Law School: Grades Don't Matter
"Where is he in law school?"
The question was natural enough. A good friend asked it of me after I raved about one of my summer associates.
"Good question," I responded. "I never thought to ask."
She was incredulous. Not only had I never inquired about where the young man went to law school, I had no idea about his class rank. All I knew was that he had bounce. That was enough for me.
The conversation took place a few years ago. (I note the time qualification so that none of the three interns we have wandering around this summer get big heads.) I was reminded of it reading this morning's piece in The New York Times about law school grade inflation. The simple truth is that grades do not matter. I wish more law students realized that.
News that schools such as New York University, Tulane and Loyola are going to boost the grade point averages of students to make them appear more competitive on the open market is a sign of something akin to moral bankruptcy. Are firms hiring lawyers supposed to be fooled by grade inflation? The very notion that law school administrators would take this step to assuage the feelings and sensibilities of students graduating with mountains of debt and degrees of little utility reflects a stunning poverty of vision. Creating a Potemkin village for commencement services won't make the future of most young lawyers any brighter.
The fact is that brilliant lawyers with glowing resumes are a dime a dozen. Pluck some kid from Harvard or Yale and stick 'em in front of a computer. In no time flat you'll have a great brief on any conceivable legal topic. Sadly, almost all such briefs read the same. In truth, many lawyers from other schools could do just as well.
What can't be tested for or graded in law school is bounce, the ability to read a person, a judge, a jury and size up the social and emotional vectors that make a moment unique. That is a function of social intelligence, the most valuable form of intelligence for a lawyer. People, flesh and blood people, have conflicts; legal doctrine takes one only so far. The wisdom to know what to do and when to do it distinguishes the wheat from the chaff in the law as in any profession.
A lawyer must know his or her own story, the forces that have made them into a person with a discernible character. The lawyer must then learn how to recognize all that moves her, including her own feelings, a topic that makes lawyers of a certain generation and temperament squirm. A good lawyer learns to discern what motivates his client, his adversary, and how to meet the challenge of a given conflict with the legal doctrine at hand. But here is something they can't teach you at Harvard, Yale or any other law school: Being an effective advocate is a question of heart not head. Grades don't measure people sense.
Grades don't matter, I tell you. In the course of my legal career I have been involved in hiring decisions for dozens of lawyers. Not once have I asked about grades. Rarely have I even asked what school they graduated from or their class standing. What matters is a lawyer's ability to speak a coherent sentence, to stand when others would fall, to recover from the inevitable sorrow that makes a lawyer's life unique. This quality is bounce, and I can tell whether someone has it within the first interview.
You can make a better writer and a more competent researcher out of a lawyer with bounce, but you can't make a law review wizard respond to the human dimension of our work if he lacks heart. Papering over a generation of young lawyers with the fool's gold of a glowing transcript tricks no one.
Shame on NYU, Loyola and the other grade-inflating ninnies. If your graduates can't get jobs how about doing something to actually prepare them for work in the real world of lawyering? How many schools require students to take a course on mental-health issues affecting litigants? How many schools require students to read great literature or the classics? How many schools insist that students get out of the classroom and into a courtroom, prison or juvenile detention center? Not enough, I say.
I am thrilled with the quality of young lawyers who come knocking on my door looking for work. Most don't stay very long. The pressure destroys some; the allure of easy money distracts others. But those who stay in this line of work have heart. They had it when they got here. All I do is try not to break the hearts they bring; I sometimes fail.
All of which to say that law school grades, like size in certain other pursuits, really don't matter: What matters is how you love, and that is something you aren't taught in law school. Or, if you are taught at all about love, it is to love the wrong thing. Let me say it again: Grades don't matter. Smart deans know that.