Harvard Law School seal logo.jpgLast week we told you that Harvard and Stanford law schools were enacting sweeping grade reform. Reactions came in from students and alumni from many top schools. One close friend emailed:

If Harvard had this when we were in school, I’d be emailing you from DPW right now.

Suffice it to say, the friend emailed from a little further down the Vault list.

But to be clear, HLS doesn’t have anything just yet. Dean Kagan announced, “the new classifications, much as at Yale and Stanford, will be Honors-Pass-Low Pass-Fail.” She did not speak on the crucial question of how honors would be determined.

On the other hand, Stanford did announce precisely how their honors would be determined (“book prizes”). Some commenters criticized the decision because it could not be mapped onto a traditional four-point system:

The important issue with any grading system is whether the grades can be aggregated into one number–the GPA–and the students ranked on that basis. The A-F system is mapped onto the 0-4.0 scale (or 0-8, at HLS, until now). The HP-F system is not mapped onto any numerical scale. This makes it impossible to precisely rank students (without developing your own formula).

HLS could still end up with a four-point system of some description. As one reader pointed out:

Honors = A

Pass = B

Low Pass = C

Fail = Elie

Unless you believe the deans’ quest for “pedagogical excellence,” there is an open question as to why two top institutions would radically change how law students are judged.

Possible answers after the jump.

One commenter points out the obvious answer:

stanford law school logo.JPGHarvard and Stanford are changing their systems because (a) they think it will help them to attract students who they believe were heading to Yale because there are “no grades” there, and (b) because they also know that they will maintain the ability to differentiate between students in a meaningful way, despite the outward appearance that this kind of competition will now be a thing of the past.

They are wrong on the first count, so long as students will actually visit the schools and talk to the students to learn about the cultures. Yale has a special, largely non-competitive atmosphere because the student body is small, more selective, highly coveted in all areas, and diverse enough in its interests and job ambitions that the students can maintain their high desirability in each area of the market.

As to the second count, of course, they are right. Harvard, for instance, with a class so large, knows that it must maintain a meaningful method of differentiation in order to satisfy employers and judges. There are extra-curricular opportunities, sure, but classroom performance must be the primary variable in any differentiating function at such a large institution. So, we should look past this change in the grading system and recognize that it is not going to change either the culture or the needs of HLS.

I am not saying any of this to suggest that HLS is an awful, hyper-competitive place. It is not. But what ever happened to maintaining a differentiated product? If Harvard wants to steal Yale-bound students, it should provide a superior, different product, not a Yale-wanna-be try at a non-conventional grading system that will give false claim to uniformity among their prospectives and graduates.

On its face, the moves by HLS and SLS do seem like an obvious attempt to move in on top-dog Yale. But Yale Law does not seem to be concerned. One tipster, a Yale 1L, said:

Well guys, imitation is the highest form of flattery :) .

As soon as the HLS change was announced, all of YLS was chattering…and then most of us went back to not caring. Unlike the HLS & SLS 1Ls, the 1Ls here don’t have to worry about faculty committees and their silly decisions about grade reform….thank goodness our predecessors protested back in the 70s…

The Yale student list-serv had even more mockery:

Next steps at HLS:

1) Cut class size by 66%

2) Open clinics to 1Ls

3) Change name to Yarvard

Harvard will change its name just as soon as New Haven hires a credible police force.

But maybe all this grade reform has little to do with HLS and SLS trying to move into the top spot. Instead, they could be watching CLS and NYU in their rear view mirror:

HYS is smart to do this as it allows their students to get whatever jobs they want as opposed to having to justify B’s. NYU and CLS will have to follow suit or they will never be able to compete with HYS (assuming they currently can for some students_.

At NYU or CLS, if you have mostly B’s and B+s you won’t make a lot of firm’s grade cutoffs and are unlikely to get a t-10 offer. I know my firm has a strict cutoff. However, under the HYS system your grades will only be distinguishable for clerkships and for a few grade conscious firms such as Wachtell. No one else will care about the high pass, pass distinction.

Remember Boalt/Berkeley has had a pass/fail system for years. Of course, that’s not necessarily a good thing:

Notwithstanding any other arguments, the fact that Stanford is now being mentioned in the same breath as Boalt should be reason enough to be against the change.

What would you want your school to do? Vote in the poll below.

comments sponsored by

69 comments (hidden for your protection) Show all comments