More On Law School Grading

In There’s something about law school, a law student frets about “The arbitrariness and randomness of law school grading”:

This is not a major revelation I’ve recently had, but this semester, more than any, underscores this point for me. After each of my three exams, I felt worse about my performance than I had following any other law school exams. And yet, I had my best semester in terms of grades. Only in law school can you leave an exam not only having no clue how you did, but thinking you might’ve actually failed (well, that’s not true – I knew I never failed but I’ve definitely left exams thinking I got a C or C+) and then end up with a good grade.

Here’s another example that emphasizes how grades have no correlation to actual knowledge or skill. Let’s talk about two students, named X and Y. X had the same Business Associations prof I did. Y had a different prof. X got an A. Y got a B. X did a lot of reading but by the mid-point of last semester was only reading High Courts – she basically read in their entirety maybe 5 cases over the final half of the semester. X never participated in class because Prof. BA didn’t care whether you participated and in fact created very little opportunity for students to get involved. Don’t get the wrong impression – X is not lazy by any means. X just decided that in doing all the work necessary for law school, it was not productive to wade through 12-15 pages of mind-numbing minutiae for every case. Y did all the reading and participated a lot, which Y thought was important because Y’s prof said participation will be counted in the final grade. Y’s participation added a lot to the class discussion because Y had intelligent things to say; Y wasn’t just raising her hand to open her mouth.

So what’s the problem? X, who got an A, basically knows nothing about business, corporations, finance, economics and money, etc. X is more into history, sociology, creative writing, etc. Y, who got a B, worked for 6-7 years before law school in a field where one need to know about business, finance, economics, corporations, etc. (I know by using these terms I’m not exactly summarizing all that BA is about, but you get the idea – some people are going to do corporate transactions because they’re good at that stuff; other people’s eyes glaze over when you start talking about business, finance, economics, etc. … I’m not saying one person is smarter than the other, just that people have different aptitudes for different things.) Basically X could never have even been hired where Y worked. And I guarantee if you take X and Y at the same law firm and give them the same assignment, if the task is business-related, Y would do a better job.

But X got a better grade. When X and Y apply for jobs, someone will look at Y’s transcript and see the BA grade and think something like “He doesn’t really get it” but they’ll think X does “get it.” But that’s incorrect. Y gets it and X doesn’t. Yet X got a better grade.

I tried to post comments there, but for some reason the blog wouldn’t let me. So here’s what I tried to say:

I wouldn’t be too quick to jump to the conclusion that “grades have no correlation to actual knowledge or skill,” both because it is so different from my experience as a student and also because I know I wasn’t alone.

My experience was that on the rare occasions when I thought I did great, I didn’t do so great. And frequently, when I thought I did badly, I did very well. I came to believe that on time-limited exams, if you were able to put down everything you knew, which tended to cause a happy feeling, it was usually a sign you didn’t know enough. On the other hand, if you could think of 20 more things you coulda shoulda said, which tended to create a bad feeling, it was a sign you knew the subject pretty well.

Yes, the facts you describe relating to your own experience may be consistent with the “arbitrariness” theory you offer, but they are also consistent with an “unreliable subjectivity” theory that I think I experienced. And, for that matter, in classes with curves they are also consistent with a “Well or badly as I did, it was worse (or better) than the next guy” theory. Or maybe you knew some subjects better than others?

Without lots more info, it’s not that easy for you, or me, to know which of these stories might be right in any given case. So, I say: go look at your exams. Read the model answers if any are provided and compare them to your answers. Ask the prof what you did wrong. It might be informative … and you might even learn something.

As for the sad tale of student X and student Y, I am much less sympathetic. Who knows what they put in their blue books. It’s blind grading — all the stuff in your head is not going to help much if you can’t get it on paper. And, yes, there are other skills that matter for lawyers too — like the ones reflected by in-class participation. But at the end of the day, if you can’t get it on paper, that’s an important fact.

I know people who didn’t do well in law school who are terrific lawyers; sometimes that was evident in school, sometimes it manifested later. I also know a small number of great students who are not great lawyers, but I have to say that this is a rarer phenonenon. In other words, high grades do tell you something very likely to be meaningful about the person who earned them; the reverse is not as reliably true, and that’s why smart employers also consider things like writing samples, recommendations, experience.

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One Response to More On Law School Grading

  1. Brett says:

    Our first semseter grades are released tonight, so thought I’d chime in: you’re probably right in your analysis – unless I did substantially worse than I fear I did, in which case grades don’t mean a darned thing, and the class of “good lawyers but bad students” is very, very large indeed.

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