January 17, 2004

On Grades

It's undeniable that a huge part of the law school experience is grades. I, like most of my classmates was disappointed. Not terribly, but enough to be knocked down a few pegs. That's probably not a bad thing. Humility is not exactly one of my strong points despite my oh-so-desperate wishes to the contrary.

Coming from an engineering program with a steep curve prepared me somewhat for the letters I would see. I was happy to have already experienced the shock-and-awe that mediocre grades after working your ass off can be. I did not envy my fellow students who were experiencing that emotion for the first time.

However, there is one fundamental difference between an engineering curve and a law school curve. With engineering exams, you can see the model answer and you can see where, exactly, you fell of the train. Step missed here, arithmetic error here, forgotten factor of safety here, modeling error here. Even flaws in your overall approach are easy to understand when confronted with the simplicity of the "real" solution. You get the satisfaction of the slap on the forehead and the knowledge that if you were confronted with a similar problem in the future, you would do it better than the one on the exam.

I had heard the standard wisdom that law school exam grading was arbitrary. But, like most of my fellow students, I suspected it was sour grapes from people who just didn't understand how to take exams. It wasn't going to be arbitrary in my case....

Only, guess what. It really is fairly arbitrary, at least so far in my case. There is no "real" solution. I look at the tick marks all over my essays and I read the model answers and I see that there are a million ways you could approach the answer. There is the professor's way, which she thinks is best, but you may not agree, another professor may not agree, and the professor may not even agree with herself in a few months. After getting your exam back, there is no certainty that if confronted with a similar fact pattern you could approach it in a manner that was better.

With a steep curve at a school where most people are ridiculous over achievers, it's not enough to know all the rules, spot every issue and apply legal analysis correctly. It's not even enough to spot the tricky forks in the fact pattern and analyze where things could turn in either direction. You have to do all of that in the style that the professor wants to see. Knowing the material really well and applying it is a B. B+, A, those are reserved for the people who both know the material really well, AND have a lucky day whereby they organize their responses in a way that the professor likes, plus they write in a style that the professor enjoys.

I make these comments with my statistical sample of 2 grades, an A and a B. I haven't met with any of my professors but I've received two exams and the model answers. I examined them both with a level of detail that betrays my attempted "I don't really care about grades" attitude. I applied the rules/cases etc. in both exams with the same level of proficiency. I missed no major cases or rules. In one, I had enthusiastic comments with exclamation points. In the other, merely tick marks and no happy notes. If you had asked me which exam I performed better on, I would have picked the B.

So, what's the point I'm trying to make here? I've been through enough crap to know with certainty that my grades do not define my worth. And the point is fairly trite: people need to learn that they can't depend on external validation, yadda yadda yadda. My amazement is founded on the fact that a grading system which causes this much strife for thousands of students every year is actually that arbitrary. Sure, some students talk about it, but it's not a well-understood norm about the law school experience.

Perhaps the arbitrary ridiculousness is unique to schools like mine, which suffer from the wannabe excellence complex of a non top-10 ranking while admitting students who desperately believe they belong in the top ten (and probably do, if they'd had a luckier day on the LSAT). These amazingly intelligent workaholics are then placed on a steep mandated curve. From what I understand, employers really care about grades. I'm curious how they can when the difference between average and excellence in a pool of amazing fish is merely luck and style. 3 of my 4 professors spoke on this point, and yet, it seems that the real world is in another dimension where small variations in grades actually do measure something. I suppose employers and judges need something by which to differentiate people, but why not roll dice? Okay, now I've gone a little far with the analogy. I don't doubt that at the far ends of the curve, it is easy to spot the differences, but when you're talking about the middle of the continuum, I suspect that the gradient is minute and unique to each instructor on each given day.

In short, before I received my marks, I thought grades were a useful tool that too many people took too seriously. Now, I'm fairly certain that law school grades are a much less useful tool than I suspected and yet, too many people still take them too seriously.

Oh well, here's to wishing I was luckier and being thankful that I was as lucky as I was...

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