« Teaching Dreams ... and Nightmares | Main | Remember Jose Padilla? (Apparently, the Eleventh Circuit Doesn't...) »

Monday, January 03, 2011

That Time of Year

I handed in my grades today, and although my 1L class probably performed as well as any class I have ever taught (for reasons I may explain in a later post), I still had one of those heart-wrenching moments that we all have from time to time. When I finally saw the names that went with the exam numbers, I realized that there were students who consistently worked extremely hard, came to my office for extra help, and had me review written practice exams but nonetheless didn't perform up to potential. I know these hard-working students will be disappointed, and I know I'll be asked to help them understand what, if anything, went wrong. What do I say? I can go over a student's exam and highlight what is missing, but I don't necessarily have that crucial tidbit of advice that will ensure that next time will be different. And why should the student accept my advice at this point anyway? After all, the student did everything I asked him or her to do in the 1L semester, to little apparent effect. I've experienced this phenomenon over and over, and it never gets any easier. I have a series of things I say to soften the blow and help the student realize that he or she doesn't go through life with one Torts grade branded on the forehead. But it continues to be one of the hardest parts of this job.

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on January 3, 2011 at 10:06 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference That Time of Year:



I am a practitioner and an adjunct professor. In practice, "appropriate advice" often includes running down all (or a reasonable number) alternative courses of action and explaining why -- out of a, b, c and d -- c is your recommended course. Clients like to see that you considered the various options (even if some of the options were bad ones) and made a reasoned choice among them. By understanding how you reached your conclusion, the client is more likely to understand and trust your advice. Also, clients like choices. So "appropriate advice" often includes a range of possible actions with the risks associated with each one.

I think the same is true on exams (although it definitely depends on the professor). Many professors appreciate that you recognize that there are options and understand why one approach works while another does not, what the risks are, etc.

Both in practice and on exams, be concise but be thorough (and recognize that concise does not always mean short).

Posted by: Diablo | Jan 6, 2011 12:03:01 AM

Sometimes comments made only for the sake of "professional bonding" have unintended consequences. Since starting law school last fall, I heard professors complain about grading and (especially) how they hated reading these page long discussions on subjects only tangentially related to the topic at hand. One even said they would, at times, just skip entire paragraphs. In order to avoid this (and because I felt like a happier grader generally makes for higher grades) I wrote exam answers to the point and focused on the areas which the hypos turned on. Somehow it was not until halfway through exams this fall that I realized law school is one of the few areas in life where it is to your detriment to answer questions in that manner.

A friend of mine in federal income tax pointed out that my sample answers were shorter than his, and, after a comparison, I pointed out that half of his answer was devoted to various strategies which were invalid and could put him in federal prison. I told him the cases and approximate comment numbers to look at, and after reading them he added a sentence to four different areas of his answer. Essentially, “This approach will likely not work because of the decision in Smith v. Smith.”

Even though the question was to “provide appropriate advice concerning the federal income tax effects to Mr. L,” and advice that could land one you in prison is certainly not appropriate (not to mention Mr. L will not want to pay you to tell him invalid tax strategies) you will never make a good grade unless you put it in there. My friend laughed and said prompts should really say, “Write any legal thoughts you have which are related to this hypo because I will ignore the ones which are wrong while still giving you an ‘A’ if you hit one or two that I had not thought of before.”

At least one of us is laughing. Even though I studied casually two weeks for the lsat and made the 93rd percentile, I studied hard for two semesters and have yet to make an “A.” Only one of those gets put on resumes.

Posted by: Brent | Jan 5, 2011 8:57:01 PM


I might've missed something in the dialogue. You mention that firms prefer the ‘one shot’ model because it helps to separate the wheat form the chaff. How does a single exam do any better at wheat separation than posited alternatives (e.g., final+midterm, or final+paper, or a final+oral battery)?

Posted by: Jon | Jan 5, 2011 6:27:14 PM

"I suppose my question is also related to how undergrad large lectures have TAs that will help grade exams whereas law schools do not."

I think there are two reasons for not allowing TAs to grade exams. First, many law school exam questions are open-ended and a bit subjective, which requires a lot of judgment to grade, more than the usually objective exams at the undergraduate level. Second and more important, grades simply matter (for law students) too much to entrust the grading to TAs.

Posted by: GU | Jan 5, 2011 11:59:10 AM

There's a long-running dialogue, of course, on the merits of the single-final pedagogical approach. But one might note that this law school format is at least a rough approximation of the expectations put on attorneys in practice: an attorney learns, studies, and lives with a case for months, but that attorney's ultimate success often boils down to his/her performance in a single negotiation, or trial date, or oral argument. I wouldn't make too much of this argument, but the parallel is worth mentioning.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 5, 2011 11:38:02 AM

"If you haven't noticed many law professors whine incessantly about having to grade exams from the one or two classes they teach." I suppose my question is also related to how undergrad large lectures have TAs that will help grade exams whereas law schools do not.

Posted by: . | Jan 5, 2011 8:50:11 AM

I do not know the origin of the practice of giving one exam (though I wonder if it is based on a British or European model, since I only took one exam for the year when I studied abroad). Recently I have become more and more dissatisfied with the one-exam system and have begun experimenting with quizzes during the semester (which I've blogged about). I plan to make further modifications to how I test to try to give students a chance to improve their analytical and test-taking skills before the final exam. Unfortunately, I see no "movement" within the profession to make major changes to how we test our students. By the way, I can understand how professors' complaints about grading exams may strike students as churlish. For teachers, however, it is a simply irresistible form of professional bonding over the most difficult aspect of our jobs. Having been raised by teachers and having siblings who are teachers, I can attest that it is a universal complaint of teachers everywhere at every level of education, which is not to say that it isn't churlish nonetheless.

Posted by: Lyrissa | Jan 4, 2011 11:34:25 PM

"Can someone point a non-lawyer to some reading as to why law schools choose to do a single final rather than multiple exams and a final?"

Inertia and convenience for the professors*.

*If you haven't noticed many law professors whine incessantly about having to grade exams from the one or two classes they teach. I believe them that it is the worst part of the job, and that it is not fun. Given the circumstances of many law students today, however, it seems a bit tone deaf—"I can't believe I have to grade 60 exams" vs. "I can't believe I had to take out 60 grand in loans for just one year of law school and it is quite likely that I will not have a job that will allow me to pay back those loans." (Yes prawfs, many students read your blawgs).

Posted by: GU | Jan 4, 2011 11:01:55 PM

If these students did everything you asked them to do and nevertheless failed to achieve, and this bothers you, why do you continue to evaluate them in the way that you do?

I'm with "." above, why do law schools evaluate students the way that they do (emphasis on the final, mandatory curves, etc.)? I know that this is what law firms want, because they think it helps them sort amongst a huge number of hard to distinguish applicants, but is it what's best for students? Do you believe that it comes close to producing the best lawyers?

Posted by: billb | Jan 4, 2011 7:35:16 PM

Can someone point a non-lawyer to some reading as to why law schools choose to do a single final rather than multiple exams and a final?

Posted by: . | Jan 4, 2011 5:34:51 PM

It is immensely hard for students. Sometimes I think the best we can do is to reassure the student that the grade is not the death of his or her hopes and dreams, that it does not mean that he or she won't be a great lawyer, that the "light bulb" may yet come on so that s/he will understand the type of analysis law school exams require, and that even if it doesn't there are a host of other skills that go into lawyering that aren't (and perhaps can't be) tested on law school exams. From experience, I can give case examples of students who never did thrive as students but are brilliant lawyers. I can also give case examples of students who had a rough start as 1Ls but graduated with honors or made law review. Law school exams test a very narrow analytical ability or skill, which is why there is a fair amount of consistency in the grades students receive. This is not to say there isn't a subjective component in grading. Plus, there certainly are a few truly idiosyncratic professors. In general, however, there is a real difference between the A exams and the C exams in the number of relevant legal issues identified and the number of valid legal arguments articulated. (For what that's worth.)

Posted by: Lyrissa | Jan 4, 2011 12:24:11 PM

Some very, very bright people do not succeed in law school. Some people with bad grades in undergrad (like me) do very well (magna cum laude, Order of the Coif from a T1 school). I also overcame a lackluster showing in my first semester 1L grades because I suddenly got it . . .

I think it is a function of how people think. Some who don't do as well on exams get bogged down in meaningless details from the cases they read during the semester and cannot see the bigger picture. Others just cannot seem to make the intellectual or intuitive leaps that are sometimes necessary to understand the material. Granted some professors are not as good, but everyone in a section had the same subpar prof and for first year courses, there is an enforced curve across sections.

Posted by: Diablo | Jan 4, 2011 12:14:09 PM


That’s a great point: clearly there are A students and there are C students. But what is captured by a student’s grades (esp. 1L students’ grades)? Do (our ought) law exams aim to capture something different than that captured by undergraduate exams?

I concede the existence of the phenomenon, but I won’t affirm the consequent. Mere consistency doesn’t yield validity.

Posted by: Jon | Jan 4, 2011 10:26:56 AM


I agree with you entirely that exams are worse for students than for profs.

But that being said, if it's the case that grading is as arbitrary as you make it out to be, why is it that some students are able to get A-level grades in all of their classes?

Posted by: anon | Jan 4, 2011 5:03:37 AM

Hard for professors, but harder for students.

The students in your class have already passed through a number of filters: high school graduation, college acceptance and graduation (with sufficient GPA), LSAT (with sufficient score), and your school’s adcom. Some of them are violinists, or have had previous careers in government, or are fresh out of college; but, whatever their pasts, they are presently academically indistinguishable from each other. We ought to expect the quality of a student’s work to be accurately reflected in his class rank.

Then students are (by some process) split into sections. Some students will have the pleasure of learning the law of Contract from an absent-minded octogenarian, while others will be up to their eyeballs in economic jargon, and still others will learn how the law of contract can effect meaningful social change. Different casebooks, wildly different styles and ideas, but the same grading scheme; the gap between the student’s work and his rank widens.

And then, in a three-hour flash, your student vomits onto paper (or his computer, nowadays) everything that shares any point of tangency with the hypo you ever so carefully constructed over Thanksgiving break. But alas, he spent far too much time on the formation issue (which, incidentally, took up weeks of class time, but would earn him only a pittance of points on your rubric). The work/rank gap further widens.

If he had been assigned to another section (by some process), his mistake might’ve been rewarded as diligence rather than penalized as foolishness. (His doppelganger in ‘Section B’ makes an A.) Or, another section’s Contracts professor might’ve given 24 As to your section’s 1. Despite his labor, a bimodal distribution of the grades in this other section prevents him from reaching the top of the class, given the unimodal distribution of his own section’s grades. (Life imitates blog.) The work/rank chasm splits wide open.

Your clever student won’t make law review, he will be turned down by every decent firm in town when OCI season rolls around, and one day he will with heavy heart hang out his shingle in office space rented by the hour. Arbitrariness lurks around every corner. Law exams may be hard for professors, but I assure you are much, much harder for students.

Posted by: Jon | Jan 4, 2011 1:07:23 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.