BigLaw Faces Grade-less JDs


Will BigLaw embrace grade-less, high-pedigree JDs?

Class rank is everything. It separates the future scholars from the posers; the potential Big Firm Partners from the 9-to-5 government slackers. If there were no grades, there’d be no way to differentiate among prospects and the entire legal hiring system would implode. Or maybe not.

In the past year, Stanford and Harvard have adopted a pass/fail grading system similar to Yale’s. This means no more grades at three of the top five U.S. law schools. Does this make sense? Are the schools doing the “real world” a favor or a disfavor? Does the elimination of competition from a highly-competitive profession make any sense whatsoever?

While Yale has a great reputation for minting legal scholars, it may not be the ideal training ground for Big Firm practitioners.  At least that’s what an anonymous managing partner at a major national firm told me.

“[Yale graduates] have the most difficulty adjusting to the real world, [and] I’ve often thought that it was because the school didn’t have grades,” he says. “There’s a value to grades.  Why would you remove them?”

That’s a question Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown have all wrestled with recently, with only the latter opting to stick with letter grades. All three schools declined to comment for this story, but the party line out of Cambridge and Palo Alto has been a desire to promote a more collegial atmosphere on campus.

Will it?

Yes, says John Libby, a Los Angeles-based partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

Libby ought to know, having graduated from Yale Law in 1984.

“My impression was that not having letter grades improved the atmosphere at Yale,” Libby explains. “[Not having letter grades] relieved a lot of unnecessary pressure, but there are still many other forms of pressure given the nature of law school.”

But as a student, Libby did have some explaining to do about his missing letters.

“I remember being in interviews during law school and being asked, What do these pass/fail grades mean?” Libby recalls. “They usually tried to find someone at the firm who went to Yale to explain. Yale can take that attitude because it’s small and selective, but with other schools, grades may mean more.”

Libby, who routinely participates in Manatt’s OCI process and hiring decisions, says he’s not concerned about elite schools dropping letter grades, adding that candidates from Harvard and Stanford will always get serious consideration.

That’s an assertion backed up by one anonymous Harvard 2L, who told us that she didn’t think Georgetown was in a position to do away with grades because only schools like Harvard and Stanford could rightly claim that all of their students were elite. For schools outside of the top ten, it seems, the primary focus must remain weeding out less skilled lawyers. But is it fair to say that all who gain admission to Harvard or Stanford are necessarily great lawyers-in-waiting?  Does getting admitted to a top school automatically make a great lawyer? Please.

What’s the rub?

It’s hardly news that students from name-brand schools like Harvard have more options for BigLaw jobs than do students elsewhere. After all, brand names do matter. But without grades at the elite schools, tier-two graduates in the top five percent, for example, may find it harder to distinguish themselves from Harvard grads at the bottom of their class, according to Daniel Connolly, a managing partner at Bracewell & Giuliani in New York, who called the trend away from letter grades “slightly alarming.”

“It’s important for law firms to distinguish among candidates,” Connolly explains. “One of the ways you do that is by grades. I would rather have someone from the top five percent of a second-tier law school than the bottom half of Stanford or Yale. [Without grades] I lose the ability to make that determination.”

True, Stanford and Harvard will have gradations beyond pass and fail (just like Yale), but even Libby points out that he’s seldom seen Yale transcripts with low-level marks. In effect, that means graduates of elite law schools may get a free pass bestowed upon them the day their LSAT scores come in. In turn, that could make the proverbial lawyer with a chip on his shoulder and stellar grades from a lower-ranked law school an endangered species in BigLaw. After all, the bottom of the Harvard class won’t mean what it used to, and those students who sink at elite law schools won’t be as easily recognized—and eliminated—during the hiring process.

A silver lining for those who didn’t go to Harvard?

Not all hiring partners agree that Harvard and Stanford are doing their students a favor by taking away grades. Most of the partners we spoke with were adamant that pressure will always be a part of BigLaw, and many agreed that law school grades are often a good indicator of a prospective lawyer’s ability to juggle a crushing amount of work and still excel.

The absence of that indicator could actually work against Stanford and Harvard grads, according to another anonymous hiring partner at a major national firm with more than 1,800 attorneys.

“If you can’t really make heads or tails [out of a pass/fail system] to figure out how somebody did, but you have the top student at a school like UCLA, why wouldn’t you go for that person?” he asks.

But in a tough economy, with a limited number of associate positions, firms will be placed in the difficult position of having to decide between a relatively known quantity—the UCLA student at the top of his class—and the lesser known candidate from a more prestigious school, who could have graduated first in his class, but who may have actually finished at the bottom.

A kinder gentler BigLaw?

Regardless of the reactions from hiring partners at major law firms, the legal community will see more and more elite law school graduates without grades as early as 2010. If the schools hold true to their intention of promoting a more collegial atmosphere on campus, the ranks of BigLaw may be increasingly staffed with attorneys who have no experience battling win-at-all-costs gunners for the precious allotment of A’s. However, an influx of more collegial associates won’t do much to alter the practice of law.

“To some extent, life is graded,” says Daniel Connolly. “That’s just the way it is.”

But that doesn’t mean that BigLaw will be an immovable force. As one hiring partner points out, firms must always compete with each other for top talent, and that means bending to the times. And Harvard and Yale are still, well, Harvard and Yale, which means that like it or not, BigLaw will have to accept more young lawyers whose last significant competitive experience was the LSAT.

Still, behind this all is a sinking feeling that the law—as taught by a handful of elite schools—may be going soft. Competition will always continue in the law, but that virtue won’t be emphasized as much as it once was at some schools. At the end of the day, a JD is professional degree for most people, not an entry card into academia, and a lawyer who tells a client that they “passed” the case likely won’t last very long.

Michael Estrin, one of the founding editors and writers for Bitter Lawyer, is a writer, journalist, and author of Murder and Other Distractions, a novel about a dead ex, casual sex, tacos, and killer Internet traffic. Follow him on Twitter or check out Bitter Lawyer's interview with him.

32 Comments

  1. Al Dickman

    December 11, 2008 at 5:47 am

    Yes, Yale and the REAL world don’t mix well.  You get a few eggheads that can make it in BigLaw, but for the most part, they really belong writing irrelevant law review articles about the UN and things like that.  I knew a Yalie, once, that was so out of it that the firm just had to let him go.  I don’t even know if he was smart.  I think his father was a big shot in government.  And don’t get even me started about the Yale women I’ve come across.  It can be summarized in one word.  Oy.

  2. Anonymous

    December 11, 2008 at 6:48 am

    Dickman is right.  And, with pass/fail at Yale, you never know who’s a dummy coming out of law school.

  3. Anon

    December 11, 2008 at 7:45 am

    Dickman— What law school did you attend?

  4. JDog

    December 11, 2008 at 8:13 am

    Dickman, have you been on vacation?

  5. BL1Y

    December 11, 2008 at 8:17 am

    Law schools have had to deal with some embarrassment lately over their “diversity initiatives” (aka: affirmative action).  The LSAT/GPA range for minority students tends to be much lower than the range for white students.  Minority students are also getting lower grades because, surprise surprise, people (of any color) with lower LSATs and GPAs tend to make for worse law students.  (I should disclose that I myself am an exception; 172/4.0 and I was in the bottom third of my class; but the trend is still valid.) So, it’s embarrassing when the facts come out.  It reinforces stereotypes of AA beneficiaries and calls into question the legitimacy of diversity initiatives.  Law schools want diverse quality, but it looks like they’re choosing between quality and diversity, and are unable to find enough students who can provide both.  Getting rid of grades makes it much harder to tell who’s at the bottom.  You can still see who’s at the top (with honors pass), but fewer minorities at the top is not nearly as embarrassing are more at the bottom.  I don’t think this is the main driving force for getting rid of grades, though I’m sure at least one uber-liberal professor with a shitload of white-guilt has figured out what getting rid of grades will mean.  It’s an important consequence we should consider, especially in an age where AA is becoming less necessary.  We need to keep around measures of AA’s usefulness and fairness as we try to transition from ghetto-rigged equality to a more naturally occurring equality.

  6. Anonymous

    December 11, 2008 at 8:45 am

    Dickman is back. Happy Dickman day!

  7. wiseacre

    December 11, 2008 at 8:47 am

    The whole point of gradeless systems is to help those elite school students at the bottom of their class.  I think for HYS it makes a lot of sense.

  8. Second Tier 5th Year

    December 11, 2008 at 10:21 am

    I work at a TOP firm in NY.  Trust me, I’ve been eaiting up lame ass Yalies since I’ve been here.  If firms are stupid enough to think that all Yalies and Harvard students are going to be superstar associates in the REAL WORLD, then that’s their problem.

  9. Anonymous

    December 11, 2008 at 10:31 am

    I eat Yalies for breakfast. Harvard for lunch. Stanford for dinner.

  10. BL1Y

    December 11, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Second Tier Fifth Year: They don’t think the Yalies will be great law students.  They think it looks better on their firm website, recruiting materials, marketing, etc to be recruiting Yale students.

  11. Anon 1st year

    December 11, 2008 at 11:02 am

    At my firm, two people out 40 failed the bar.  both from harvard.  and the bar’s pass/fail.  go figure.

  12. chad_broski

    December 11, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    the whole grade thing is absurd anyway. all that matters for getting that big firm summer associateship, which inevitably leads to that big firm job, is your first year grades. so ultimately these firms are hiring based on what a few professors subjectively thought about your one final exam essay, and where you fell on a curve. inevitably, you wind up doing worse on the “easy” exams because everyone kills it, and the curve is tighter than a gunner’s sphincter. furthermore, it’s easier to get good grades during your 1L year if you were pre-law in undergrad, daddy’s a lawyer, etc., versus the schmucks like me who showed up the first day of class not knowing the ifference between state and federal court. it took me a year to really get it, and my 2L grades were way better than my 1L grades.
    firms need to stop taking the lazy man’s approach and do a better job of interviewing and determining for themselves who will make good practitioners, and not allowing what some random contracts professor thinks about your analysis of hadley v. baxendale.

  13. BL1Y

    December 11, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    Interviews aren’t a particularly great way of telling who will be a good lawyer either though.  It mostly just shows who can do a good job of interviewing.  I agree that exams are pretty bad, but there’s not much that’s better.  The only thing I can think of is writing samples.  But, you would spend 12 months working on your sample and gets lots of outside help, so it doesn’t really indicate how you’ll do on a project due in 3 days.  The only decent measure is how you do as an SA, but firms are limited on how many people they can take.  You’d want at least twice as many SAs as incoming associates so you have a real choice, instead of just weeding out potential liabilities.  This would probably require taking on more 1Ls (which is pricey, as all their billable hours are written off), or allowing more SAs to split with another firm (but then your learn less about the SAs).

  14. chad_broski

    December 11, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    i agree that interviews are not a perfect harbinger of practice skills, but they are much better (imho) than your first year grades. i went to a fancy top 10 school, but during school i clerked at a firm with other law students from tier 3 and 4 schools, and they could blow the doors off of many of my classmates when it came to practical skills. they never had the job options i had purely because i got into a better school than they did, and i always thought that sucked. and yes, it’s impossible to really gauge someone’s potential from a 30-minute OCI interview, but that’s why firms need to do a better job during callbacks at really scrutinizing these students to determine who has the best chance of succeeding. but with many of these sweatshops, they know 90% of the entering class will be gone in 5 years, and all they’re really looking for is a class of workhorses who will bill their minds out reviewing documents and doing other mundane tasks for 2400 hours per year. i’d rather have a bullet put in my head, which is why i ditched biglaw for a much better gig at a boutique shop.

  15. Analyst

    December 11, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    What people need to realize is that, rightly or wrongly, the driving factor behind the new pass/fail movement is the advancement of minorities.  As it stands, minority students—particularly those whose admission credentials were less stellar than their white counterparts—get lower grades, as a whole.  A pass/fail system minimizes this phenomenon.

  16. Mr. Id

    December 11, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    The comment on advancing minorities is dead-on. This whole “diversity obsession” is the best thing to happen to the ruling equity partners since the invention of points.  You mean I can hire lower qualified associates and be lauded as a hero full well knowing they will make me a fortune yet fail before ever threatening my status. Fucking Brilliant!  Plus my precious progency will not need to worry, since I will pass on to them my clients and they will barely need to break a sweat. Doubly Fucking brilliant!

  17. BL1Y

    December 12, 2008 at 7:04 am

    Analyst: I agree that minorities will benefit disproportionately from a pass/fail system (see my earlier post on this), but I’m not convinced it is the driving force.  Surely many professors are aware of this consequence, and also really like the idea of giving minorities a leg up (especially in overly-liberal schools).  Unfortunately, I’m too much of an optimist to think that this really is the driving force behind the new grading systems.  Law professors tend to be pretty upfront when they want to give minorities an advantage.  It’s no secret that there’s three ways to get on a law review: grades-in, write-in, or black-in.  Why give us the run around on pass-fail?

  18. Already Bitter 3L

    December 12, 2008 at 9:01 am

    BL1Y:
    Did you ever consider that not everything is about race? Pass/fail (which is a terrible idea) may just be a symptom of our “we’re all winners” society. Hell, there are little leagues that don’t keep score. Competition is under fire everywhere, and in most of those places race has nothing to do with it.

  19. BL1Y

    December 12, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Bitter 3L: Did you even bother reading my comments?  I explicitly doubted that race was a major motivator.  My point was just that the pass/fail system will have racial effects (ie: disproportionately helping minorities, and covering up embarrassing aspects of affirmative actions).  I agree that it’s probably not “about race” but that doesn’t mean the race issues are irrelevant.  Minorities raise hell over plenty of things that aren’t “about race” because they have a disparate impact on minorities, even when there’s no pretext or intentional wrongdoing.  Whites should also get to criticize programs which, while not “about race,” have a disparate impact against whites, especially when the program isn’t explicitly affirmative action.

  20. Already Bitter 3L

    December 12, 2008 at 11:50 am

    Racial effects? I’m sure it will have all kind of effects. But not all of them are relevant to the conversation.

  21. nola_lawyer

    December 12, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    1) I don’t see how pass/fail will help minorities.  Are minorities notorious for doing poorly in law schools where they are accepted?  Doubtful.
    2) Ivy League law schools, grades or not, certainly don’t churn out the best practitioners.  Example- the Public Defender in New Orleans decided that us natives are just too stupid to work for them.  So, instead they go hire about 10 new lawyers from ONLY ivy league schools- particularly Harvard and Columbia.  What happens?  They all failed the bar.  All of them.  I passed every section of the Louisiana bar (9 exams, 27 hours, all essay)- and went to a (gasp) Tier 3 school in town.  But, if you ask local firms- my school is preferred above even the high and mighty Tulane because Loyola focuses not only on the theoretical B.S- but more so on 1) writing, 2) public speaking, and 3) legal skills from everything from depos to file management.  Not to mention I tried, and won, 5 trials my last year through our clinic program. 
    So, the moral of the story is this: Ivy League schools won’t make you a better lawyer (okay, fine, they may get you a better job and more money) and… wow, I really am a bitter lawyer.  Hmm.

  22. Anonymous

    December 12, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Hey BL1Y, you practically live on this site yet you won’t for it?  Really?

  23. Rex

    December 12, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    I know dude…. BL1Y is always on the site but won’t vote?

  24. Anonymous

    December 12, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Yes, the pass fail helps the blacks.  You won’t know how inept they are until AFTER you hire them.  By then it will be too late and they’ll get you on a discrimination claim when you finally fire them–you fired be because Im black.  Obama yo mama!

  25. really tho

    December 12, 2008 at 8:12 pm

    well then anonymous i guess you know how blacks feel when when white people get basketball scholarships….

  26. DP

    December 15, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    I think that a better measure would be more serious/rigorous interviews.  Businesses like McKinsey & Co. tend to have interview sessions that last longer and that are focused on skills assessment rather than personality assessment.  Give people an actual problem and make them produce a short memo on the spot; do something serious with the interviews.

  27. BL1Y

    December 16, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    Nola: Yes.  Black students tend to get lower grades than white students.  This is because the standards are lower for accepting black students.  GPA and LSAT, while not perfect, are somewhat good predictors of law school success.  The average black GPA/LSAT at a top school is much lower than the average white GPA/LSAT (this is commonly referred to as “affirmative action”).  There is probably little difference in grades if you control for GPA and LSAT.  But, schools tend to have higher scoring whites and lower scoring blacks, so the black students are the ones you’d predict would do poorly.

  28. Anonymous

    December 17, 2008 at 3:39 am

    Look.  There will be problems going forward as long as incompetents (black and white) are shuffled through college and law school.  The bar exam is often the first time there is an objective determinant.  Many incompetents never pass the bar (black and white).  That’s the price we pay for an imperfect society.

  29. Bill Dugan

    December 17, 2008 at 3:47 am

    Nola_Lawyer, what kind of New Orleans lady are you?  Not only are you bitter, you have an unlady-like attitude.  Congrats on your achievements, but you really need to be more demure and deferential, particularly as a Southern Belle.  My guess is that you would do much better if you weren’t so darn loud about everything.  I think you need more romance in your life.  Get a guy and be good to him.  It will work wonders for your attitude.

  30. BL1Y

    December 17, 2008 at 7:58 am

    Bill: What you don’t get about coarse, unrefined women is that they’ve deluded themselves into thinking this is a virtue.  They’re rejected traditional gender rolls and gone for the exact opposite.  But, the truth is they’ve only discarded these rolls because they don’t measure up as women.  Instead of working harder, they decide they’ll try to change what’s expected of them.  Too bad for them, the rest of us aren’t buying the new act.  You’ll never convince us that unsocial, fat and generally unpleasant is what we want in a woman.

  31. KLB26

    January 5, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Northeastern already has grading like this and has for years.  Instead of a letter you get a “buzz word” that is followed by a written evaluation.  It actually puts a lot MORE pressure on you because instead of a letter that doesn’t say much you have paragraphs saying exactly what you missed and how your writing and analysis were.  The problem is just that law firms are lazy and don’t to have to learn anything about a candidate beyond a ranking.

  32. lawdog3

    October 10, 2009 at 2:48 am

    BL1Y…you truly have been smoking Crack. You claim that, b/c ethnic minorities raise “caine” whenever a policy disproportionately affects minorities, regardless of intent, Whites should have the right to do the same. Your assertion is wrong on several fronts, as is your entire suggestion that ethnic minorities will benefit from a gradeless system.
    1) How many ethnic minorities even attend HYS? And by relative percentage?
    The exceptionally low ppercentage of students of color at these schools dictates that even those ethnic minorities who DO fall at or near the bottom of their classes must be in such low numbers that they would make up about 1-5% of the students whose grades would be artificially inflated by a gradeless system.
    2) You assume that the minority students at these three schools are “under-qualified”, when nothing could be further from the truth, and if you had an opportunity to read their files, you would quickly discover this.  While a large percentage of minorities do score substantially lower on the LSAT (they do not attend top-10 schools), studies show conclusively that those same minorities who gain admission to HYS tend to have undergraduate grades on par with or higher than those of their classmates. Moreover, they tend to have, through their natural circumstances, better-developed many of the necessary tools to become efficient public servants.
    Their so-called “soft factors” (overcoming disadvantage, work experience during undergraduate school, community service demonstrating empathy for under-served segments, letters of recommendation, essays, etc) tend to be much stronger than those of the average White student, and for obvious reasons.
    I must also add that, at Yale and Berkeley, no less, studies are underway to develop a more comprehensive, race-blind exam with which to replace the LSAT, a deeply flawed exam that admittedly favors White test-takers and English-speaking persons. And many Blacks and other ethnic minorities at HYS actually score in the higher percentages on the current test. 
    3) You also presume, without evidence, that ethnic minorities at HYS are not at the top of the class or are not as evenly distributed along the grading scales. But even if we assumed that most ethnic students were at the bottom of the scales, it would not demonstrate, as you claim, that large numbers of minorities were benefiting from a gradeless system. Out of 170 students admitted to Yale in a given year, 15-20 may be Black and 20 may be Asian; those black students are mostly Magna-Cum-Laude and honors grads with stellar records. Coupled with the fact that 5-10 of those students will have actually eclipsed 167 or 170 on the LSAT, your theory fails coumpletely.
    4) It has been proven over and again that students with the best grades and test scores, pre-law school, do not always make the best lawyers. There may be some debate over the skills needed to be certain “types” of lawyers, but the fact remains that student with high scores and grades often make lousy attorneys. 
    This is why students from TTT schools often wax graduates from Harvard, and why HYS students keep losing moot-court competitions to Howard. For example, why can’t these supposedly “superior” students from Harvard and Yale beat Howard (a third-tier school with an average LSAT of 153) in moot–court? According to your supposition, the Howard students don’t even belong in the same courtroom with the HYS students, right?
    The bottom line is that you and your cohorts make a lot of unwarranted, racist assumptions.

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