October 31, 2008
More Thoughts on Grades and Gradations
A senior scholar who has taught at a large number of top law schools writes:
USC's grading system was the best (when I was there, is it still in use?). Lots of grades is a lot better than just a few. Don't know why people don't see this. If the grades you have are A, B, and C, the students at the B/C cut-off will always be arguing post-mortem, and, more important, if you make a mistake it is a mistake that matters. Whereas, the mistakes with smaller grades tend to wash out. (If I mistakenly give someone at USC a 78 instead of a 79, that is not going to hurt so much.) It doesn't matter much that there is no absolute objective difference between a 78 and a 79, because what one does is rank all the papers in a pile and then parcel out the grades, which is what one does with fewer grades too, but then one must worry a lot more about the margins.
The situation is worst if you have only grades that amount to A and Not-A. The great bunch of Not-A's does not have much incentive to become more accurate and well-prepared (certainly saw this at Berkeley, though I loved their students). The top Not-A doesn't get any more recognition than the bottom Not-A. Employers and judges have to take to calling up professors and asking who is "really" good. That incentivizes students to be kiss-ups. Those who don't play this game will suffer. My impression has been that those who don't play this game have been disproportionately women and minorities, at least in the past. I thought this was happening for a long time at Yale; those who were touted by Owen [Fiss] and Bruce [Ackerman] could get better clerkships and launching into teaching jobs than those who weren't; meant that Owen and Bruce had a lot of would-be student friends.
October 30, 2008
Switching to the Yale "No Meaningful Grades" System is Likely to Hurt the Best Students
There is an elite cadre of super-selective high-end law firms (generally litigation boutiques), whose hiring standards are so high that the top of the associate class at many leading law firms wouldn't make the cut! Think of Kellogg Huber in DC, Susman Godfrey in Houston, Bartlit Beck in Chicago, Keker & Van Nest in San Francisco, among others. A partner at one of these firms, responding to my observing that there was no chance Chicago was going to eliminate meaningful grading, wrote:
The best thing about Chicago is that I can evaluate a student based on a transcript quite easily in terms of academic performance, and then make a personality assessment for "fit." If we did not have grades to go on, I would default to recommending no one, because I do not put my personal capital with my friends and colleagues at risk without some assurance that the candidate is up to the job in question. I think that the decision of these schools to go pass/fail effectively means that we will not be able to hire from them. We are too small to take the attitude (as we have in the past with Yale, which is somewhat sui generis) that all of these students are more or less equally qualified from an analytic/intellectual perspective.
Since we are a very high end consumer of legal talent from the law schools, I wonder if we and other similar shops will more and more turn to Chicago [if the others go the 'no grade' route].
I'd be curious to hear from other attorneys how they expect their firms to react if more of the top schools switch to just two grades, like Yale. Please post only once; comments may take awhile to appear. I'll permit an anonymous comment, as long as there is an e-mail and IP address consistent with what the post claims about hiring practices.
Blog Traffic Rankings, Again...and Anyone Want to Buy This Blog?
Blog Emperor Caron once again updates his rankings of blogs by traffic. He leaves out a rather interesting statistic, namely, average visit length, where there is huge variation, ranging from (in minutes and seconds) 1:40 on my philosophy blog, 1:35 here on the law blog, to :02 at Instapundit, :22 at the Volokh blog, and :38 at Caron's Tax Prof Blog. Blog Emperor Caron pays us by page views, and since he is relentless in fishing for links from high-traffic blogs, Tax Prof Blog does well on that count: 2.9 million page views in the last year, compared to my "mere" 1.2 million. But factor in the average visit time, and you get nearly two million seconds spent on my blog, compared to a bit over a million seconds on his.
All of which leads me to the conclusion that the Blog Emperor doesn't pay me enough. I certainly don't need this network for an audience, so if there's any law publisher out there interested in sponsoring this site at a new location, drop me a line or give me a ring!
October 29, 2008
More Thoughts on Grading Systems: The Berkeley Approach
My former colleague Mark Gergen (now at Berkeley) writes a propos our recent post on the Yale 'no grade' system which some other schools appear to be adopting:
Your posting on the Harvard and Stanford grading systems got me thinking. Berkeley has long had a P/H/HH system. I gather 60% of the class gets P, 30% gets H, and 10% HH. In addition, in each course a prize is given for 1^st and 2^nd best performance. Assuming “better” students persistently perform better on exams and that grading is not random, this system will enable employers to identify the very top of the class (meaning students who persistently excel) about as well as more finely grained systems. I expect it also gives employers a good sense of rough place in the class for many students. Where precisely the system becomes opaque depends on how many students get all Ps, which is a function of the distribution of ability in a class and the randomness of grading. For example, if there is a long tail in performance at the bottom and grading is somewhat random, then the very bottom may stand out as having no H’s while students between the 15^th and 40^th percentile may be indistinguishable. If there is a short tail at the bottom and grading is somewhat random, then the bottom 40% may be indistinguishable. And so on. The system should not have the effect you predict. Students reaching for the most selective positions may “suck up” to burnish a lustrous transcript. They will not do so to stand out from an otherwise undifferentiated mass.
Of course, the key here is that Berkeley really uses, according to this presentation, three different grades and they do so on a curve. No one has yet given me a straight account of whether Harvard and Stanford will use more than two gradations, and whether there will be any meaningful curve.
Intellectual Property On-Line (and with CLE Credit to Boot!)
Douglas Lichtman (UCLA) writes regarding a new project, the Intellectual Property Colloqium:
It is essentially an online audio program devoted to intellectual property topics. We aspire to be something like an NPR talk show, but focused on copyrights and patents, and aimed primarily at a legal audience. The programs are neither lectures nor debates. They are conversations, ideally thoughtful ones, with guests drawn from academia, the entertainment community, and the various technology industries.
Each program lasts one hour; is downloadable; and (the kicker) any lawyer who listens to our programs can earn (free) CLE credit in California, New York, and any state that accepts one of those through reciprocity. (We should soon be able to offer CLE in all the states, but for now the combination of California, New York, and reciprocity should cover most of our audience regardless.)
I host each program; and our first one, a lively conversation with Fred von Lohmann of the EFF, is up and ready to go. A schedule of up-coming shows is already posted on the site, as are a variety of subscription features that provide updates every time a new audio is available.
What Planet is Steve Calabresi (Northwestern) On?
October 27, 2008
Will Other Schools Follow the Yale/Harvard/Stanford Lead of Effectively Eliminating Grades?
There are rumors aplenty that Columbia and NYU may move to something like the Yale system of essentially two grades--Honors/Pass--now that Harvard and Stanford are going that route (though perhaps these two will actually utilize Low Pass and Fail, unlike Yale). NYU, given its size, can probably least afford to eliminate sorting mechanisms, especially since it appears Columbia grads are still slightly preferred by the very top NYC firms. For those who have asked, I think there is essentially no chance Chicago will go this route, or anything like this route.
From the standpoint of the students, an actual grading system has one very substantial benefit: it rewards your actual performance in law school rather than your ability to schmooze up professors or your undergraduate pedigree--since, bear in mind, that law firms, elite government jobs, and judges will all still be looking for ways to evaluate applicants. And if they can't see actual law school grades, they are going to fall back on other factors that may have little to do with what you accomplish in law school.
UPDATE: A law professor at a top school writes:
I think the last point in your post about eliminating grades was right on. At least when I was there, the grading system at Yale did not really lessen the sense of competitiveness, at least for those whose ambitions were higher than landing a job at a top firm. It simply displaced the competition towards sucking up to the professors whom students perceived to be able to deliver the goods (esp. clerkships). For those of us who wanted to clerk but did not really want to participate in that game, the lack of grades was actually fairly frustrating. I also think there are some pernicious distributive consequences to the sucking-up system, since (although my only evidence for this is anecdotal) I think minority students tend to be particularly reluctant to engage in it.
On page 46 of the new NYU Law alumni magazine, which is sent to every law professor in the U.S. (yawn), and which, happily isn't quite as laugh-out-loud ridiculous as it used to be under John "I never met a bit of hyperbole that embarrassed me" Sexton, there is a list of the 27 faculty hired during the tenure of Dean Richard Revesz. It's a somewhat eclectic list of hires, but the best are indeed very good. (I count at least four, perhaps five, that I, and I imagine my colleagues too, would have loved to have hired here.) But it raised in my mind the question: who did NYU lose during this time period? Here's my best reconstruction: Yochai Benkler went to Yale, then to Harvard; Henry Hansmann came to NYU for one year then went back to Yale; Noah Feldman, Daryl Levinson and Robert Sitkoff went to Harvard; Robert Daines and Larry Kramer went to Stanford (Kramer as Dean); Larry Sager went to Texas; Michael Schill went to UCLA (as Dean); Gerald Lopez went back to UCLA; Stephen Perry went back to Penn; and a number of prominent NYU faculty retired, including James Eustice, Thomas Franck, and John Philip Reid, among others. Tallying up the gains and losses, it looks to me like a slight overall net gain for NYU under Dean Revesz, all the more notable given what a competitive period it has been for faculty hiring.
October 25, 2008
UC Irvine Law School to Offer Three Years of Full Tuition to the Entering Class
That's a clever move, one that increases the odds of recruiting a strong student body at the start.
October 24, 2008
The Harvard Crimson...
...gazes at its law school's navel. Funny how they always leave out that Cass Sunstein is still teaching here on a regular basis. Indeed, his office is next to mine!