Law School Grade Inflation: Will it Help Students Get Jobs?

by Vault Education Editors | June 22, 2010

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The internet is in a tizzy over today's New York Times article about law schools raising students' grades--in one case retroactively, meaning that students who have already graduated will suddenly find themselves with higher GPAs.  Ten law schools--including NYU, Georgetown and Tulane--have mandated grade inflation in the past two years.  Loyola Law School in Los Angeles is adding 0.33 to the GPA of every student: past, present and future.  And others, like Harvard and Stanford, have simply gone pass/fail.  While gradual grade inflation has been a tolerated higher education trend, the sudden burst of mandated grade inflation among law schools has received significant negative feedback.  And not unjustly: Why is work that used to be worth a B+ suddenly worth an A-?

Law students studying hard in classThe law schools implementing grade reform say they're raising GPAs to help their students compete nationally by creating a level GPA playing field.  In other words, to enable student X with a B+ at a non-grade inflated school can compete for jobs, fellowships, clerkships, etc., with student Y who has an A from a grade inflated school.  With the legal job market as dismal as it's been in the past few years, it's reasonable for schools to try to make their students more employable.  But will grade inflation work?  Will it really get more students hired? 

Sadly, I don't think so.  Although good grades will get you past the HR gatekeeper at many firms, whatever your grades school prestige, law review participation and alumni network often matter more, rendering a level playing field impossible.  Moreover, as the NYT points out, once one law school ups the ante, "this puts pressure on schools to keep raising their grades further."  It's a GPA arms race.

For lower tier schools, grade inflation will prove particularly fruitless.  With the harsher grading system, hiring partners and recruiters were able to pinpoint the superstars who would be able to compete with students from higher ranked schools.  Without the hard grading system, those superstars will be harder to recognize, therefore rather than increasing the number of students who get jobs, grade inflation may in fact decrease it. 

So how can law schools level the playing field and make their students competitive nationally?  Grade deflation is clearly off the table.  The Law Street Journal suggests putting the onus on the American Bar Association: "Perhaps the best solution is for the ABA to provide law firms, government agencies, nonprofits, etc. with the information they need, including grade inflation statistics, median GPAs, etc., to make better-informed decisions when it comes to recruiting."  The ABA already publishes GPA and LSAT scores of applicants and bar passage rates of graduates.  Adding graduates' GPAs would be an extension of an existing research process.  It's a thought.



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