Law School Grades versus the Grade of Your Law School, Which is More Important?

As a prospective student, one of the hardest choices you have to make is which law school you will choose for enrollment.  While you naturally want to make sure the school you choose has the faculty and course selections you are looking for, how are you going to choose amongst the schools that meet those criteria?  The instinctive choice, one would think, would be to choose the school with a higher ranking.  Higher rankings open more doors, right?  And if “C’s get degrees,” what need is there to worry about taking  a hit to your GPA if it means you get a degree from one of the top schools in the country?

Not so, say two law professors. UCLA law professor Richard Sander and Brooklyn law professor Jane Yakowitz argue that the “eliteness” of your degree doesn’t matter as much as your GPA. When it comes to predicting career success, they say, it’s all about the grades.  So, while C’s may get degrees, it’s the A’s that get what pays, if you will.  My first reaction to this, not being part of an elite law school myself, was: “Excellent!”

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Choose your law school by the height and quality of its towering spires. 

My second thought was: “Wait … what?”

But before I can get to the major problem this study leaves untouched, for the uninitiated let me provide a quick bit about law school grading– which is vastly different than anything you experienced in your undergraduate studies.

 

(1): Nobody Fails Law School

Seriously.  Of course, like JET, every law school’s grading situation is ESID.  But, even with bare minimum effort, at law school you are guaranteed a C average.  Once you are in, it would take a far more concerted effort to fail — requiring you to get things blatantly incorrect on exams and plagiarize your papers to truly fail out of law school.

(2): Most Law Students Don’t Have an A-Average

Unlike your undergraduate years, a well-concerted effort in law school is no guarantee of an A. The undergraduate system rightly rewards hard work: put forth the effort and show mastery of the material and you will get an A, if your understanding is a little off, you might hope for a B. Law school, however, grades on a curve.  This is assuming your law school even has grades, but again, ESID on that. Most law schools set a curve where a few number of people walk away with A/A-, a glut of people walk away in the B range, and a few unfortunate souls get a C.  If you do walk away with a C, there is a slight chance that your grade may actually go up, retroactively, with inflation, but that’s a risky strategy not worth banking on. Moreover, because the whole system is curved, the law school grades aren’t a measure of competence or material mastery, but a competitive comparison of where you stack up against your classmates.

Add to that the fact that most people at any given law school are within the same LSAT range, and that means that if you go to a law school within you LSAT range score, you are competing against a couple hundred clones of yourself for a very finite number of As.

(3): Most Employers Know Both (1) and (2)

And hire accordingly.  Of course, one C on a transcript can easily be explained as an outlier and dismissed if the rest of your transcript shines accordingly– but a host of  C’s on a law school transcript will likely raise a red flag to potential employers.

But really, do grades outweigh eliteness?  Is it really advisable to take that lower ranked law school instead of that shiny Harvard or Yale law degree?

It seems that the study runs a great risk of being misunderstood.  Perhaps there is a correlation between GPA and the amount law graduates end up earning in the long run (which is what the study maintains), but the study doesn’t speak to your actual job prospects in the lower ranking schools as opposed to the elite schools.  The ability to earn more money with a great GPA from a lower ranked school is meaningless if you don’t have a starting salary to develop that from.

Certain employers, moreover, knowingly discriminate by eliteness of school. If you’re an Ohio State law student, for example, you can pretty much count out a Supreme Court clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Scalia.

My point is simple: a higher GPA at a lower ranked school might net you more money at some point, but it’s still the elite named law school degree that will open doors.  And, in an economy where the doors to the legal profession are few and narrow, the edge of eliteness cannot really be understated.  Of course, in an era where even the elite law students are begging for work on Craigslist, my guess is as probably good (or bad) as any.

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One comment

  1. Ach, there’s so much to say about this, but I think you’re nailed everything. I have a few additions:

    The study doesn’t necessarily tell us anything we didn’t already know. If you do well in law school, what I call the, “Top5%MootCourtLawReviewRequired,” that on-campus interviewers drool over, then you’ll have fairly good opportunities relative to any law student anywhere else. Higher-ranking schools merely better insulate the bottom 95% of their law students. The problem I see with the study is that it doesn’t provide much strategic value: Are you sure you’ll be Top5%MootCourtLawReviewRequired if you choose to attend a lower-ranked school? Given that 0Ls have a verified optimism bias, i.e. they think they’re all better than their classmates, this makes attending the higher-ranked law school a safer option, tuition excepted (and that is a big exception).

    There are a couple of rubs, though. First, a school’s eliteness provides “distributional value,” meaning its students are paying for OCI opportunities denied to those at other schools, even though they may not be demonstrably smarter than many other law students. Due to the recession, though, there is very little OCI going on, even at the high-ranking schools. Thus, as a fallback ranking system, if a die-hard (and you know I mean that at this point) 0L were to ask me which law school to attend, I’d suggest picking a state they’d want to practice in, and then looking at where the members of that state’s highest court went.

    Second, law degrees have a short shelf life. Take two lawyers ten years after graduation, one went to an elite school but has been making ends meet via document review, and another went to a local school, opened a solo criminal defense practice and runs twelve jury trials per year. Which one is going to look better another ten years from now, all things being equal? A law school’s eliteness provides opportunities, but nothing more. If those aren’t capitalized on, the degrees value drops very quickly.

    I loved the clone line by the way.

    Like

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