The Billion-Minute Mile


March 14, 2008

Dear Asha,

One of the things that is supposed to be great at YLS is the lack of traditional grades and class rankings. However, I've heard from students at other schools that getting an "H" [Honors] matters as much at Yale as getting an "A" at another school, and that therefore Yale is just as stressful and competitive as any other law school. In particular, I've heard that you need all Hs to get a top job. Is there any truth to this?

S.B.

Dear S.B.,

I did an informal poll of my classmates from YLS and the reasons they chose to go to Yale. Two words always made the top of the list: No. Grades. To us, these words symbolized freedom to pursue interests beyond the classroom, learning for the sake of learning, not having success come at the expense of your classmates, and, as legendary YLS Dean Guido Calabresi put it, finally "getting off the treadmill." How is it that, all of a sudden, Yale has been Swift-Boated for one of its top strengths?

Before I go into the reasons that your sources' information is suspect, I think it would be helpful to understand how and why Yale's current grading structure evolved (courtesy of Guido himself!).

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (i.e., circa the mid 50s), Yale Law School had a grading system which evaluated students' performance as "Excellent," "Good," and "Satisfactory." Although not grades in the traditional sense, these marks were assigned a value that allowed students to be ranked. The result was, among a very small group of highly accomplished people, a stratified system which fulfilled the egos of a few people at the top while creating, for the vast majority of the students, an enormous amount of anxiety. In fact, for many students who were used to being at the top academically, the designation of being at the bottom (or even the middle) -- a designation which in turn affected the course of the rest of their legal career -- was not only depressing, but encouraged them to simply "turn off" for the rest of their time in law school.

In the late 60s the students, being the rebellious baby boomers they were, organized against The Man, which in this case was the grading system. Specifically, the students felt that the grading and ranking systems created false pressure and were not conducive to a learning environment. Now, there were students who were in favor of the status quo (read: the few egos at the top), but the majority of students advocated the abolition of grades altogether, to be replaced by a system of Credit/Fail.

The question was, if this system were adopted, how would employers on the outside react in their hiring practices? So they went to the employers themselves -- partners in law firms and judges -- and asked them. The answers were not very promising. Some employers said they would simply hire all the Yalies who applied, then fire the ones they felt performed the worst. Others indicated that they would hire students based on "how presentable" they appeared (wink wink). Others said that they would use objective criteria like the LSAT, and some said they would come up with their own tests. This course of action, then, seemed worse than having grades.

The dilemma was thus how to create a system that had enough of a grade "hook" -- something that gave the appearance of relative performance -- but no more than was needed to satisfy the evaulative purposes of future employers. In other words, the goal was to discourage employers from substituting their own system of evaluation, but to also avoid creating distinctions among students that were not real. It was here that the current system of Honors/Pass/Low Pass/Fail (and no class rank), was born, and it has lasted longer than any other grading system used at Yale.

Now, to the effect of Yale's system in practice. So, in your first term, all of your classes are simply Pass/Fail. As I recall Dean Koh explaining to my Civil Procedure class, "You will take a final exam, and you will pass. If you don't pass, you will take the exam again. And you will pass. In other words, you will pass." Does everyone still study their butts off? Yes. Do the students still stress out the first term? Yes. Do they all really pass? Yes. Does everyone at that point finally chill out? Yes.

Beginning in your second term, you are evaluated under the H/P/LP/F system. I spoke with the Registrar, keeper of all Yale grades and transcripts since the beginning of time (and hence the most powerful person here), who told me that Fs are almost unheard of, and LPs are "absolutely rare." This means that almost all grades awarded at Yale are Hs and Ps (there is no curve so the number of each is up to each professor). The Registrar further informed me that only about 1 or 2 students graduate each year with straight Honors (though one year she saw a spike of about 4 students). Out of a class of 189 students, that's about 1-2%, max, of the class (to put it into perspective, that would mean about 100 people -- out of roughly 7,000 graduates -- since the system was adopted). Finally, she advised that it is equally rare for a student to graduate from YLS with all Ps. In other words, the vast majority of Yale graduates have a transcript littered with Hs, Ps, and CRs (given for first term classes and things like journals, reading groups, etc.).

If the overwhelming majority of Yale Law grads have very similar transcripts, how do we account for the fact that 50% of each graduating class get clerkships, or that 13% of each class get jobs in academia, and that practically everyone gets the law firm job of their choice? The answer is: the grades just don't seem to matter that much. Really. Since nothing you accomplish at YLS is linked to them -- things like being on the Law Journal or becoming a director of a clinic or becoming a research assistant -- they are really not that useful. At the same time, the fact that students are liberated from obsessing about grades and rankings allows them to tailor their law school path in such a way as to make themselves as attractive as possible to precisely the type of job they want to have. In other words, if a student wants to work in a law firm, there's no pressure to join the Law Journal to "prove" that she is at the top of the class -- the student can instead become involved in the Center for the Study for Corporate Law, making her stand out in a unique way to law firm employers. Similarly, a student who really wants to do immigration law can exchange hours spent worrying about acing an exam for time on a client or in the courtroom through a clinic, gaining invaluable experience for a future career. And for aspiring academicians, a P doesn't matter when you've had a chance to coauthor an article with a professor, or even publish one of your own papers, before you graduate. In addition, all students get to know professors personally (you kind of can't help it, if you actually show up for class), which allows for detailed references regarding your performance and abilities. As a result, the people doing the hiring have much more information on which to evaluate your potential than they would with grades alone.

I can understand how difficult it is for students at other schools -- particularly large ones -- to wrap their minds around the idea that grades don't matter. To be honest, I think this tells you a lot more about what life is like there than it does about Yale. That is, if you are in a place where professors are not particularly accessible, and where the markers of "success" are inextricably bound to grades, and where the sheer size demands that students be differentiated by rankings (since there are simply many more people competing for the same things), then grades become the most meaningful symbols of your law school career -- which probably explains why students at these schools spend more time thinking and talking about Yale grades than the Yalies do!

In conclusion: the Yale system was created by students. If, sometime in the last 40-ish years, it had become a liability for them, presumably it would have been changed again. But since it hasn't, ask the Yale students themselves what they think. You can find them next to the treadmills, relaxing.

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