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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Law School Rankings and Grading Curves

Orin Kerr has a really interesting post today on law school grading curves based on his experience at George Washington relative to other top-25 schools. Orin’s post follows up on a related post by Eugene Volokh.

Orin observes that the top-25 schools seem to have 3.2 or 3.3 mean grading curve range. This curve range also reportedly is elevating at the top schools: Orin notes that GWU recently raised its grading curve to a similar range from a 3.0 curve to keep pace with other top-25 schools, and Eugene Volokh’s post lists UCLA’s curve as a rising over the years to a “B+ median.” Stanford now has a 3.4 curve. I teach at Gonzaga Law School, where the grading curves for large classes are appreciably lower.

I have heard several different justifications for the harsher grading curves that seem to prevail at law schools outside of the top tier. Is this perceived grading curve variation between the higher and more modestly-ranked law schools accurate, though? If so, at what point out of the top-25 schools do grading curves drop consistently below this 3.2-3.3 range and even below a 3.0 mean curve? Do tougher grading curves at lower-ranked schools help the students at these schools or the schools themselves, or do they simply reflect different ranges of student capability? One of the comments to Orin’s post notes how harsher curves at lower-ranked schools can harm scholarship students who compete directly with each other to maintain required minimum GPAs for keeping their scholarships. I also wonder whether overall lower GPAs at lower-ranked schools harm those students' job marketability, although some comments suggest that employers care less about GPA and more about class rank.

Posted by Brooks Holland on June 8, 2006 at 04:43 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Another consideration is that unless you have "Harvard" or "Yale" for your J.D., there are many locales that would assume hire someone from the local law school - even though it may be much lower ranked - thus those lower ranked schools who hammer their students with harsher curves hurt themselves in getting their students out in the market nationwide. First, the student went to a lower ranked school. Second, he is not considered for fellowships, good public service positions, LLM programs, etc. because he was hammered on a ridiculous grade curve. Bad grades at a lower school keeps a lot of otherwise really good attorneys from expanding their horizons. There are a lot of stories out there of the student who aced every exam, but can't pass the bar or can't hold a job.

Posted by: John Daniels | Jun 15, 2006 8:57:09 PM

"Do tougher grading curves at lower-ranked schools help the students at these schools or the schools themselves, or do they simply reflect different ranges of student capability? [. . . .]. I also wonder whether overall lower GPAs at lower-ranked schools harm those students' job marketability, although some comments suggest that employers care less about GPA and more about class rank."

In my experience the C curve does not help the students. It creates a lot of envy and bitterness among the students. There is a lot of anxiety over maintaining a GPA high enough to remain academically eligible. The tougher grading curve only helps the school. The school eliminates more students that may fail the bar, which makes the bar passage rate look better. However, the downside of the attrition is it totally screws up class ranking which puts those that survived the curve suddenly at the bottom of the class. It also makes students limit their time participating in other activities because their academic standing is not secure.

In addition, the harsh grading curve is a compromise with ABA for admitting students with lower undergraduate GPAs and LSAT scores. The ABA uses accreditation to compel schools to enforce stricter grading curves. The law school doesn't even fight this inequity considering the diversity of factors in the admissions process.

The harsher curve does hurt job prospects if there are GPA requirements, which include most large firms and Federal Government positions that dominate on campus recruiting. Furthermore, it is harder to get jobs because so many other schools have a higher curve in comparasion. My law school does little to inform employers of our strict curve, which makes the the evaluation even more unfair. I don't know how long it will take for me to get hired next year. The harsh curve doesn't appear to make getting employed an issue per se. The field of options is just narrowed to small firms and small government positions. I wouldn't be surprised if a significant number of students attempt to go solo. However, it's the where you get employed that is an issue. Most people don't want to attend professional school and get paid what their undergraduate degree could earn. The harsh curve is going to force more students to take more risks by starting their own firms because there aren't adequate job prospects for most of us. The downside is many students will get limited exposure to training until CLE due to poor grades. Also, will everyone have the business skill and independent study ability to make it solo? I don't know. The curve is going to sort out the laborers and the capitalists.

Posted by: Jacob | Jul 7, 2006 12:01:18 AM

Also do harsher curves make it harder on students who need to make transfers into higher ranked schools, whether that be for geographic location or better opportunities?

Posted by: Lise | Feb 5, 2007 8:15:33 PM

I think this situation is extremely problematic for law students in regions where you have a disparity amongst grading curves. As a student at George Mason University School of Law in Northern Virginia, I compete directly with George Washington and Georgetown Law. Mason has decided to curve to a 2.8, essentially a B-. The problem however, is that most employers do not seem to be aware of this, especially if they do not receive several applications from a particular school. Our transcripts contain our curve in small print on the back, but employers do not seem to be paying attention. When I asked my current employer whether or not he knew that different schools in region had significantly different curves, he stated that he did not. What does that mean? It means when two people are interviewed, one from George Mason and one from George Washington and GPAs consists of a .5 difference, what decision would you make? I also agree with the notion that this is especially problematic for students seeking to compete nationally. The ABA needs to set a standard on this.

Posted by: Jeremy WIlliams | Mar 27, 2007 9:53:49 PM

In reference to an employer hiring an individual from GW or George Mason one key consideration is that GW has higher quality students. In order for the higher quality students at top schools to compete with students from lower ranked schools, the schools with top students need to reward them with higher grades. At the end of the day, the average George Mason student is not the average George Washington student and employers know that.

Posted by: Brett Sal | Apr 30, 2007 8:12:17 PM

You honestly think the average GW student is better than the average Mason student? I beg to differ. I got into both schools and chose Mason mainly because the tuition is less than half the price of GW's, and I didn't think it would be worth the minor "reputation" bump to go into an extra $100K of debt. A good number of my classmates also turned down schools that are ranked higher than GW for the same reason. I'd say these Mason students are actually smarter than the "average" GW student who thinks the pricetag is worth it (I think it's the 2nd highest law school tuition in the country). They're not even a top 14 school! The difference in quality of student between the two schools is: 1) not consistent, and 2) too minor to justify hiring a graduate of one over the other based solely on the school's reputation.

Posted by: JJ | May 4, 2007 12:24:53 PM

Students at the two schools are not even comparable. The difference between GW currently ranked 22 in US News (often 20 or better), and GM and its current 34 ranking that could very easily be in the 40's-50's illustrates the HUGE difference between the schools.

It has to be very difficult for GM students to compete in a city with Georgetown and George Washington students, and I know the competitive nature of law students to think that the school they are at is the best or is in some way better than its ranking, but there truly are only two premiere law schools in D.C.

Considering the cost of schools is often important, but if you want a big firm job ... clearly you made the wrong choice is you picked GM.

Posted by: Tom C. | May 6, 2007 11:43:46 PM

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