Thursday, 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.

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Prof. Leiter,

Just a question that I'd like you to address. Doesn't the decision by H/S/Y put the law firms who hire from them in the position of accepting attorneys based solely on the same determinants of admission to the elite school: LSAT and GPA. This means for many prospective attorneys, performance through Junior year of their undergraduate education and a few hours of excellence on a test that they'll probably take when they are 20 or 21 determines much of their career options, salary, etc. On this measure, why don't the firms just request LSAC reports?

Can you think of any other profession that is this absurd? Some MBA programs don't release grades (Dartmouth I think may be an example), but one would need some work experience to get into the program. PhD programs grade, but there's really no comparison between a PhD and legal education. What will get a candidate an academic job out of a PhD program are recommendations, dissertation, and publications. Some med schools don't grade (Case Western), but there are rotations, interviews, and very serious professional tests along the way. Are the responsibilities of lawyers any less significant than that of professors, managers and doctors?

Of course eliminating the grade requirement may have some impact, but perhaps I'm overstating it because most of these firms interview after the first year, which doesn't provide much of a record to go on anyway.

Posted by: unrelated anonymous | Oct 30, 2008 1:26:59 PM

I just don't understand how law school grades are any better a gauge as to how one will perform in the profession than LSAT scores. Neither is any good.

The real problem here is lazy hiring committees looking for shortcuts instead of finding real and effective ways to evaluate candidates. I applaud efforts to eliminate meaningful grading to the extent that it undermines that laziness.

Posted by: Student | Oct 30, 2008 2:26:50 PM

How can a "very high end consumer of legal talent" afford to hire no students at all from Harvard, Stanford, and if more reforms come, NYU and Columbia? It would be completely nonsensical for firms representing to clients that they have the best of the best - "increasingly turning" to one top school while shunning 2-4 other top schools would require going deeper into the class at Chicago and defeating the whole aim of selectivity.

Not everyone will have all High Honors or High Passes or what have you. Really selective employers will have more "all-HH" students than "all A" students to choose from, but not so many that recruiting from one of the top schools in the country is now completely impossible and pointless. The statement you posted is baffling in that respect.

Posted by: Andrea | Oct 31, 2008 8:41:59 AM

When I read all this , I can't help but see the inevitability that Chicago must also change its system in order to remain competitive --if , say, even NYU and Columbia turn. In other words, the decision for students, choosing between NYU, Columbia, Chicago will become a lot easier if Chicago was the only one with a real grading system. Would Chicago want to lose such applicants?

Posted by: Crajan | Nov 2, 2008 8:12:40 AM

It strikes me that in varying respects, law schools, students and employers are producers and consumers of grades. And that law schools serve as an intermediary in a 2-sided market between students and employers. But students, being risk-averse, ex ante might wish to "hide" their grades when, at even the top schools, the bottom students may have trouble finding a job.

2 additional solutions occur to me. (1) Allow students an irrevocable choice at matriculation between being "real" graded or pass-fail-honors graded. There is nothing magical about the choice; risk-averse students might prefer that no one be able to opt out of the pass-fail-honors system and "beat" them by getting As. But the risk-averse students still get the security of not being isolated at the "bottom." This feels very much like a signalling model of grading.

(2) Allow employers to enter the negotiation with law schools and students over what kind of grading system. Students do expose themselves to a risk (of bad grades) if they choose a school with a "real" grading system. They will not choose such a school unless it pays to do so. If it is valuable to legal employers to have real grades, then why not pay for that value? Perhaps a bonus, or a commitment to hire more students from schools with "real" grades. If transaction costs are nil, then of course, the efficient result should be reached regardless of the initial distribution of rights. What could be more Chicago? This might be occurring anyway (that's what Leiter's post suggests), but why not make it transparent and thus a more credible commitment?

Posted by: anonymity requested -- my own school is reconsidering grading | Nov 3, 2008 6:52:52 PM

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