An article in last week’s National Law Journal titled “Law Schools Revamp Their Grading Policies” reports that Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School are switching from the traditional letter grading system to a pass/fail system. According to the article they are switching “to create fairer evaluation systems and to better convey their students’ accomplishments to employers.” This fall Harvard law students will receive grades of honors, pass, low pass, or fail. Last fall Stanford adopted a similar system. It is believed the grading system will better convey students’ accomplishments to employers, without suggesting that there is a material difference between one student with a GPA of 3.48 and another with a GPA of 3.42. Not all law schools agree, of course–the article cites other law deans and students who support currrent letter/number grade policies. Still, as in the old E.F. Hutton commercials (if you are old enough to remember them), When Harvard Speaks, People Listen.
I follow grading developments with interests as a teacher, an advisor to prospective law students, and a graduate (NUSL 1981) of a law school that has used pass/fail grading for over 30 years. Northeastern University School of Law has dropped letter grades the early 1970s, replacing them with pass/fail grades supplemented by professor’s comments. There are many reasons why the student culture at NUSL is different from other schools–larger percentage of students interested in public service law and larger percentage of women students, to name two–and the grading system plays a major role. Students are more cooperative and less competitive when their employment success does not turn on edging out a classmate for a spot on law review by 05/100ths of GPA. Observers ask “how can employers distinguish between students if there is no GPA?” The answer is “quite easily.” If my pass grade for civil procedure is accompanied with a comment that “you handled the summary judgment question adequately, spotting most of the major issues” and yours has the comment that “your analysis of the summary judgment issues was thorough, incisive, and brilliant” then an employer has a clear basis for deciding who to interview. As for the extra work that might be involved in processing NUSL grades and comments, it may have been an issue in the 1970’s but coop and permanent employers had it figured out when I graduated in 1981.
So welcome to the future of law school education, Harvard. If you have questions about how it works just take the Red Line across the river.