Monday, February 16, 2009
The misguided emphasis on 1L grades?
“All that stuff about grades is true. You gotta work like hell. No kidding. No one jokes about grades. I mean try getting a job without them. It’s all stacked against you if you don’t have the grades.”
-The Paper Chase
Sage words from Mr. Hart’s Resident Assistant—in law school grades are everything when it comes to jobs. The system is fairly simple: employers have grade cut offs based on the candidate’s school, and make threshold hiring decisions by weeding out those who do not “make the grade” (pun intended).
Of course, the system does not care about all grades—the premium is placed (almost) exclusively on 1L grades. At least in the law firm context, interviewing for coveted “summer associate” positions takes place in the fall of 2L year, comfortably before any 2L or 3L grades are accessible to employers. Permanent offers, at least before the economy collapsed, have generally been a sure thing. At worst, summers could ensure they snagged a post-graduation job by producing good work product during the extended interview that “summering” at a firm fundamentally is.
So 1L year has been, and remains, the most important year of law school as far as employment prospects are concerned. Those who escape “1 Hell” unscathed have their pick of firms, while the lower end of the curve scrounges to get a job; a feat that, depending on the reputation of the school attended, could be fruitless. There is instinctive appeal to this process: law school does, after all, take every opportunity to separate, divide and classify. Why should the implications of 1L grades be any different? Firms need some basis to distinguish, and surely first year grades are as good a barometer by which to do so as any.
This answer is not satisfying, though, because the current system entails employers making important decisions on the basis of one-third of the total data. This does not benefit any interested party. The employers who, based on the fact they're looking to grades in the first instance, must believe that grades are a good indication of ability to perform (more on this later) are forced to make important hiring decisions without knowing all the facts. Students, by contrast have their hopes and job prospects compressed into one, high stakes year.
This latter fact is particularly troublesome in light of the current hiring system's structure. Indeed, the fact that students face the pressure they do during 1L makes 1L grades an even weaker predictor of future performance. Grades, as a general matter, can be volatile at the margins. Add a little pressure during a time of immense adjustment, and all bets are off. Firms thus make hiring decisions based on incomplete data that is often corrupted by the hiring process itself.
As with many things, it is easier to state the problem than to solve it. However, I offer the following as potential solutions to be ironed out:
1) Firms can strongly consider 2L grades when deciding whether to give permanent offers. While this would entail firms losing money by investing in candidates that they would not ever consider hiring, it could open up slots for people who performed well in upper-level courses after a poor 1L year.
2) Make all law school courses pass/fail, and allow students to distinguish themselves through practical skills-based competitions. This would accord with the more pragmatic approach Nima suggested. Obviously, one (potential) downside to this proposal is that it would exacerbate the emphasis firms place on school reputation. To try to address this problem, schools could make 1L grades pass/fail, and have graded upper level courses using the model most schools currently employ (e.g. students selecting their own classes, with a relaxed or abandoned curve).
3) Make 1L courses pass/fail, and impose mandatory 2L courses on students with the rigid curve that is a staple of 1L year. This proposed solution would let students ease into law school, and take the pressure off of grades initially. Hiring decisions during fall OCI would (presumably) be made based on school reputation and skills competitions. While employers would care a great deal about 2L grades, they would likely not, for fiscal reasons, choose to refuse offers to summers who performed poorly during 2L. This approach would, however, likely lead to reduced summer classes thereby allowing additional slots for those who performed well during 2L year. An obvious problem with this potential solution is that it still emphasizes looking to one-third of the grades package. But it is better than the current approach in that the grades to be depended on would not be detrimentally influenced by students adjusting to a new environment.
Of these options, I think option #1 is the worst and option #3 the best. Ideally, however, there would be a better way to handle this problem than any of the proposed solutions I list. Perhaps the reason it is so hard to find a satisfying solution to the problem is that there is no problem in the first instance? My entire discussion assumes that grades are heavily depended on by employers because they are a worthwhile tool for distinguishing how candidates will ultimately perform as attorneys. It may well be that, as alluded to above, grades are utilized simply because employers need to draw the line somewhere. If that is the case, does it even matter that the statistics depended on are (probably) unreliable and (definitely) incomplete?