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Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

High Undergraduate GPAs at Top Law Schools: What Do They Mean and What Are Their Consequences for Legal Education?

Pamela Karlan, a distinguished expert on voting rights and civil procedure at Stanford Law School, writes:

I read, with both interest and a fair amount of distress, the 75th percentile LSAT rankings.  The distress came from seeing the staggering 75th percentile GPAs.

These could reflect at least three states of the world, two of them unfortunate.  First, and most optimistically, the 40 schools on your list could all be admitting kids with amazing undergraduate academic achievements.  (A 3.96 means, for example a student with 34A's and 2 B+'s as an undergraduate; a 3.85 could mean half A's and half A-'s.)

Second, the GPA's could reflect rampant grade inflation at undergraduate institutions.  Leave aside the abstract debate over whether the current generation of students is so much abler than its predecessors that good students should never see a grade below A- or B+.  Most law schools have mandatory means or curves, and I'm aware of none where that mean is over around 3.4.  (Even at the schools that don't have official means, I would guess the actual mean is no higher than that.)  Thus, virtually all law students will have lower, substantially lower, GPA's in law school than they had in college.  (E.g., at my own institution, 25% of the students had GPAs equivalent to what the number 1 student in the normal graduating class is likely to have.)  This drop has a number of unfortunate consequences.  Many of us are familiar with a huge demoralization effect the day first-semester grades come out and people who've been told all their lives that they are "A's" at everything that's measured hear for the first time that they're "B's."  They give up, and simply float through the remaining five semesters.  Many have a self-protective defensive reaction: if the law doesn't love them, then they distance themselves from it.  In addition, at law schools where there are course-selection strategies that allow students to manipulate their GPA's, students are then drawn not to taking what's good or useful for them, but rather what's most likely to boost their GPAs back toward the range they've internalized as normal.  The high UGPAs mean that many of our students have never really learned to bounce back from academic disappointment (the "C" I got my first semester of college is one of the best things that ever happened to me) and like learning to ride a bicycle, it's harder to learn that the older you get.

Third, to get those astronomical UGPA's, students necessarily had to be either (a) extraordinary across the board for their entire undergraduate career (the student who bombs the first year of college because she wasn't yet ready for the work or who was planning to be a physicist before he realized he didn't have the mathematical ability can't get one of these sky-high GPAs) or (b) strategic and risk-averse, taking only the kinds of courses in which they'd get A's, from the time they were 17 or 18 years old.  I'd bet it's more the latter than the former.  One of the things I always though the U.S. had over many other advanced countries was that we didn't expect students to specialize in only what they were good at when they were still teenagers.  But in order to get a 3.9 UGPA, students really can't take things well outside their comparative advantages.  Many of us see the consequences of this in what our students do: they're passive and non-entrepreneurial in their job choices, going to large firms not because that practice particularly attracts them, but because it seems less "risky" right out of law school than going to smaller firms or government jobs.  Many of them haven't exercised their intellectual imaginations in years.  Many are in fact not particularly well educated, since the science majors took few writing courses, the humanities people took perhaps one semester of economics and flee any quantitative subject, and the social and hard scientists know no American (let alone world) history at all.

Now, of course, we're talking here only about the 75th percentile.  Perhaps we could find the students who are comfortable with risk, entrepreneurial, academically and intellectually adventurous, and resilient among the other three-quarters of the class.  But even the 25th percentile at top 20 schools have staggering UGPAs.  And that sets the tone for the student body.

I'm not sure, as long as US News drives so much of the world, that there's anything to be done.  But it's frustrating if what we're trying to do is to train imaginative, entrepreneurial, courageous, resilient lawyers with broad perspectives that one of the central criteria for admitting students undermines our chances of doing that.

I find myself in rather strong agreement with Professor Karlan's observations.  Comments are open; no anonymous postings; please post only once (comments may take awhile to appear).

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Comments

So 2 funny stories about GPA from a mere 1L
1) My High School was the most elite in the state. Students would typically take all AP classes their final 2 years. Regular courses were graded on a 4.0 scale, Honors on a 4.5 and AP on a 5.0. Of my year there were two kids that we knew would vie for valedictorian. They both decided to take the only non-honors or AP class required by the school the summer before high school started. One suggested it in fact to the other. They both took it and got A's. However the one who suggested it took it pass/fail. He had a P on his transcript while the other had a mere 4.0, you can imagine who became valedictorian 4 years later. This year the same high school no longer has a valedictorian due to that situation arising 6 years ago.
2) I decided to finish my undergraduate early and took classes as needed without professor shopping. I even took 29 hours in a single semester of advanced level real courses. I then completed my Thesis Masters in 8 months. I applied to law schools with a 3.35 and good LSAT. My LSAT matched that of a close friend of mine who took his time in undergrad and had a theory about classes. He took 12 hours a semester and took 2 required courses and 2 easy ones such as bowling. He went out every other night. He ended with a 3.95ish. We both applied to the same law schools and had virtually the same backgrounds, leadership positions etc... He is at a top 10 private while I am at a top 30 State.

Posted by: S. Stern | Apr 23, 2006 7:46:42 PM

This is an interesting thread. I do have a couple of thoughts that I think cast some further doubt on Professor Karlan's assertions.

First, strategic behavior vis-a-vis grades is hardly new, and certainly not a primary consquence of law school admissions. Strategic behavior is simply an inevitable consequence of grades. I think it a fairly uncontroversial assertion that most human beings, when forced to operate in grading systems, will adjust their behavior to perform well within the system (they will be punished if they don't). I seriously doubt that the current crop of law school admits is measurably more "strategic" in their approach to education than previous generations.

Second, I find the assertion that high undergraduate GPAs in the admitted classes leads to "under educated" students quite implausible. Is Professor Karlan suggesting that her current crop of students at Stanford is appreciably less educated than the students of 10 or 20 years ago? I doubt that's true -- particularly since the number of students matriculating to top law schools with advanced graduate degrees already in hand is on the rise as well.

Finally, I can only speak on this point for the law school I am currently in (an elite public institution), but as far as I can tell law students today are on the whole a rather bright, currious, and energetic bunch. I think Professor Karlan would be well served to go out amongst the students, talk to them, see what they're doing with all those clubs and journals and whatnot. I doubt she would come away thinking that they're not 'comfortable with risk, entrepreneurial, academically and intellectually adventurous, and resilient.'

Posted by: Jim | Apr 26, 2006 5:42:58 PM

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