If you think that student life at an ultra-elite law school is a page ripped out of The Paper Chase—one long, frighteningly competitive grade grub under the icy eye of a clone of the movie’s fictional Prof. Charles W. Kingsford Jr.—think again. At Yale Law School, grades have been strictly optional since the 1960s (students can opt to take classes for credit/no credit), and if you do choose to have your professor award you a symbol of your academic achievement or lack thereof, it’s neither a letter grade (A, A-, B+, etc.) nor a number based on a scale of 1-1-100 that can be easily translated into a letter. Instead, thanks to a student rebellion during the Age of Aquarius, there are only four grades at Yale: H for honors (for the top 30 percent or so of the class), P for pass (for almost everyone else), LP for low pass (for those who spent more time sampling the beer selection at Rudy’s than the readings in their casebook), and F for failure (for those who never made it out of Rudy’s to class).
And now, both Stanford Law School, in an announcement in May, and Harvard Law School, in an announcement on Sept. 28, have decided to follow Yale’s lead—with a few minor modifications–in vague and minimalist grading. Never again at Harvard will a Kingsford fix his withering gaze upon a hapless student who gave a less-than-brilliant performance and intone, “Here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.”
The idea at Yale Law School seems to be of the same general justification that has underlain rampant grade inflation over the past few decades for undergraduates at the Ivies and other elite colleges. If you’re smart enough—or maybe even just interesting enough—to get into our top school, why should you have to worry about grades? You’re already brilliant! Fine-tuned, competition-focused law school grades, the thinking goes, are for second-echelon institutions whose students have to demonstrate on paper that they’re as qualified as Yalies to compete for high-paying jobs at prestigious law firms or coveted clerkships on the U.S. Supreme Court and elsewhere. As the Yale Law School admissions office states on its website: “People do not get into Yale solely because of their GPA and LSAT combination. People get into Yale because of who they are and what they have done. The students bring such diverse backgrounds to the law school that one learns from them and benefits from their existence just as much as one does from the faculty.” Yale proudly declares that not only are grades optional, but it has eliminated class rankings.
As might be expected Yale’s relaxed attitude towards grades has made it the law school of choice among applicants. Yale Law School is famous for the extraordinarily high percentage of those it accepts who actually choose to attend. Other top law schools, including Harvard, have diluted law-school grades over the years, making A’s a lot easier to earn than they were during Prof. Kingsfield’s day, but even an easy A can’t compete with an H—or better yet, no grade at all. The new grading systems at Harvard and Stanford seem to represent efforts to woo students who would otherwise pick Yale. As an outraged commenter on the blog Above the Law put it regarding the changes at Harvard: “So in other words, now H[arvard] L[aw] S[school] students really don’t have to do ANYTHING and will still be viewed as the cream of the crop because they can take an LSAT test that proves nothing. Gone are the easy A’s that are handed out; now there isn’t even an incentive to go to class. And these graduates clerk on the SCOTUS? Give me a break!”
Writing on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, Orrin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University, expressed concern that the vague new grades at Harvard and Stanford “would have a major impact on the clerkship hiring process.” Because judges, all the way up the Supreme Court, want to employ only the brightest of the bright to serve as clerks but now won’t have precise grades to alert them as to who those students who “rocked law school’ might be, they’ll probably rely increasingly on profesors’ personal recommendations—which in turn will favor smallish law schools like Stanford where professors might get to know their individual students over relative behemoths such as Harvard, which until recently had up 140 students in each of its first-year classes. .
And one outcome that’s almost certain is that except for a highly motivated, workaholic few, Harvard and Stanford law students won’t be studying as hard as they did when grades were grades.