Ms. JD

Will BigLaw Embrace Grade-Less, High-Pedigree JDs?

Ed. note: The following article comes to Ms. JD courtesy of author Michael Estrin and  They interviewed a number of hiring partners at major U.S. law firms, who expressed concern about decisions by Harvard and Stanford law schools to switch to a pass/fail system.  This article might be of interest to many Ms. JD readers, especially given past issues and discussions concerning the compatibility between current law school learning frameworks and female law students.

Class rank is everything. It separates the future scholars from the posers; the potential Big Firm Partners from the 9-to-5 government slackers. If there were no grades, there’d be no way to differentiate among prospects and the entire legal hiring system would implode. Or maybe not.

In the past year, Stanford and Harvard have adopted a pass/fail grading system similar to Yale’s. This means no more grades at three of the top five U.S. law schools. Does this make sense? Are the schools doing the “real world” a favor or a disfavor? Does the elimination of competition from a highly-competitive profession make any sense whatsoever? 

While Yale has a great reputation for minting legal scholars, it may not be the ideal training ground for Big Firm practitioners.  At least that’s what an anonymous managing partner at a major national firm told me. 

“[Yale graduates] have the most difficulty adjusting to the real world, [and] I’ve often thought that it was because the school didn’t have grades,” he says. “There’s a value to grades.  Why would you remove them?”

That’s a question Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown have all wrestled with recently, with only the latter opting to stick with letter grades. All three schools declined to comment for this story, but the party line out of Cambridge and Palo Alto has been a desire to promote a more collegial atmosphere on campus.

Will it?

Yes, says John Libby, a Los Angeles-based partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

Libby ought to know, having graduated from Yale Law in 1984.

“My impression was that not having letter grades improved the atmosphere at Yale,” Libby explains. “[Not having letter grades] relieved a lot of unnecessary pressure, but there are still many other forms of pressure given the nature of law school.”

But as a student, Libby did have some explaining to do about his missing letters.

“I remember being in interviews during law school and being asked, What do these pass/fail grades mean?” Libby recalls. “They usually tried to find someone at the firm who went to Yale to explain. Yale can take that attitude because it’s small and selective, but with other schools, grades may mean more.”

Libby, who routinely participates in Manatt’s OCI process and hiring decisions, says he’s not concerned about elite schools dropping letter grades, adding that candidates from Harvard and Stanford will always get serious consideration.

That’s an assertion backed up by one anonymous Harvard 2L, who told us that she didn’t think Georgetown was in a position to do away with grades because only schools like Harvard and Stanford could rightly claim that all of their students were elite. For schools outside of the top ten, it seems, the primary focus must remain weeding out less skilled lawyers. But is it fair to say that all who gain admission to Harvard or Stanford are necessarily great lawyers-in-waiting?  Does getting admitted to a top school automatically make a great lawyer? Please. 

What’s the rub?

It’s hardly news that students from name-brand schools like Harvard have more options for BigLaw jobs than do students elsewhere. After all, brand names do matter. But without grades at the elite schools, tier-two graduates in the top five percent, for example, may find it harder to distinguish themselves from Harvard grads at the bottom of their class, according to Daniel Connolly, a managing partner at Bracewell & Giuliani in New York, who called the trend away from letter grades “slightly alarming.”

“It’s important for law firms to distinguish among candidates,” Connolly explains. “One of the ways you do that is by grades. I would rather have someone from the top five percent of a second-tier law school than the bottom half of Stanford or Yale. [Without grades] I lose the ability to make that determination.”

True, Stanford and Harvard will have gradations beyond pass and fail (just like Yale), but even Libby points out that he’s seldom seen Yale transcripts with low-level marks. In effect, that means graduates of elite law schools may get a free pass bestowed upon them the day their LSAT scores come in. In turn, that could make the proverbial lawyer with a chip on his shoulder and stellar grades from a lower-ranked law school an endangered species in BigLaw. After all, the bottom of the Harvard class won’t mean what it used to, and those students who sink at elite law schools won’t be as easily recognized—and eliminated—during the hiring process.

A silver lining for those who didn’t go to Harvard?

Not all hiring partners agree that Harvard and Stanford are doing their students a favor by taking away grades. Most of the partners we spoke with were adamant that pressure will always be a part of BigLaw, and many agreed that law school grades are often a good indicator of a prospective lawyer’s ability to juggle a crushing amount of work and still excel. 

The absence of that indicator could actually work against Stanford and Harvard grads, according to another anonymous hiring partner at a major national firm with more than 1,800 attorneys.

“If you can’t really make heads or tails [out of a pass/fail system] to figure out how somebody did, but you have the top student at a school like UCLA, why wouldn’t you go for that person?” he asks.

But in a tough economy, with a limited number of associate positions, firms will be placed in the difficult position of having to decide between a relatively known quantity—the UCLA student at the top of his class—and the lesser known candidate from a more prestigious school, who could have graduated first in his class, but who may have actually finished at the bottom.

A kinder gentler BigLaw?

Regardless of the reactions from hiring partners at major law firms, the legal community will see more and more elite law school graduates without grades as early as 2010. If the schools hold true to their intention of promoting a more collegial atmosphere on campus, the ranks of BigLaw may be increasingly staffed with attorneys who have no experience battling win-at-all-costs gunners for the precious allotment of A’s. However, an influx of more collegial associates won’t do much to alter the practice of law.

“To some extent, life is graded,” says Daniel Connolly. “That’s just the way it is.”

But that doesn’t mean that BigLaw will be an immovable force. As one hiring partner points out, firms must always compete with each other for top talent, and that means bending to the times. And Harvard and Yale are still, well, Harvard and Yale, which means that like it or not, BigLaw will have to accept more young lawyers whose last significant competitive experience was the LSAT. 

Still, behind this all is a sinking feeling that the law—as taught by a handful of elite schools—may be going soft. Competition will always continue in the law, but that virtue won’t be emphasized as much as it once was at some schools. At the end of the day, a JD is professional degree for most people, not an entry card into academia, and a lawyer who tells a client that they “passed” the case likely won’t last very long.

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