Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

Friday, September 26, 2008

Harvard Law School to Adopt Pass-Fail Grading System Like Yale and Stanford

An HLS student has just forwarded me the e-mail from Dean Kagan, which reads in pertinent part:

I am writing to let you know that the faculty decided yesterday to move to a grading system with fewer classifications than we have now.  The new classifications, much as at Yale and Stanford, will be Honors-Pass-Low Pass-Fail.  The faculty believes that this decision will promote pedagogical excellence and innovation and further strengthen the intellectual community in which we all live.  The new system will apply to students entering HLS in fall 2009; yet to be determined is whether it also will apply to some or all classes of current students.

We discussed the Stanford move and its ramifications awhile back.  Presumably Harvard has evidence that the grading system is a factor when students choose between Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.  But Harvard's move is also going to force Chicago and Columbia, among others, to weigh the question of grading.  Harvard, with a much larger class, may need a real curve so that it's new A, B, C, F system provides employers some pertinent information.  Whethere there will be one is unclear.  Thoughts from faculty and students at Harvard or elsewhere?  Signed comments preferred, though I'll permit anonymous postings as long as there is identifying information (e-mail, IP address) consistent with any claims made about a particular school in the content of the comment.  Thanks.

Of Academic Interest | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Harvard Law School to Adopt Pass-Fail Grading System Like Yale and Stanford:


I'm unconvinced that this represents a progressive trend for the academy as a whole. On the individual level, it may seem like it's stress-reducing for student and faculty alike, which is to be
commended. The fear I have is that as we move away from small schools like Stanford and Yale, we now have a largely undifferentiated class of hundreds at schools like Harvard, Columbia, NYU, and so on. What will happen is that employers, judges, and fellowship committees will view undergraduate institutions as a proxy for success, which can make law school even more of a finishing school for the elite. At smaller schools, there may be more of a chance to establish strong relations with faculty and develop a body of scholarship that will make
a student stand out. At HLS, I'm not sure, especially considering that many employment decisions are made after a grand total of one elective has been chosen.

The greatest likelihood of success would be if the expanded faculty resulted in additional sections, which became smaller, as well as greater clinical offerings. The unmatched breadth of the faculty could result in such a course catalogue that students could differentiate themselves through their interests and the relationships they build in so doing. Absent that change, however, I worry that this is going to make HLS no different than Harvard College and its peers, where once you are in, you can coast without concern.

Posted by: Harvard Law Student | Sep 26, 2008 12:18:53 PM

While Dean Kagan's email suggested that the change was based on pedagogical motivations, I think there is little doubt that this is driven by admissions. (My sense is that many HLS administrative decisions are based on pandering to prospective students). I have found that HLS has generally offered rigorous coursework and I have learned a great deal. I once heard a prominent HLS faculty member say of Yale that "the emperor has no clothes." It seems that HLS has decided to strip down as well.

I share the previous poster's concern that this change will lead to increased focus on what students did prior to law school as a way to differentiate students. I would add that this will also heavily increase the reliance on faculty recommendations (especially for things like clerkships). While faculty-student interaction is certainly a good thing, it seems to me that it is often pursued for nothing other than instrumental reasons. This change will undoubtedly only encourage these deliberate efforts to impress faculty. Moreover, subjective faculty recommendations are inevitably subject to biases that will disadvantage certain students. Most liekly, this change will do little to reduce the evaluations to which students are submitted, but will make them a lot more arbitrary.

Posted by: Another HLS Student | Sep 26, 2008 2:03:28 PM

I certainly hope University of Chicago holds the line against this reward for admission to elitist institutions. In the age of Internet in the classrooms, does anyone really believe that students will be intrinsically motivated to pay close attention and to confront every Socratic question with the utmost engagement when they merely receive an "up" or "down" vote at the end of the semester? These law schools are risking the long term future of their institutions for short-term competitiveness in admissions. In short, what does this say about how they perceive their institutional mission? It seems they view their mission as attracting the best students rather than doing the best job to educate their students.

Posted by: Appalled Chicago Lawyer | Sep 28, 2008 8:00:42 AM

I'm inclined to agree with the Appalled U of C Lawyer. It's not even a ploy to attract the "best" students so much as it is a ploy to attract the students with the strongest numerical credentials who want to coast, and those students may or may not be the best. I'd like to see Chicago adopt a more intelligible grading system (for those unfamiliar with the Chicago system, it involves numerical grades from the 160s [I think, I'm new to this] up to 186, with a rather complicated curve formula), but I would think it a misfortune to go to this extreme of just 4 gradations (in practice, probably just 2 gradations). As some of the students note, above, this is going to result in undergraduate records and the ability to schmooze up faculty doing more of the sorting work.

The elite law firms ought to make themselves heard on this subject! If they cut back on their hiring at schools that eliminate grades, things will change quickly!

Posted by: Brian Leiter | Sep 28, 2008 8:38:35 AM

I've posted a bit of commentary here:

Posted by: Ann Bartow | Sep 28, 2008 8:39:34 AM

Will first-cut selection to the Harvard Law Review be based entirely on writing samples? Stanford and Yale's classes are much smaller then HLS's, allowing everybody to get a piece of some journal pie. Georgetown manages a write-on system with a large student body, but they still use course grades to aid in selection.

Posted by: C. Ryan | Sep 28, 2008 9:36:37 AM

According to one of my professors, the faculty overwhelmingly supported the change for pedagogical reasons. He said that, when grading Harvard students' exams, there is an element of arbitrariness when using the traditional A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, etc. scale. (If he re-graded all the exams, he said, he might give some of the papers a slightly higher or slightly lower grade.) However, he felt more confident that he could consistently sort exams into the honors/pass/low pass/fail bins. In essence, assigning more specific grades gave a false impression of exactness.

Also, it's ridiculous to think that this change will have any impact on clerkships or job offers. If judges or firms want to calculate some GPA, they can assign point values to honors/pass/low pass and average them. This won't be any more or less accurate than the letter-grade-based GPA. Hopefully, though, it will better reflect the level of certainty a professor has in grading an exam -- which we should remember reflects only a few hours of writing at the end of the term (and therefore, even if letter grades could be applied highly consistently to the essays, it would be wrong to assume that the essays' quality could be used with that level of precision to assess the student's performance in the course).

Posted by: HLS 1L | Sep 28, 2008 10:04:31 AM

Why would it be "ridiculous" to think this will impact clerkship or job offers? Harvard Law School has legendary grade inflation, see

see generally

(I was forced to delete a number of other supporting links due to the spam filter)

So judges and clerks start rely on class rank. Yes I know HLS claims not to calculate this, but prospective employers surely do, or at least a thumbnail proxy of same. But the new system makes figuring out class rank a lot more iffy. Will there be a curve? If not, look for lots of high passes from faculty members who want to be popular with students.

If there is a mandatory curve, other problems are created. Let's say there is a cap of 30% grades high passes, 30% grades of passes, and 40% grades "low pass" That means in a class of 100, the best exam and the 30th best get the same grade. In addition, the 31st best exam and the 60th best (ten spots below the mean) get the same grade.

Here is a much more likely "curve" scenario: Profs can only give 30% of the students a "high pass" but are allowed to award a "pass" to the rest of the class is they want. Most will do just this, so the 31st exam (top third) and the 100th exam (worst in the class) will now get the same grade. Students that collect a lot of high passes will rise to the top and everyone else will be a huge amorphous mass of "pass".

Posted by: Ann Bartow | Sep 28, 2008 12:48:44 PM

Ann, your second scenario is highly plausible. My question: so what? Is the last person in the class at Harvard a markedly worse lawyer than the person 60 spots above him? Which is precisely the point of the first paragraph of the comment you responded to: these B+/B/B- gradations give an appearance of precision where none exists. Chicago's system, as Brian describes it, is even worse. These aren't mathematics exams law professors are grading -- they're essays, and as such there's a large subjective element to any grading. Acknowledging that by reducing gradation is positive.

Posted by: Jason Wojciechowski | Sep 28, 2008 7:34:46 PM

Jason, your comment warrants a long and thoughtful answer but I have little time so let me attempt the thumbnail version:

It is true that in any given class the difference between a B+ and a B might be small and arbitrary. But I have participated in "cross grading" exercises several times, where another law prof and I grade the same exams independently and compared results, and the results were very similar - we were clearly looking for the same things.

Over three years of law school a fairly accurate portrait of a law student emerges, in terms of motivation. Sometimes my best students, in terms of participation (by which I mean demonstrating a real grasp of the material) get a B on my exam, but they almost never get a C (and we have a real curve at South Carolina). They tend to get at least a B in every class and often higher, because they do the reading, they come to class, and they are engaged with learning.

For whatever reason, for some bright students, trying to show everything they know in three hours is not their strong suit, so they aren't top 10% but consistently getting at least B grades shows they are consistently hard workers and responsible people who likely will make good lawyers.

But there is a bottom cohort, here and at every law school I'd imagine, that for various reasons just wants the JD, they don't seem to care whether they learn anything much in the process.

If 70 to 80% of the class get a "pass" there is no way to differentiate the motivated students from the deadwood. The answer to "so what" is that judges and law form hiring committees now look at other sorting criteria, which is likely to be less connected to effort and achievement: Family connections, faculty recommendations, maybe even LSAT scores, who knows. I like to see effort in law school rewarded and sloth punished.

Posted by: Ann Bartow | Sep 29, 2008 6:09:04 AM

And yes, the worst exam writer in a class of 100 at Harvard probably is a lot worse than Number 31. S/he may be just as bright as the rest of the class, but probably couldn't be bothered to crack a book or pay attention in class, or even to attend class. Most everyone has a bad day here and there, but somebody who is consistently at the very bottom probably isn't trying very hard. Which is largely why judges and law firms prefer law students with good grades, and students at the bottom are most likely by far to fail the bar.

Posted by: Ann Bartow | Sep 29, 2008 6:18:22 AM

Without grades, what really distinguishes students is recommendations. So the profs at Harvard may be making this move in order to create incentives for students to help them with their research projects.

I think this strategy can work in a place where the student-faculty ratio is low enough. But if there are more than five-to-ten 2L/3L students per faculty member, it's hard to see how the profs can give those students enough opportunities to shine as research assistants.

Anonymous grading is a real boon to the quiet-but-awkward genius, and assures a comparison of "apples with apples." However, what a recommendation-based system of evaluation loses in commensurability, it gains in particularized evaluation of each student's skill set.

Posted by: Frank Pasquale | Sep 29, 2008 6:29:37 PM

I really think this whole new grading system is ridiculous. I do not want to be part of Harvard Law's experiment- being the first class with this new grading system. No one knows how employers will evaluate a high pass or a pass from Harvard, and I don't want to be part of the class that gets to find that out. This was not what I was expecting when I came here, especially after hearing Dean Kagan mock Yale's grading system at the admitted students' weekend in the spring. I am very upset and I hope all the current students won't have to be subjected to this ploy by the administration to attract law school applicants favoring a grading system where they can slack off.

Posted by: Harvard 1L | Sep 30, 2008 4:46:35 PM

I haven't yet had any experience with grades here, but I will say this. With little to no exceptions, every 2L or 3L I have heard from at Harvard feels that grades are distributed in a pretty random fashion. The classes people study for the hardest and know the best may end up a B-, and a class they slacked off in, etc could end up an A. If one or two people were saying this I'd brush it off as bitterness or the exception, but nearly every older student I've heard from shares this sentiment. So if that's truly the case - whether professors don't look closely at exams, or they are all so similar that it's an arbitrary division, or whatever - than why not go to the broader grading scale? My section has had one writing assignment so far which we told would be pass/fail and a minor part of our grade, if that. To the best of my knowledge, all of my friends and I put in a great deal of work to understand and adequately complete the assignment, even with this information. Will there be some people who use this to coast? Sure, but that happens already. For the most part I believe that people who are here WANT to get something out of it and don't need grades to be motivated.

Posted by: HLS 1L | Sep 30, 2008 9:06:53 PM

I think this is really much ado about nothing. Harvard is not changing to nothing but pass/fail, but rather high pass/pass/low pass/fail. Grade point averages will still be computed, and thus employers will still have a simple way to differentiate between HLS students. Certainly within a particular class it will make it more difficult to differentiate between students (the professors contend that within a class this is largely arbitrary anyway), but employers do not evaluate students based on a single class. Looking at a student's GPA, calculated from her grades for ALL classes, differentiation will not be so difficult.

Posted by: HLS Student | Oct 3, 2008 6:05:29 AM

It's true that in my (not that long ago) time it was widely stated at HLS grades were "random." But in all honesty, this sentiment is mainly just what students say both to alleviate pressure on themselves and to comfort those whose grades are not as good. Other than with your closest friends, it was taboo to discuss actual grades, so whenever the subject comes up, it is most expedient and polite just to fall into the "grades are random" shtick, so everyone gets along.

While there is certainly some variability in grades (and some professor are known for being inconsistent graders), the people that are identifiably at the top of their class during 1L year tend to maintain that general level of success. Brian Fletcher averaged well above an A to get summa my year (7.2 GPA cutoff, with an A being 7 and A+ being 8). Nearly everyone on law review (granted, some just wrote on, and we don't know what their grades looked like as 1Ls) make magna or at least cum laude. Grades are not random at HLS.

Posted by: HLS 2006 grad | Oct 3, 2008 6:31:25 AM

It seems like some clarification is required so people know what they are talking about as they praise or criticize Harvard's new "Yale" grading system. Yale is not "pass-fail," even in the first "credit-fail" semester. It's honors, pass, low pass, fail. As with most graduate schools where a "C" is quite a poor mark, students here know that a "low pass" can be fatal to the best jobs or clerkships. No one should be under any illusion that a lack of letter grades makes students here into slackers. If anything, because it makes it somewhat harder to know where you stand, the grading system encourages overstudying (just to be sure you're safe). Nor does the lack of traditional letter grades make hiring any more difficult for employers. Before law school, I worked at a law firm and participated in hiring there. We knew how to differentiate Yale applicants who got honors in hard classes from those with passes in easy ones. It will be the same for Harvard and Stanford.

Posted by: Joshua Lee | Oct 3, 2008 6:46:11 AM

I want to correct the highly misleading picture of Yale's grading practice that Mr. Lee gives. The reality is that Yale gives just two grades: Honors and Pass. Fails are unheard of (as my experience with trying to fail someone for plagiarism illustrates--the school was very unhappy with that), and Low Pass extremely rare. The result, as I noted in my earlier post, was that about a third of Yale students had just 'checked out' and coasted. What we don't know about Harvard's proposal is whether it will be a *real* A, B, C, F system, or whether, like Yale, it will just be an A/B system, with about a third of the class getting As, the other two-thirds getting Bs, and Cs reserved for egregious cases. Will Harvard have a curve that requires some portion of the class to get Cs? That's the real issue. If Harvard really follows the Yale model, as it is actually practiced, there will essentially be no grades. Employers should be up in arms about this, if that's how it plays out.

Posted by: Brian Leiter | Oct 3, 2008 6:52:34 AM

To clarify, I described the "official" grading system, which is as I stated in my post. It may be that Low Passes are quite rare (as they should be in a generally highly driven student body). But, students here (in my current experience) still fear them. It may also be true that some students "check out," but I doubt it is as many as a third. Yale is small enough that I can say with some confidence that few people coast here. Many people miss a handful of classes, but it tends to be because they are running someone's political campaign, arguing an immigration case, or some other such venture. I can imagine that displeases professors here, but that, more than the grading system, is what I think makes Yale what it is. I posted initially because people at other schools condemn or fear the H, P, LP, F grading system without understanding how it has manifested at YLS and the job market in practice. It is not a panacea, but neither is it worthy of Dean Kagan's or anyone else's mockery. HLS and SLS students will not stop caring about high achievement simply because they don't receive more granular or "traditional" grades. And they're job and clerkship prospects will remain quite rosey.

Posted by: Joshua Lee | Oct 3, 2008 7:26:51 AM

This seems as though it won't affect A and A- students at all: now they will just get High Passes. (I suppose the A- students are slightly better off, but I doubt the difference between an A and an A- at Harvard, Stanford or Yale would make much difference to someone in a hiring position). Likewise, it won't affect D or E students at all, they will just get Low Pass and Fail, respectively.

What it does is affect B and C students. If you typically got Bs, this will hurt you, since you will be conflated by potential employers and judges with the C students. If you typically got Cs, this will help you, since you will be conflated with people who got Bs.

The question you have to ask is whether employers would hire someone who got a C+, C or C- grade (or average grade) from Harvard, Stanford or Yale, as opposed to a B+, B or B-. If the answer is yes, than the change doesn't matter, except to purists. If the answer is no, than the students who were getting B's under the old system will get shafted in favor of A and B students from other top schools whose grades are more transparent.

The smart thing for Chicago, Columbia, etc. to do for now is wait and see what the reaction is from judges and employers. The change by Harvard and Stanford could end up redounding to their benefit, both from admissions and employer recruiting perspectives.

Posted by: Jon | Oct 5, 2008 10:58:55 AM

Jon's comments, like some others, is premised on the idea that HLS will utilize all the new gradations, but what is the evidence that this is what they will do? There is none that I've heard. And if Yale is the model (and the competitor), then they won't. There will be just 2 grades, with an occasional bad third grade for real slackers.

Posted by: Brian Leiter | Oct 6, 2008 9:44:36 AM

Currently the Harvard Law magna serves as a brand superior to the Yale law grad (think Obama vs. the Clintons or Clarence Thomas). Why would harvard want to do away with that brand? As far as those that say the grading is random, that's a populist thing people always say at elite institutions. Look up the harvard law magnas. Without exception, they seem to me to be way smarter than the typical harvard law graduate. This will make it harder for us to identify elite legal talent, in my opinion.

Posted by: Hopefully Anonymous | Nov 27, 2008 11:53:51 AM

Well, the 1L grades are in at Harvard. And judging from surveys posted online, all the gradations were utitized. Seems to break down like this...
few Fs, 20-25% LP, ~50% P, 20-25% HP.

Posted by: anon | Feb 12, 2009 1:49:08 AM

Post a comment