JURIST Guest Columnist Brian L. Frye, conceptual law professor at University of Kentucky College of Law, calls on law schools to move permanently to a pass/fail system even after the Coronavirus pandemic subsides. . . .
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, law schools face an existential crisis. After shuttering their buildings and moving their classes online, they must ask whether they can and should assign grades for the spring 2020 semester. Many have already decided to go pass/fail. And many more are sure to follow. But I don’t believe in doing things by half-measures. All law schools should go pass/fail for all classes, and never go back.
Grades are the alpha and omega of law school. The overwhelming majority of law schools grade students on a strict curve. Those grades enable law schools to rank their students in relation to each other. And they enable law schools and employers to determine at a glance whether a student is a winner or a loser.
Law schools love grades because employers love grades, and law schools love nothing more than sucking up to employers. Many law students love grades because grades made them winners. And Stockholm syndrome says some law students even learn to love grades, hoping they might become a winner someday. After all, who doesn’t want to be on top?
But why? What is the purpose of law school grades? Or rather, what is the purpose of the curve? Sententious administrators always say grades make students work harder and provide feedback on their performance.
I disagree. The curve means that grades are about competition, not learning. The curve means that our job is picking winners and losers, not teaching. The curve means that we are all just flunkies of the employers.
To hell with that. The only legitimate purpose of law school is training good lawyers. We don’t need to rank our students to ensure they are competent.
For better or worse, law schools have always been professional schools. Most law school graduates become practicing attorneys. In theory, the bar exam tests minimal competence to practice. What do law school grades measure? Who knows. Many other professional schools adopted pass/fail grading a long time ago. Why should law schools be any different?
Let’s be honest. Law school grades merely reflect the hierarchy that pervades the profession. In a battle of all against all, everyone wants to come out on top, or at least in a reasonably comfortable position. If it means someone’s the loser, them’s the breaks.
But the hierarchy itself is artificial and absurd. After all, the “best” law school in the country ostentatiously refuses to grade its students on the mandatory curve its peers feel obliged to adopt. Why? When you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Why let the winner define the game? Why accept a hierarchy that exists for the purpose of creating winners and losers, rather than evaluating competence? Well, it’s hard to defect when everyone else is playing the game. Everyone knows the system is rotten, but no one wants to make the first move.
Here’s an idea. Law schools should go pass/fail this semester. And they should stay that way. Sometimes, it takes a crisis to enable a change that is long overdue.
Brian L. Frye is a conceptual law professor (IP, PR, nonprofits, art law, legal history) at University of Kentucky College of Law. Brian is also a “Securities artist” and a host of the Ipse Dixit Podcast.
Suggested citation: Brian L. Frye, Grades Are for Cops; Get Rid of Them, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 22, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/03/brian-frye-grades-are-for-cops/
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