If we can let students slack off more without harming their productivity in their later jobs we should do so.

So ultimately this becomes an empirical question. Does the extra work precise grades demand actually produce substantially better lawyers? From my experience teaching I expect the answer is no.

I mean the problem is that given a system where grades are assigned and employers look at grades it becomes true that grades are a good indicator of a student's ability and diligence. Not because the work really benefits the students but because the diligent smart students make sure they get good grades. However, employers already have a fair bit of information about these things (say SAT scores etc) so by eliminating precise grades we can eliminate a huge amount of unnecessary effort.
9.27.2008 11:41am
Coming from a background in an engineering undergrad program where we had professors tell us flat-out they wouldn't give A's to any more than 10% of a class, I'd say the most disturbing thing about the Yale grading system isn't that it doesn't distinguish between the various passing grades, but that "Technically, students can also fail a class. But this penalty is only imposed on an extremely unlucky and inept few.". I'm not saying half the students need to be failing any given class, but 10%-20% isn't an unreasonable number, and for an elite program to have 20-30% of its students fail out altogether doesn't strike me as an overly harsh expectation.
9.27.2008 12:26pm
YLS Student,

I don't know if you are a current YLS student, but I can say that my experience from some of the highest levels of the the legal profession about the reliability of grades as an indicator of legal ability, and specifically about the lack of reliability of Yale 'grades' relative to those of other schools, is considerably different from what you suggest.
9.27.2008 1:22pm
theobromophile (www):
Surprised that no one brought this up yet: you don't have to demonstrate any legal talent to get into law school - even Harvard or Yale. You need to demonstrate academic prowess (in any subject area) and have an outstanding LSAT score, but those are used to determine who has the raw brain power and work ethic to succeed.

So admission into one of those highly competitive law schools will show that someone is exceptionally intelligent, but tells little about that person's legal ability. A no-grade system allows an attorney to have gone through higher education without ever having been graded, relative to his classmates, in a law-related class.

That's weird.
9.27.2008 2:26pm
As an HLS alum and practicing lawyer at a big firm in the heartland, let me offer a slightly different perspective...

Harvard College is renown for grade inflation. (I believe something like 90% of grads receive some kind of honors.) Larry Summers tried to curb the grade inflation and that was one of the reasons he was driven out.

But Harvard Law was not known for grade inflation, because it used letter grading with a pretty strict curve. Thus, when you saw a "cum laude" or "magna cum laude" with the Harvard degree (I'm a cum laude grad), you knew that person was top third or top 10%.

Now that Harvard Law eliminated grades, and is now going with this patently silly high pass / pass / low pass nonsense, I'm really worried that it's going to cheapen the value of my degree. When you get out of New York, you tend to encounter a lot of hiring partners and corporate counsel and so forth who didn't go to Harvard/Yale/Stanford. And while they will respect the institution, they can also sometimes harbor disdain for "elite" institutions.

All in all, a foolish move. And I really respected HLS Dean Elena Kagan, too.
9.27.2008 3:27pm
Massive step for HLS, but one that will mean that students there absorb more of the esoteric deep background to law than is realistically likely or even possible when 'learning' under the cosh of trad. gradings system. Bright and motivated people for most part, thus unlikely to lie back and cruise — much more likely to go deeper. Result (maybe) = more creative lawyering in fullness of time.
9.27.2008 7:40pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):

Grades are such a bad indicator of future success anyway; just like the LSAT has no correlation with how well you perform in law school, grades are no indicator of how good a lawyer a student will make.

This person has bought in hook line and sinker to a modern myth. This is the empirical equivalent to Young Earth Creationism.
9.27.2008 10:34pm
John McCall (mail):
Still, it's unfortunate that Harvard and Stanford transcripts will now provide less useful information than before, thereby reducing the efficiency of employer hiring.

This theoretical loss of efficiency only holds if the change results in a loss of meaningful information.

Analogy. I am 70 inches tall, to the nearest inch. Applying a simple conversion, I am 177.8cm tall; but if I report it that way, it sounds as if I've measured my height down to the nearest millimeter, which of course I haven't. Actually, I could be anywhere from 176cm to 179cm tall, taken to the nearest centimeter; that's the imprecision in my original measurement.

How precise is a typical law school exam? You could do studies, of course; just find a group of students and give them three or four exams of equivalent difficulty, varying only in the specific topics covered on that exam. Good luck avoiding selection bias.

Rationally, how precise do we expect it to be? Any particular exam cannot ask about every subject covered in the course; there simply isn't enough time. Some general topics will be obvious to anyone paying attention, but others will be up to the whim of the instruction, and at any rate the specifics will vary. A student cannot possibly prepare equally well for all eventualities: again, the subject is too broad. So the exam asks four or five questions, say, and the student is expected to master two or three of them, say, and that's the basis for the grade. But there's an inevitable dash of chance in this, to which the only answer is: study harder?

Now, of course, if you take a student, clone her ten times, and give each clone a different exam, the results will be very similar; the existence of variation due to chance doesn't deny the existence of variation due to skill and better preparation. But inevitably there will also be variation, and the question is: how much? Two letter grades? One grade? Half? I think it would be very hard to claim it's less than that.

So when you report that P. Antoy earned a B- and V. Rubin earned a C+, you are almost certainly misrepresenting the precision of your measurements. Is it information? Yes. Is it meaningful? Who knows?
9.28.2008 8:17am
The Sisyphus Files (mail) (www):
In the case of Harvard and Stanford, the change in grading was necessary because Harvard and Stanford students don't already have a universe of advantages that other students could only dream about.

The poor Ivy League darlings.

~ Sisyphus

"A law degree and $2 will get you on the bus."
9.29.2008 3:53am
Thanks for the interesting post and comments. Federal judges looking to hire clerks are significant consumers of grading information from these top law schools. I wonder whether the reduction in information made available to judges by the new grading system will require them to lean more on faculty recommendations. If that is so the faculty may find themselves under pressure to write more detailed reference letters. So the labor saved on one task (discerning the distinction between the A- and B+) may have to be spent somewhere else.
9.29.2008 11:16am