Law School Grades: What Do They Really Measure?

The level of importance placed on law school grades is difficult to overstate. To the grade achievers go the BigLaw jobs, the federal clerkships, and the professorships. The 90 percent of the class that is not in the top 10 percent finds its collective future considerably more narrow, and much less lucrative.

But what skills do these all-important tests actually measure? Do they really separate the best future lawyers from the worst? If they don’t, why do they matter so much? In other words, how did we get into this mess?

A rather illogical game

I remember getting my LSAT results back and being utterly puzzled. I scored very well on all but one section – Logic Games. On that section I recall I got something close to “the monkey score,” meaning a monkey randomly filling in the bubbles would have done about as well as I did. I can solve puzzles like that, but not in the time allotted on the test. But for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what Logic Games had to do with the study of law.

Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy has wondered as well:

This [Logic Games] section tests an ability to understand relationships among a handful of variables and to see the different ways that different combinations of those variables can fit different criteria. The skill set seems to be keeping a lot of variables in mind and working with how a change in the boundaries of a problem changes how the different pieces can relate to each other. That is an important skill set in many professions, to be sure . . . But I wonder, how important is that skill to either the study or the practice of law? What kinds of legal tasks rely heavily on that skill?

The answer, of course, is: none.

So why are Logic Games on the test? When I got my grades back after my first semester at law school, and met with my professors, I figured out why. Logic Games don’t measure your ability to understand law, or write about it, or practice it effectively. Logic Games measure your ability to do well on first-year law school exams.

Exams cram dozens of issues into one absurdly complex hypothetical, and require, for a top grade, the ability to sort (very quickly) through all that data and apply the law you learned to it. The more data you can deal with, the more points you score, and the higher your grade. Some people have an innate ability to do this well; others don’t. But that ability, or lack of it, does not distinguish those who will be effective attorneys from those who will not.

Paul Campos agrees:

People do well in law school not because they work hard (everybody works hard) . . . but because they have a knack for doing well on issue-spotting exams that do a very good job of measuring how well people do on issue-spotting exams but measure nothing else of value . . . the relationship between the ability to do well on issue-spotting exams is a poor proxy for intelligence in general, hard work, or the ability to practice law.

The path of least resistance

Why are law school grades determined this way? Because evaluating law student performance is difficult. Grading students in general is not fun—my father was an English professor; he hated grading exams.

If you were a law professor, which of these options would you choose:

  • To develop (and, presumably, continually refine) a multi-faceted evaluation system that would strive to measure how good a legal thinker/writer/talker each student is becoming, or
  • Writing two or three exam hypotheticals (which you can reshuffle and use over and over), the grading of which will be a pain in your behind for about 5 days or so each semester.

Similarly, employers who have the resources to offer the highest levels of salary or prestige could develop multifaceted evaluation systems of their own. But it’s  just easier to hire people with the best law school grades. After all, students on the top of their class are certainly smart, organized, and hard-working, which are attributes all employers want. Since it’s almost impossible to know who the great lawyers are going to turn out to be, why not just use grades to get rid of 90% of potential applicants?

Legal employers have an excuse for taking the easy road. After all, they have work to do. But law schools exist to educate and evaluate students. One would think that the schools, particularly non-prestigious ones, have a real incentive to at least try to grade students in a way that reflects the realities of lawyering, if only so they could distinguish themselves from all the other law schools facing a very uncertain future.

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