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.

Comments: (8)

  • Norm,
    Well can't measure heart. Clients...
    Well can't measure heart. Clients, especially criminal defendants, want someone who will listen, believe in them, and fight for their freedom and rights. Being "book smart" doesn't make you the best lawyer.
    Posted on June 27, 2010 at 5:25 pm by Jasmine Jonell
  • The good professor apparently felt sawrreee for yo...
    The good professor apparently felt sawrreee for you, Charles. I mean, why would anyone go to 'law' school, after a protracted period of late adolescence? That is pure insanity. Too soon olda, too late-a schmarta! Pardon my French.
    You must have a death wish, or early-onset Allah-Zheim Disease. Bi-polar Disorder also comes to mind, with undulent schizo-phrenia and intermittent delusions of grandeur!?! Don't forget accompanying 'sub-clinical' depression, insomnia and nite-terrors. Ha! But that comes later, after you've 'earned' your wings?
    Anyway, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. That's what me grandmum taught me. What's a 'mantra' anyway? Is that something like a praying mantiss? Sounds to me like your prof was 'double-dipping', or moonlighting to make ends meet? Are you sure this is the kind of life you want to lead? Just thought I would ask? (No hard feelings!)
    Money is not everything, and neither is prestige and false pride garnered thru the miserable occupation of 'serving' your fellow human beings as counselor at law. 50 is not old, but it is younger than I was when slammed by the State of CT, illegally and unlawfully, natch.
    Don't do it Charles; I am warnin ya: Don't do it! Norm has written about those sirens. Go back and read that essay; and read the classics for godsakes!
    Posted on June 27, 2010 at 3:05 pm by William Doriss
  • My torts and professional responsibility professor...
    My torts and professional responsibility professor used to repeat the grades-don't-matter mantra throughout law school. I assumed he was just being kind to the 90-percent of us who weren't in the top-10-percent of the class.
    Well, after I passed the bar, he put his money where is mouth was, in that he approached me about working for the firm where he is of counsel. Being an older student (50 when I graduated), raising a family, paying a mortgage and holding down a full-time job all the way through law school, I assure you, I was no where near the top 10 percent. Apparently, it didn't matter.
    Posted on June 27, 2010 at 2:28 am by Charles Pelkey
  • N,
    Euclid never imagined the curve my l.s. grades...
    Euclid never imagined the curve my l.s. grades needed to keep my balled up resume from hitting the trash can of the hiring partner.
    Many in our profession pretend to be that which they are not. Some can't help it and others think they are supposed to. These new grading measures seem encouragement to those who think they are supposed to.

    Posted on June 23, 2010 at 3:26 pm by Leo
  • M
    yes, and clothing and hair style matters to in a...
    yes, and clothing and hair style matters to in a pragmatic way. But they ought not to. That was my sole point. I still don't consider grades in my hiring decisions. Grades don't matter to me. Social intelligence does.
    Posted on June 23, 2010 at 2:41 am by Norm Pattis
  • I think you've got the right theory, but as Caroly...
    I think you've got the right theory, but as Carolyn's comment points out they DO matter. What you are saying is that they shouldn't. Agreed. But they do. And, since law school graduates are a dime a dozen, people can pick the top of the top (or what they think is the top of the top). I have a friend with more experience than me, she's tried more cases than I can begin to fathom. She has to submit her transcripts for any fed job she applies for. Her grades weren't so hot. If they didn't matter, why would the feds ask for them? They do matter.
    Posted on June 23, 2010 at 1:36 am by mirriam
  • The one area in which grades probably matter for h...
    The one area in which grades probably matter for hiring is that of law school professors and some other academic professionals. But I agree with you otherwise.
    I had top law school grades, and I loved being a law student, but I don't think I would have made a very effective practicing attorney and that was never my goal. My good grades helped me get academic jobs I was better suited for.
    Posted on June 22, 2010 at 3:56 pm by Richard
  • I agree with you 100%. But what is also so stupid...
    I agree with you 100%. But what is also so stupid about the grade inflation is that those employers who are so grade obsessed to ask about grades to begin with will ask about class rank as well. So even if a law school makes the median a 3.95, if class rank shows that's only middle of the class, an employer won't be impressed.
    That's what happened to me years ago, when I interviewed with a large firm. I provided a copy of my transcript, but the firm also required me to get a copy of the class grade curve -- and because my rank wasn't up to snuff, I didn't get the job.
    Posted on June 22, 2010 at 2:59 pm by Carolyn Elefant

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