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!”
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.