June 22, 2010
What's in a Law School GPA?
Posted by Christine Hurt

Not much, actually.  Anyone who has been around legal academia for awhile understands that most law schools grade on a curve, and employers, if they care, care about where a student ended up on the curve.  So, a GPA without any other reference is not very helpful, which is why most employers ask for a class rank or at least a guide as to what sorts of GPA's translate to what sorts of class ranks.  If this is true, then the curve could have a mean of 2.0 or 16.0 or 24 strawberries, and the same students would be in the top half or bottom half (or name your favorite percentile).  For all this, grade curves have to be one of the most discussed topics in faculty meetings and now, the New York Times.

The problem is that some legal employers, presumably smaller ones or perhaps out-of-state employers, may not be savvy that School A has a mean GPA of 2.7 But School B has a mean of 3.2.  So, when this employer compares the resumes of average School A grad (2.7) to average School B grad (3.2), average School B grad could possibly get the job without further inquiry, unless the employer has access to the class rank of each student.  So, on the margins, School A grads may be missing out.  In a tough job market, we really care about the margins, so it is wise for School A to adjust its mean GPA.  Many schools have done this once, if not twice, in recent history.  One hypothesis might even predict that schools would do this more often in tight legal markets, when the argument may have more oomph.

But the NYT has probably never heard of this, so we have to read that Loyola Law School in LA is retroactively adjusting all GPA's upward with the same outrage as if someone is going back and colorizing old black-and-white films.  It seems a little new to retroactively adjust grades, but we've all lived through plenty of prospective grading curve adjustments.  The really fancy schools have the nerve to give up on the curve altogether, suggesting that they are schools with no real bottom half.

Even for the rest of us who feel market pressure to have some sort of a curve, I've never understood the meaning of the 2.7-ish curve.  I've taught at schools with a C+ curve, and it just seems demoralizing to me.  To take a group of students who are used to getting mostly A's, and possibly no C's at all, and declare that half of them will get C's almost seems like some sort of psychological grade torture.  Especially when their colleagues up the street master the same percentage of the material and get some kind of B.  So, I'm glad that Loyola is promoting its average student from a C+ to a B.  Although it's for show, it's about time.

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