How Will Harvard and Stanford Grades Affect the Clerkship Market?:
The announcement that both Harvard and Stanford Law Schools are dropping letter grades and moving to a H/P/LP/F system raises a really interesting question: How will the switch impact the market for law clerks? Harvard and Stanford students are often major players for very competitive clerkships. How will the judges who are evaluating applicants respond to having less information about candidates from these top schools?

  I think the the answer depends in large part on where the schools draw the cut offs. What percentage of students will get Honors? Will it be 30% or so, like at Yale? Or will it be only 10%? Or 20%? Put another way, will the line between H and P be like the old line between A and A-, or A- and B+, or something else?

  I would think that where the line is drawn is going to have a major impact on the clerkship hiring process. Here's my thinking. When I was a student at Harvard in the mid-1990s, the common wisdom I heard was that a B+ average was usually needed to be competitive for district court clerkships; an A-/B+ average (that is, the midpoint between the two) was usually needed to be competitive for the less sought-after circuit court clerkships; and an A- average was needed to be competitive for the more prestigious circuits (like the DC Circuit). If you wanted to clerk for a feeder and be in the running for a Supreme Court clerkship, you needed between an A- and an A. Of course, actual results varied based on the judge and the candidate, sometimes a lot. But that was the rule of thumb I heard at the time.

  Now let's assume that the "H" of "High" grade is given to only 10% of the class, making it roughly equivalent to a straight "A." Under this system, a lot of judges are going to have a hard time figuring out who to hire. Imagine a student with all A- grades under the old system. In the old days, that student would be interviewing with top judges. But under the new system, that student will have a transcript with all P's, exactly the same transcript as a total slacker who never went to class and went through the semester mostly drunk and high. If the only information judges have is who had a top 10% grade and who was in the rest of the class, they won't have the information they used to use to find clerks.

LawMan 5000:
Prof. Kerr,

Chicago, as you know, has a very graduated grading system where it is very easy to see the difference between the A+, A, A- student, and everything in between. Nonetheless, in my experience, when students seek clerkships with feeder judges, D.C. circuit judges, and super-elite judges, it is recommendations and personal contacts that matter most. Top applicants often cull their list of judges, limiting it to judges that have personal relationships with their recommenders or current U of Clerks with some influence. Moreover, board membership on law review, and one's particular board position, is as important as grades when one is in the top group.

My guess is that this has always been true at Harvard and Stanford as well (though I could be wrong). So my guess is that, when they go to a less graduated grading methods, not much will change with respect to how super-elite judges choose their clerks. They will, as they always did, look at the top students (meaning top 10-15% or so) and within that group give great weight to recommendations and personal relationships, with significance also placed on law review.
10.7.2008 10:15pm

Thanks for the perspective. In my experience, this wasn't true at Harvard. Generally speaking, the Harvard faculty was too distant to offer much help. Plus, law review had very few grade-ons. On the other hand, maybe I was just out of the loop? It's possible.
10.7.2008 10:18pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
You make it sound like the judges rely almost exclusively on grades. In my experience, grades were used as a first level filter. People with good enough grades would get a review of their recommendations. From there, a handful would get interview invitations. The interview was much more important than anything else.

If the grades give less info, then the judges will either have to pass more people through the first filter, or perhaps draw some other (maybe arbitrary) distinctions to limit the pool of candidates interviewed.
10.7.2008 10:38pm
jvarisco (mail) (www):
"It's really hard to tell the specifics without knowing what the cutoffs are and how many "book prizes" will be awarded."

Stanford said "book prizes" would be about one per 15 students:
Tentatively called "book prizes" (after the fashion of some other schools that use this system), one book prize may be awarded for every 15 students, and this will be true in all classes, whether the basis of evaluation is an exam or a paper. In first-year required classes, 2 prizes will be available in small sections, and 4 in large sections. In advanced classes, professors have discretion about whether and how many prizes to award, though within the same maximum guideline of one per every 15 students (faculty may round up at 8).
10.7.2008 10:58pm
Anderson (mail):
People with good enough grades would get a review of their recommendations.

That was my thought. Harvard/Yale students will have to rely a lot more on "starpower" in their recs, it seems.

They still have the advantage of name brands -- Ole Miss Law, I daresay, will not be going to this grading system any time soon -- but students who can't get Very Important Law Profs to write them glowing recs are not going to get anywhere.

Not that I actually know anything about this subject, mind you.
10.7.2008 11:03pm
Prof. Kerr: is there no variability in the grades of any student?

If a student at the "p"th percentile, on average, scores at the "p"th percentile at each class, then there will indeed be no information. But if a student at the "p"th percentile has has enough variability in his grades (sometimes he does better, some worse), then after averaging over many classes, the GPAs of both a 70/30 scheme and a 90/10 scheme will converge to the "true" GPA of a continuous grade system. This point was made by Jordan Ellenberg in a nice Slate article a few years back (regarding grade inflation in undergraduate Ivies).

Of course, it's not clear how many classes need to be taken before the GPA will converge (certainly enough will be needed that the student will have a good number of scores both above and below the cutoff).

In any case, in the sciences admission to anything (starting from grad school and on) is almost entirely based on letters of recommendation. The transcript says what the student was supposed to have learned; the letters say whether the student is actually worth his salt. Low grades are a bad sign, but as a rule grades are not very informative at the top (the part of the distribution from which, presumably, clerks are taken).
10.7.2008 11:16pm
More detail about my comment: if you only need to discriminate at the top, then a 90/10 cutoff makes sense. Probably only very few students can be at the 90% percentile in every class they take. Thus the number of classes where someone performed above the 90% percentile would give a good measure of class standing among the student who are capable of performing at the 90% percentile at least once during their course of studies.

Such a cutoff is of course completely uninformative at the "bottom" (in fact, the probably majority: those who will not pass the cutoff more than once or twice). Moreover, this situation is highly de-motivating at that end of the distribution.

More generally, a binary system with a cutoff at a particular percentile will be quite informative regarding students who perform around this percentile (sometimes above, sometime below). It will be completely uninformative about (and de-motivate) students who consistently perform on one side of the cutoff.
10.7.2008 11:24pm
Suzy (mail):
What's the correspondence between other achievements at these law schools, like Law Review editorships or Moot Court success, and top grades? I know at many schools it tends to be the same students who are at the top of the class and also participating in these activities, but it may not be like this at Harvard and Stanford.
10.7.2008 11:51pm
John (mail):
The trouble from an employer's standpoint (I was one) is that grades usually reflect the characteristics that make a good lawyer, over and above the "smart guy" (e.g., good LSATs) base.

You've got mostly all smart guys at Harvard. But those who get the best grades are usually those who work hard, are disciplined, can organize what they have to, can write and speak clearly and persuasively, and (did I say this) work hard. Grades don't always work this way, but they usually do. It's a shame Harvard has abandoned this--among other things I suspect that it will lead to a diminution in the level of hard work among the students, as well as in the other factors I mentioned.
10.8.2008 12:11am
As a Georgetown student, I think it probably means I'm even more screwed than I was before...
10.8.2008 12:18am
Brian G (mail) (www):
Doesn't matter. I could get straight A's at a tier 2 and it wouldn't amount to a hill of beans.
10.8.2008 12:29am
YLS Grad/Clerk:
Orin, I agree with a lot of your characteristically thoughtful analysis but wanted to clarify one point. Your assumption seems to be that if the cutoff for Hs is 30%, there will be many students at HLS and SLS who will graduate with all, or close-to-all, Hs. At YLS, even though the top third or so typically get Hs in any given class, it is extremely unusual for a student to graduate with all Hs (or even just one or two Ps). In part, this is a function of the randomness of the grading/exam process. (To be assured of getting all Hs, you'd really need to perform closer to the 90th percentile than the 70th, since there is so much random fluctuation in how a given student will be graded based on a one-day exam performance). In part, it's because people have different skills and interests -- a student who dominates, say, con law may not excel in tax. The bottom line is that, grading-wise, the YLS system rewards students who are very strong across the board over a student who is extremely strong, but perhaps a slight bit uneven, or who got off to a bit of a rough start. That said, some of this effect is offset by the rec process, which tends to favor students extremely focused on one or two areas of interest to a faculty member, such that they can provide meaningful research assistance and/or publish in the field.
10.8.2008 12:52am
Bill Dyer (mail) (www):
I've been involved in hiring decisions at three very large (250+ lawyer) firms. If I were still doing that (and I'm not), this change would definitely make me less inclined to hire from these schools. There are just too many good alternatives with respect to whom law firms don't have to assume so much risk or settle for such poor information.
10.8.2008 1:35am
Your assumption seems to be that if the cutoff for Hs is 30%, there will be many students at HLS and SLS who will graduate with all, or close-to-all, Hs.

That wasn't intended: I agree that very few will be in this boat.
10.8.2008 1:44am
When I was at Yale, the only students who lost from the H/P/LP system were the top students competing for Supreme Court clerkships.

What it meant for us is that we couldn't distinguish ourselves as much from the pack using grades, especially back when you applied for clerkships during the first semester of your 2L year, and thus only had one semester of grades. (The first semester at Yale is Credit/Fail.)

So the top students found ways to signal to judges aside from grades. You're right that getting to know the right professors was a big part of that. Undergraduate GPA and stuff like Rhodes/Marshall scholarships became more important as well. Ditto with Law Journal positions.

Now that clerkship application season has been pushed back, however, these effects will be less. Many students stop putting in full effort as the law school experience goes on, and one way to distinguish yourself from other students is to get honors in all courses or almost all courses. For instance, here's one YLS alumna who still brags about that in her online bio.

The H/P/LP system helps every student but those at the very top, so if I were an incoming law student in the original position (in the Rawlsian sense) I'd choose a H/P/LP system. It's by far the most risk averse choice, as well. As a result I expect Harvard and Stanford students will grow to like the change.
10.8.2008 2:21am
Amber Taylor has some interesting comments on this.
10.8.2008 10:44am
John from Dallas:
My former judge didn't hire from Yale, the lack of qualitative information being one reason. It will be hard to give Harvard and Stanford the same treatment, particularly given Harvard's huge class size, but it wouldn't surprise me to see this resulting in less hiring from both schools.
10.8.2008 12:48pm
Patrick too (mail):
Orin, I think you are absolutely right that the shift away from grades makes recommendations more important.

At Yale, almost every class was followed by a podium rush where the gunners would swarm the professor and try to impress him/her with their questions or otherwise kiss up. For example, one time after a class, just for the experience, I sat and listened to another student spend half an hour telling a professor how great his book was. This type of behavior was unfortunately common.

Getting the right recommender on your side was vitally important, and a lot of the top professors were very aggressive in promoting their select students for top clerkships. From what I remember, most of the students gunning for top clerkships had received offers by the first or second day of the hiring process, before their applications realistically could have been received by mail (this was post-compact but pre-Oscar).

I remember students who had not gotten offers by the third day of the hiring process "giving up" and becoming incredibly bitter because they were convinced that their professors had not touted them as they hoped.

The biggest thing that bothers me about the H/P/LP/F system is that it reduces transparency in the system and disproportionately rewards those with inside knowledge. Under a graded system with detached professors, a hardworking, intelligent student can theoretically get the grades necessary to compete for a top clerkship on their own.

Under the Yale system, that same student would need to decide which judges they wanted to compete for, find the professors who have good connections to those judges, and then know the best way to get a strong, enthusiastic recommendation from that professor. This places students with inside knowledge at a tremendous advantage (this was especially true when clerkship applications were done during first semester 2L year).
10.8.2008 12:52pm
bobo linq (mail):
The change is going to help students at other top-15 schools (e.g., Columbia, NYU, Michigan, etc.). Clerks use grades to screen applications for their judges. Screening Yale apps is a pain in the ass; now screening Harvard and Stanford apps will be a pain in the ass too. I think this was a stupid long-term move by Harvard and Stanford, though it may help them compete for applicants in the short term.

(My thoughts are based on my experience as a clerk for a competitive COA judge and a well-respected district judge.)
10.8.2008 2:14pm