We have a message for law school deans and administrators everywhere. To paraphrase Chris Crocker, “Leave… the grades… alone!”

Stories about changes to law school grading schemes aren’t much fun for us to write. But every time you deans tinker ever so slightly with your law school’s curve, we here at Above the Law get flooded by angry emails from law student readers, demanding that we call attention to whatever completely inscrutable change (or non-change) you have made (or not made) to your grading policy. In order to save us from having to write these stories, please cease and desist immediately from further amendment of your grading schemes.

Notwithstanding the views of the guy who posted his grades on Facebook, law school grades aren’t very interesting (except to their recipients). We’d much rather immerse ourselves in the law firm bonus horse race, for example. Compared to law school grading stories, the associate bonus watch is as riveting as the Oscars competition (or the Super Bowl, if you’re into that sort of thing).

Honestly, and with all due respect to our law student readers, we don’t particularly care about law school grades — and neither will you, in just a few short years. Right now you might be obsessed with your grades. And yes, they matter more than before, thanks to the tough legal job market. But you will forget your law school GPA sooner than you think. In the words of Professor Orin Kerr, “[o]nce you’re out of school for a bit, people care whether you are a good attorney, not your law school GPA.”

In this post, we’re going to cover controversies over grading at three law schools: the University of Chicago Law School, Cornell Law School, and the University of Buffalo Law School.

And then, God willing, we hope to avoid writing another story about law school grades until May or June (when the spring semester ends and students start talking about transfer applications)….

1. UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LAW SCHOOL

This week, Justice Sonia Sotomayor blew into the Windy City, where she spoke to students at the University of Chicago Law School. (She was supposed to speak at Northwestern Law as well, but that event was canceled due to weather.)

What words of wisdom did the Wise Latina have to share with the Chicagoans? According to the AP, she told them to, well, just relax. Cf. Mattel v. MCA Records (“The parties are advised to chill.”) (Kozinski, J.).

Good luck getting that message across to U. Chicago law students. Based on a slew of emails we’ve received, they seem very, very worked up over grades right now.

After rumors began circulating about the law school possibly imposing a harsher grading curve, particularly for seminars and small classes, a law student sent an open letter to Dean of Students Amy Gardner (cc’ing LawAnnounce, the school-wide listserv; Dean Michael Schill; and Deputy Dean Lior Strahilevitz). The message is reprinted in full below (“Message #1″), but here’s the key portion:

The word on the street is that the school has imposed mandatory curves for seminar grades. Given that these rumors suggest the law school has changed its policies retroactively, without telling students, and without seeking our input, the puzzling and troubling silence from the Dean of Students office only bolsters these rumors’ credibility. I trust these rumors are unfounded; the administration has customarily treated students with a greater degree of respect.

Very shortly thereafter — in fact, the timing suggests that it wasn’t intended as a response — Dean Schill sent out a school-wide email (reprinted below as “Message #2″), in which he denied rumors of any changes to the grading curve or median grades required for classes. He did identify the possible genesis of the rumors:

In December, the Dean’s Office reminded faculty about the importance of grading equity. Most faculty members had adhered to the Law School’s curve, however a small number had not. As a routine matter, the faculty were provided with the grade distribution from the graduating class of 2010. Professors were instructed to conform their grading practices to the grading norms of the institution as a whole. These include a median grade of 177 for courses and a median of 179 for paper seminars and clinics.

Seems reasonable enough. But a subsequent message from a different student (reprinted as “Message #3″ below) expressed dissatisfaction with Dean Schill’s explanation, pointing out that certain language about the grading curve from the hard-copy student handbook appears to have “disappeared” in the online version of the handbook.

Apparently there’s going to be a meeting between the administration and LSA (student government) sometime later this week. Perhaps there will be some updates and additional information after that meeting.

Here is one source’s summary of what students find objectionable:

People are upset about new changes to the grading curves — changes that only harm Chicago students in an already bad hiring market….

The bottom line is this: the Law School has reaffirmed its commitment to an irrational grading system featuring too many gradations (why do we need five levels of “B” grades?). It also seems to have made changes to the grading policy without telling students, no matter how much Schill might deny it…. Schill and Deputy Dean Lior Strahilevitz have chosen to side with “tradition,” the school’s “brand,” and academic “rigor” — all at the expense of students’ job prospects.

Chicago’s peer schools have undertaken grade reform, in part to make their students more competitive in the job market. Schill and Strahilevitz are out of touch with the market conditions students face. They should be ashamed of their decision to redouble the school’s commitment to an out-of-date grading system. Indeed, prospective students should avoid attending the University of Chicago Law School until Schill and Strahilevitz start adopting policies that make students more, not less, competitive in an already difficult job market.

Well, let me play devil’s advocate (because they enjoy a good debate over at the University of Chicago). Are legal employers — employers that see large numbers of transcripts, from a wide range of law schools, over many different years — really going to be fooled by so-called “grade reform”? Browse through Above the Law’s grade reform archives, where we — and others, including Stephen Colbert — have poked fun at law schools’ attempts to make their graduates more “competitive” by artificially and arbitrarily inflating their grades.

Of course, retroactive grade inflation is a rather dubious “reform.” Another option is to move away from a fine-grained grading system to one with fewer tiers, as Harvard and Stanford have done. E.g., instead of having A+, A, A-, B+, etc., a school might just have Honors, Pass, and Low Pass (with Low Pass given very sparingly).

But does this brand of “reform” help students either? Word on the street is that “grade reform” at Harvard Law School has actually made it harder for some HLS students to land jobs, by throwing everyone into an undifferentiated mass, instead of allowing certain people to shine. Some at HLS believe that their move to a more rudimentary and crude grading system was a mistake (especially for a school as large as Harvard, with over 500 students per class).

Here’s one way of looking at the situation: all law schools, including the most elite law schools, admit and graduate some duds. From the perspective of employers, isn’t it better for the law schools to weed out the duds, instead of foisting them on unsuspecting law firms and judges?

Notwithstanding the protestations of Nixon Peabody, not everyone is a winner. Law schools should perform the valuable function for employers of separating the winners from the losers. In the glory days of 2007, maybe law schools could get away with telling law firms and judges, “Oh, all of our graduates are amazing!” But in the much weaker legal job market of 2011, might it make sense for a law school to make clear who’s at the top and who’s at the bottom?

A system like Chicago’s, which has about twice as many gradations as a typical law school grading scheme, might be the best way to go in tough economic times. If a law school refuses to differentiate between its students, an employer might respond by effectively saying, “Well, if you won’t tell me who’s really good, then I’ll take none of them.” Meanwhile, a law school that clearly identifies the top 10 or 20 percent might be able to get jobs for at least those high achievers. In 2011, if a law school can’t get jobs for all of its graduates, it might as well try to get jobs for some of its graduates — namely, the graduates with the greatest academic aptitude.

(This is, of course, essentially the approach that many lower-ranked law schools have been taking for years. They know they can’t get jobs for all their grads, but if they can at least identify their very best students — the ones on law review, or the top 10 percent of the class, or even the top 10 people in the class — they can at least get jobs for them.)

Anyway, we’re just playing devil’s advocate. If you’d like to read more about the grading controversy at Chicago Law, including some angry student reactions, surf on over to Top Law Schools.

2. CORNELL LAW SCHOOL

Law school administrators can’t win when it comes to grades — another argument in favor of just leaving them alone. At Chicago, some students are up in arms because they think the administration is promoting grade deflation, i.e., making professors grade more harshly. At Cornell, some students are upset because of grade inflation.

In December, Stephen Garvey, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and Anne Lukingbeal, Dean of Students, sent out a school-wide memo (reprinted below). Here’s the key portion:

At the faculty meeting last week, a number of potential changes were discussed. The faculty voted to reaffirm our current target of a 3.35 mean for all courses including seminars and problem courses. However, the faculty also agreed to describe the acceptable parameters for the mean in all courses as between 3.20 and 3.50. The target remains a 3.35, which has been our standard for many years. The very limited exceptions to this policy, including courses with fewer than ten JD students taking the course for a letter grade, also remain in place.

A full statement of the school’s official grading policy can be found at: https://support.law.cornell.edu/students/forms/view_grading_explanation_December_2010.pdf.

One tipster directed us to compare the December 2010 policy with the January 2010 policy, and summed up the situation as follows: “Grade inflation is coming to Cornell Law School.”

So why is Cornell’s allowing greater flexibility with grading, with a possible shift towards grade inflation, a problem? Here’s one tipster’s take:

Cornell Law School is inflating grades starting this semester. It’s going from a universal 3.35 mean grade curve to a “range” of 3.2 to 3.5 for the mean, with the professors choosing where they set it. At least two professors… have already announced a 3.5 mean for this semester. This will, of course, lead to students actively shopping for courses, and demanding a universal shift to 3.5, lest anyone in a 3.2 course be at a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, 3Ls will look dumber than the classes beneath them, because they’ve taken everything on the 3.35 curve.

CORRECTION: As another source points out, technically speaking, the 3.35 was a maximum mean rather than a universal mean (even though, in practice, professors would generally aim for a 3.35 mean, as noted in the deans’ memo).

As noted above, the new policy does allow professors to go lower, down to a 3.2 mean, as well as higher, up to a 3.5 mean. In practice, it seems that they have gone higher (i.e., towards inflation). Grades from the fall 2010 semester are out, and here’s what one source says:

So the top 10% cutoff was released for the 1Ls, and it is 3.81. Traditionally it’s been around 3.67 or so, thus it’s clear that the new policy made a difference. Anecdotally, though, I’ve heard of students still getting B-s and C+s, so it might be that the new policy is even worse for students at the lower end of the class….

I don’t think that they’ve yet published the individual grade distributions for each professor, but it does seem that the policy made somewhat of a difference. Anecdotally it seems that more people are doing things to “grade protect” now, in order to make sure that they graduate with honors.

You can compare the two most recent grading policies. January 2011 is on the new curve and June 2010 is on the older curve. I can’t quite figure out what happened, but it at least seems to me that the grades at the very top of the curve now seem somewhat artificially inflated.

If you deflate grades, students complain; if you inflate grades, students complain. How about just leaving them alone?

3. UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO LAW SCHOOL

We can’t take much more of this, so we’re going to cover this last controversy in cursory fashion. Last Friday, the registrar at SUNY-Buffalo Law sent out a series of (somewhat confusing) emails to students about calculation of GPA and class rank. (The emails are reprinted in full below.)

What’s problematic about the UB Law grading changes? Here is one student’s explanation:

In June 2010 Buffalo Law School summarily decided to begin ranking its students. To do so, the administration of the school gathered the GPA data of the previous three classes in those classes first 2 years of school. Buffalo administration provided GPA thresholds that qualified students meeting the threshold to report a certain class rank (ie, a GPA of 3.2 would rank a student in the top 10 percent). At the end of the 3L year, students would receive a new set of thresholds (ie, a 3.2 GPA would rank a student in the top 20%) based on the previous 3 classes GPAs at the end of the 3 years.

This was a welcome development for those who believe that Buffalo students were at a disadvantage compared to students from schools that provide a measure of how a student compares against their peers. However, for the class of 2011, this policy was instituted retroactively. The Class of 2011 went through the first two years of law school with the understanding that class rank was not a concern, only to find out that they would have to provide a class rank to prospective employers just as they went into the 3L recruiting process. Students complained about the ranking policy being sprung on them right before the last year of school, but at least they knew, more or less, where they stood.

With that said, the students have been, at all times, powerless to do anything proactive to help themselves — including transferring (after 2L year this remedy is too late) or electing not to return because of the inevitable erosion of competitiveness with a revised class ranking.

The new ranking system particularly disadvantages those students who elected to take difficult classes or those in which not everyone gets an A. The grading thresholds to be implemented at the end of this year reveal that doing anything other than getting an A is exceedingly detrimental, as the revisions to the thresholds are substantial. Had the administration reported what the changes would be between the thresholds announced in September and the thresholds to be used as of May, students could have made their selections accordingly and avoided the highly punitive result of electing a challenging course schedule.

Moreover, members of the class of 2011 are not being compared against their peers to generate the grade thresholds that qualify for certain class ranks—only an estimate is being used. Even the proffered justification for doing this—that averaging across years eliminates any vagaries—seems tenuous at best. The faculty are different, the exam formats are different, the curves are different, etc. Merely averaging across years does not seem to eliminate all of these problems, and that does not seem fair to the current students.

Okay, now we really have had enough of this subject. Here’s an open thread on law school grades. If you want to discuss grading at your law school, please feel free to do so in the comments to this post. Thanks.

(Various grade-related emails, from Chicago, Cornell, and Buffalo, are reprinted in full below.)


UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LAW SCHOOL

MESSAGE #1 — FROM A CHICAGO LAW STUDENT

Dear Dean Gardner,

The word on the street is that the school has imposed mandatory curves for
seminar grades. Given that these rumors suggest the law school has
changed its policies retroactively, without telling students, and without
seeking our input, the puzzling and troubling silence from the Dean of
Students office only bolsters these rumors’ credibility. I trust these rumors
are unfounded; the administration has customarily treated students with a
greater degree of respect.

Thank you for your prompt attention in addressing these rumors. I look
forward to reading your response to the student community.

CC Dean Schill, Deputy Dean Strahilevitz

MESSAGE #2 — FROM DEAN MICHAEL SCHILL AND DEPUTY DEAN LIOR STRAHILEVITZ

To: Class of 2011, Class of 2012, Class of 2013, LLM Class of 2011
From: Michael H. Schill, Dean and Lior Strahilevitz, Deputy Dean
Date: January 28, 2011
Re: Grading Curve

It has come to our attention that there is a rumor that the Law School has changed its grading curve. This is not correct. The Law School has changed neither its grading curve nor the median grades required for each class.

In December, the Dean’s Office reminded faculty about the importance of grading equity. Most faculty members had adhered to the Law School’s curve, however a small number had not. As a routine matter, the faculty were provided with the grade distribution from the graduating class of 2010. Professors were instructed to conform their grading practices to the grading norms of the institution as a whole. These include a median grade of 177 for courses and a median of 179 for paper seminars and clinics.

We have just examined the grades handed out for last quarter. The medians are entirely consistent with those handed out last year and in previous years. The one difference in grades is that there is less variance. This is what we set out to achieve in the interest of equity.

We will be meeting with LSA to answer any questions students might have next week. In any event, we want to assure all of you that, rumors to the contrary, we have not changed and have no plans to change the Law School’s grading curve. If we were to propose changes (which we have no plans to do), we would only do so after appropriate consultation with the faculty and students.

We are sorry that unrebutted rumors to the contrary have caused confusion among some students.

We hope you have a great weekend.

MESSAGE #3 — FROM A CHICAGO LAW STUDENT

Dear Dean Schill,

I write out of concern that your letter — reassuring us that “the Law School’s grading curve” has not changed — may not have entirely addressed [the first student]‘s stated concern regarding smaller classes and/or seminars.

At the beginning of the year, Section 1.13 of the Law School Student Handbook, as it appeared on page 105 of the student planner, stated, “There is a mandatory curve for classes of more than 50 students…. We encourage professors in all classes to adhere to the recommended curve, though the median may be slightly higher for seminars.” (emphasis added).

This language has been entirely eliminated from the Student Handbook as it appears online.

This change to the Student Handbook might be seen as supplying more basis than simple “rumor” to the suggestion that there are modifications at work in the law school’s grading system.

I encourage you to put this lingering confusion to rest, and to address this issue in a forum more publicly accessible than an LSA meeting.


CORNELL LAW SCHOOL — MEMORANDUM — GRADE CURVE

From: Dean Anne Lukingbeal
Date: Tue, Dec 7, 2010 at 3:23 PM
Subject: Grade Curve

To: All Students

From: Stephen Garvey, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
Anne Lukingbeal, Associate Dean and Dean of Students

Re: Grade Curve

Date: December 7, 2010

At the faculty meeting last week, a number of potential changes were discussed. The faculty voted to reaffirm our current target of a 3.35 mean for all courses including seminars and problem courses. However, the faculty also agreed to describe the acceptable parameters for the mean in all courses as between 3.20 and 3.50. The target remains a 3.35, which has been our standard for many years. The very limited exceptions to this policy, including courses with fewer than ten JD students taking the course for a letter grade, also remain in place.

A full statement of the school’s official grading policy can be found at: https://support.law.cornell.edu/students/forms/view_grading_explanation_December_2010.pdf.


UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO LAW SCHOOL — MEMORANDA — LAW SCHOOL GPA AND CLASS RANK

MESSAGE #1 — FROM THE REGISTRAR’S OFFICE

FROM: BobbyJo LaDelfa
SENT: Friday, January 28, 2011 12:01 PM
SUBJECT: GPA/RANK Information- Class of 2011

Greetings. As there have been many requests for instructions on how
to calculate GPA, in addition to providing rankings upon graduation,
I am providing both below. Hopefully this will allow you to see where
you stand and give you something to strive for upon graduation. First,
some clarification:

1. You will use the rankings released last June for the rest
of this spring until you graduate, which were:

3LS (CLASS OF 2011)

Top 5%- 3.68
Top 10% – 3.60
Top 15% – 3.56
Top 20% – 3.50
Top 25% – 3.47

2. AS OF MAY 21, 2011, you will use the following NEW
cutoffs, which are based on the average of the previous 3 years of
graduating classes:

CLASS OF 2011 RANKINGS AS OF MAY 21, 2011

Top 5% – 3.797
Top 10% – 3.738
Top 15% – 3.674
Top 20% – 3.636
Top 25% – 3.590

GPA Calculation

As always, see me or my staff with questions. In order to calculate
your GPA, follow these instructions:

1. Multiply credit hours x quality points received (see chart
below for quality points). YOU SHOULD INCLUDE F GRADES/CREDITS.

2. Total up figures from #1

3. Divide by total credit hours, EXCLUDING the following
credits: S, U, I, Z, R, or W

Example: Joe Smith has 30 credits of A grades, 10 credits of B+
grades, 3 credits of S grades, 2 credits of F grades and 13 credits
of C grades. What is the GPA?

1. 30×4.0=120 (A grades)
10×3.3=33 (B+ grades)
2×0=0 (F grades)
13×2.0=26 (C grades)

Total= 179 quality points

2. 179/55 credits (excluding S credits) =3.254 GPA

You will notice that I DID NOT figure in the “s” grades but I did
figure in the “f” grades/credits.

A = 4.0 quality points
A minus (A-) = 3.67 quality points
B+ = 3.3 quality points
B = 3.0 quality points
B minus (B-) = 2.67 quality points
C = 2.0 quality points
D= 1.0 quality point
F= 0 quality points

BobbyJo LaDelfa, Ph.D.
Director of Records and Registration/Registrar
University at Buffalo Law School

MESSAGE #2 — FROM THE REGISTRAR’S OFFICE

From: BobbyJo LaDelfa
Sent: Fri 01/28/11 1:43 PM
Subject: Fwd: SOME CLARIFICATION: GPA/RANK Information- Class of 2011

As I’ve received many questions on this I wanted to give the answers
to the entire group. First, it was pointed out that the B+ quality
points should be 3.33, not 3.3. Second, I’ve been asked why the May
figures are different, and what everything is really based on. Here
is a summary:

1. The rankings you received in June 2010 were based on the
past 3 years of graduates but for only the 1 and 2L years of those
graduates. This was thought to be the only fair way to do it as all
of you just completed your 2L year. We wanted to compare “apples to
apples.”

2. May 2011 rankings, upon graduation, are based on the past 3
graduating classes, but for the 1, 2, and 3L years. This is why this
figure is different. Again, we wanted to compare “apples to apples.”

3. The figures in May are higher because students tend to do
better in their last year, which brings up the overall GPA. Remember
we took an AVERAGE of the past 3 graduating classes so you wouldn’t
be compared to just how one entering class did. If there were
anomalies they would be averaged out.

4. The honors formula is still a separate calculation and is
not based on GPA. It can be found in the policy manual:
http://law.buffalo.edu/registrar/submenu/academicPolicies/jdAcademicPolicies08.pdf [1]

5. As far as why the faculty chose to devise this rankings
system instead of having rankings based upon your immediate peers, I
can forward those questions on to the appropriate individuals. If you
send me a question about the policy I will pass along. I will say that
the faculty’s intent was to avoid a situation where students are
pitted up against each other, which is what would happen if you were
given a rank based upon your current class. I can also tell you that
the figures for your current class year are right in-line with the
averages of the past 3 years, which is why we use averages.

I hope this explanation helps.

Best,
BobbyJo LaDelfa, Ph.D.

Links:
[1] http://law.buffalo.edu/registrar/submenu/academicPolicies/jdAcademicPolicies08.pdf
[2] http://www.law.buffalo.edu/registrar


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