Law Schools and the Curve

The New York Times has published yet another article accusing law schools of misleading students, this time of failing to inform admitted students with merit scholarships contingent on maintaining a certain grade point average of the possibility of losing their scholarships. I agree with many of the article’s points and the comments in response.  For example, I completely agree that law schools should inform admitted students of the curve (it varies from a 2.67 at some schools to a 3.4 at others)  and provide them with their grading guidelines.  I found the following information on the websites of four law schools:

Law School 1

A+      1%

A         8%

A-       15%

B+      25%

B         20%

B-       12%

C+      7%

C         4%

C-       4%

F        4%

Law School 2

A or higher No more than 10 percent

A- or higher No more than 25 percent

C+ or lower At least 15 percent

C- or lower At least 6 percent

Law School 3

A+      0-2%

A         7-13%

A-       16-24%

B+      22-30%

B        Remainder

B-       4-11%

C         2-5%

D/F    0-5%

Law School 4

At least 20% of grades are A- or above and at least 20% of grades are C+ or below.


Given that grading guidelines vary from school to school, knowledge of a law school’s grading system may help merit scholarship recipients assess their likelihood of retaining their scholarships.  However, I disagree with the article’s suggestion that the curve is the main reason why many students lose their scholarships. The curve is generally not the reason why a student who never had a grade lower than a B+ in college may earn a B- or C in law school. In my experience, the curve does not lower a student’s grade but instead bumps the grade up or has no effect at all. In other words, in the absence of a curve, many more law students would earn B minuses and Cs in their first semester (or first year). The reason is that few first semester law students write good exams. This is understandable. Law school exams are generally very different from the exams students took in college or other graduate programs, and it takes a while to figure out how to take a law school exam. A student may have memorized the “black letter” law, but lack the skills to apply it to a complex fact pattern with numerous legal issues.  As the article acknowledges, law students, especially those with merit scholarships, assume that because they performed well as undergraduates, they will automatically perform well in law school—even in their first semester.  However, this is not the case.  Many students do not learn how to apply the law to a new fact pattern or how to advise a client of “all the potential claims and defenses” (a common law school exam question) until after their first round of exams when they meet with their professors individually to review the exam. Maybe law schools need to do a better job of providing students with feedback before they take exams and with formative assessments, as the Carnegie Report on Legal Education recommends, that focus “on supporting students in learning rather than ranking, sorting and filtering them.”

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8 Responses

  1. James Darling says:

    I believe *ahem* law school 1’s bottom 4% is D or F, not just F. It should also be noted that law school 1’s merit scholarships are based on class rank and not GPA, so the curve’s primary impact on merit scholarships is to normalize grades between sections.

  2. Hillel Levin says:

    If it is true that few first semester law school students write good exams then maybe we need to adjust our expectations of first year law school students. That is, if one semester of law school is incapable of enabling students to succeed on their ranking metrics, then the metrics are poor. Shouldn’t we test students on what they are capable of mastering?

  3. Ken Rhodes says:

    I disagree with Hillel’s “one way” syllogism. It is equally possible that the teaching in that first semester is letting down the students.

    That would not necessarily mean the teaching of the law is failing. It could (and apparently should) imply that some of the students need a short course in “How to cope with law school.” Such a course, which would last only a few weeks at the beginning of the first semester, could teach not only how to take exams, but also how to prepare, how to take advantage of groups, how to set your priorities, and how to take advantage of the resources of the school. Watching “The Paper Chase” isn’t the best way to learn those things.

  4. Glenn Cohen says:

    I believe Liz Glazer has a paper on this very subject that might of interest/help….

  5. Glenn Cohen says:

    Whoops wrong post…this goes on Dave Hoffman’s post on names and transgender…that will teach me to browse Concurring opinions with multiple windows open….

  6. Hillel Levin says:


    I don’t think we actually disagree. My point really was that the status quo is troubling if it is true that most students cannot succeed on exams that are given to them in the first semester. I am agnostic on the question of how to improve the situation–whether through changed teaching methods, changed substance, or a sort of complementary course of the sort you suggest.

  7. Adam says:

    Maybe we could grade students more closely on skills they’ll need as lawyers. If the purpose was to train them to be court reporters, the current exam model (type at 50 wpm and gogogogogo) would be an apt test of whether they could churn out things as quickly as possible. But to the best of my knowledge, courts don’t lock the attorneys in a room with three hours to write a brief on all of their arguments in the case with just the attorney’s notes to work from. If you want to see students who think like lawyers, start testing them like lawyers.

  8. James Darling says:

    Essay exams can test necessary skills even if you’ll never be asked to write an essay exam in practice. You might say essay exams are a hybrid between the cogent logical reasoning you need for a paper and the time-sensitive issue-spotting you’d want a lawyer to possess for an initial interview or court appearance (and it’s not like a lawyer’s never had to bang out a defensible argument in half a workday).