Law School Grade Inflation: Why It Doesn’t Matter (and Why It Does)

LSAT PreparationThe New York Times recently reported that, in the last two years, at least ten law schools have moved to more lenient grading standards.  The occasion for this story was Loyola Los Angeles’ decision to retroactively raise recent student grades by 0.333.

Presumably the purpose of these moves is to increase graduates’ competitiveness in a tight law employment market.

There are two groups of recent changes: one, simple grade inflation in the manner of Loyola; two, more significant overhauls of grading systems (such as undertaken by Harvard toward a pass/fail system more akin to what Yale has long had in place).

The general press reaction to the Times story been muted.  The non-lawyer public reaction (at least judging by the people I talk to and the subtext of the article itself) ranges from outrage to a tut-tutting over the generally declining standards of American society.  On the other hand, Vivia Chen, delightfully contrarian, asks “What’s Wrong with Grade Inflation?”

I’m firmly in another, “much ado about nothing,” camp when it comes to whether simple grade inflation will affect law school graduates’ opportunities in a meaningful way.  The more radical changes would require a different analysis.  However, if you’re a law school applicant, both types of changes matter to you for exactly the same reasons and should be factored into your deciding which law school to attend.

Why is simple grade inflation ultimately a “Who Cares?” event from the perspective of its putative purpose of increasing law school graduate career opportunities?  There are two principal reasons.

First, the success of these and other measures depends on their being “stealth” changes, i.e., not visible to potential employers.  A front-page report in the Times pretty much nukes that.  But the Times article just crystallized what any attentive employer knew already.  If you know you’re being gamed, you’re not being gamed anymore.  So, these changes will be effective only with employers who don’t keep up with the news.  I’m sure there are some but you have to ask whether it’s in graduates’ best interest (as opposed to the law schools’, who want to jack up their employment statistics) to land with such employers.  If an employer is ignorant of basic changes affecting its most important intake procedure (hiring), there is serious reason to doubt how attentive it is to changes in the law and the practice of law itself.

Second, deciding on a relative GPA between school A and school B is just not how the vast majority of legal employers make their hiring decisions.  They do not compare, say, a 3.2 at NYU with a 3.4 from Penn.  They compare class ranks within schools.  Employers set intra-school floors.  For example, a hypothetical employer may consider the top 10% of a UCLA class but only the top 3- or 4-ranked students at Loyola Los Angeles (or none at all, since certain large firms like to make the point that they’ll only look at graduates of top 10-ranked schools).  It makes absolutely no difference to them if the 10th-ranked Loyola graduate has a 4.0 or a 3.2—that person is outside the range that our hypothetical employer will consider.  End of story.  If anything, grade inflation will likely make employers less likely to occasionally make an exception—because they know schools are trying to game them.

To achieve its apparent purpose, expanding the opportunities for a given law school’s graduation class, simple grade inflation is likely to mean pretty much nothing.  However, if you’re applying to or considering applying to law school, these and other moves by law schools (such as desperate letters asking law school alumni to help current graduates) to “get a leg up” without actually changing how they educate their students, are very relevant to you.

Leaving aside Chen’s correct point that many of these changes, if effective at all, are likely to hurt law schools’ top (under the former systems) graduates, the fact that law schools are engaging in wholesale changes (including to their grading systems) now, in a weak environment for legal hiring, could easily be taken to mean that they have identified an internal competitive weakness.  That seems to be fairly explicit in the statement of the president of Loyola’s Student Bar Association that Loyola is only bringing its system in line with other similarly-ranked schools.

That statement was, I’m sure, intended to be disarming but is really quite alarming.  Why do any of these things, unless you’re competitively disadvantaged against such similarly-ranked schools?  And that will inevitably raise the question, for risk-averse employers in a buyers’ market, of whether these schools should be similarly ranked.  In other words, many or most employers are likely to discount to some extent the value of a degree from a school that has recently changed its grading system or used other gaming tactics.

If you’re a law school applicant, you should do the same.  It would be different if schools could justify their changes by pointing to the result of a better legal education.  They’re not doing that.  Rather, they’re making educationally irrelevant moves (that’s why it’s gaming), and those are likely to result in “downgrades” to rankings by employers in the short term.  In five years, these changes will have become part of the landscape.  We’ll be able to see how they’ve been factored into employer- and student-decision-making and will presumably will have been incorporated into employment data, rankings, etc. (so you probably don’t need to consider changes before approximately 2006).

But they aren’t factored in yet.  This isn’t to say you shouldn’t attend any of the law schools who have played with their grading systems in the last few years—it is to say that you should discount the likely long-term benefits of attending a particular law school that’s changed its grading system or engaged in other gamesmanship in the same way employers will; all else being equal—or close to it—there’s little reason for you to bear the brunt of the risk of these changes.  Am I overstating the risk?  Maybe, maybe not, no one knows for sure.  The point is that you, as an entering law student, are being asked to assume the risk of law schools’ decisions.   It is wise to account for assuming their risk in deciding about your legal career.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on June 28, 2010.

3 Responses to “Law School Grade Inflation: Why It Doesn’t Matter (and Why It Does)”

  1. […] Come into Focus Sometimes you don’t want to be right.  In late June, I ran a post on law school grade inflation.  I made two points.  First, recent changes by law schools in their grading systems likely would […]

  2. […] a no-grade (or more properly, a no micro-ranking) system.  I suggested that this was effectively another method of grade inflation and reduced the value of a Harvard Law degree for the next few years, until employers’ views of […]

  3. […] would allow us to assess whether they do).  At a much higher level, a school in the top 25 sent a letter to its alumni desperately seeking their help finding jobs for its […]

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