Another Grade Inflation Update: Harvard Law School’s Hasty Retreat on New Grading System

To recap the short history: first, Harvard Law School, the second-ranked U.S. law school in the US News rankings, announces that it will move to a grading system similar to Yale’s, i.e., effectively 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 its new system—which would probably not be positive—could be priced into the degree.

Second, the hiring partner of Paul Hastings forthrightly stated that the new system would make it more difficult to evaluate any individual Harvard Law graduate, confirming my view that entering or applying students should somewhat discount the value of its J.D. and that the law school was effectively asking its students to take the interim risk of the new system.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Harvard effectively abandoned the initiative.  Law schools seldom if ever admit mistakes, so the retreat was embedded in a complicated face-saving maneuver but in reality, all the new system does (as Elie Mystal of Above the Law observes) is to require employers to use a calculator to discern law school grade point averages and relative rank.  Legal employers have that technology.

Harvard made the right decision for its students, the small bit of embarrassment (which will soon pass) notwithstanding.  Its current students can feel more comfortable that the value of their degree has been preserved.

But why wasn’t Harvard’s move successful?  After all, it is the second-ranked law school and the most prominent in non-legal public consciousness.  Essentially, the lesson is that combined with the inherent feature of a large graduating class, even elite law schools are subject to market forces.

Last year’s entering class at Harvard was the second-largest of top 20 schools, about 2.5 times the size of Yale’s and three times the size of Stanford’s.  That makes a no-grade system harder to implement, since the message of such a system from law schools to employers is essentially, “Don’t worry, our screening is so selective that you can be assured of the high quality of our graduates.”   And by the way, even Yale does have a shadow rough-cut grading system that allows employers to make distinctions among its graduates.  In any case, it’s just a lot easier to pull off the “pre-certification” message when your class is relatively small than when it’s huge.

Class size means that it would be harder for a larger school—of whatever repute—to successfully execute a reduction of transparency in any time.  But it might be possible in times that are more flush for the legal market.  Whether Harvard could have managed this maneuver in the middle part of the aughts is an open question.  This year and last may have been among the worst times to try.  The miscalculation seems to have been a belief that an elite law school could sail directly into the serious headwinds of the current legal market successfully.

As it turns out, it couldn’t.  That’s another marker of the challenges of the current legal employment market and the likely counterproductivity of more obvious methods of grade inflation to achieve their stated objective.  Far from enhancing their graduates’ employment prospects, grade inflation in the current environment is likely to add a few miles per hour to the already-considerable headwinds that current law graduates are facing.  To its credit, Harvard seems to have figured that out.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on November 9, 2010.

One Response to “Another Grade Inflation Update: Harvard Law School’s Hasty Retreat on New Grading System”

  1. […] 20% of the class has been good, then those applicants will get extra attention (and it’s why even Harvard couldn’t change its grading policies substantively in a recession); if they don’t have experience with graduates of the 65th-ranked school, such a […]

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