Decoding Class Rankings What Should The Legal Recruiter Look For?


Summer associates, and later associate attorneys, are generally hired by law firms on the basis of how well they performed in law school. Class rank, scholastic honors, and GPA are three common indicators of how well a student performed in law school. For recruiters, therefore, it becomes important to understand the grading, ranking, and award systems of law schools so that they have a better understanding of how to select and assess candidates whom they will seek to place in law firms.

Grading systems vary from one law school to another. Because of this, not all grade point averages are created equally. A recruiter may be left to ask, "What does it mean for a candidate to be in the top 25% of a graduating class?"

The following notes will attempt to throw some light on these issues. While more in-depth information on the student evaluation procedures for individual schools has been provided in the individual school profiles that follow, this overview provides a synopsis of the various grading and ranking systems.

The Grading Process

At the most basic level, letter grades are an attempt to provide an objective evaluation of a student's performance in a course, especially relative to the performance of other students in the class. The grade assigned to a student may take into account assessment parameters such as class participation, verbal and writing skills, analytic ability, etc.

However, in many law school classes, the final examination is the sole criterion for student evaluation. In this case, factors that may otherwise enhance the composite grade, such as class participation, are generally not taken into consideration by professors. This means that the grade will be based solely on the student's ability to perform well on a traditional essay exam comprised of one or more hypothetical fact patterns that students must analyze and discuss as the facts relate to the governing body of law.

Once grades have been assigned in individual classes, most schools follow a grading system ranging from 0.0 to 4.0, termed the 4.0 grade point average model, to arrive at a student's performance in all coursework. The GPA is a snapshot of a student's overall academic performance. However, as competition for higher grades and increased class ranks has heightened, some law schools have begun to seek alternative methods to evaluate students. The following analyzes some of these changes:

Change from a 4.0 to a 4.3 GPA model: This model, adopted by some schools, grades students on a 4.3 scale instead of a 4.0 one. Schools using this model include Michigan, Duke, Virginia, UCLA, Texas, Vanderbilt, Boston University School of Law, Emory, UNC, Fordham, and Georgia. The University of Southern California also awards numerical grades above 4.0, but it is different in that it allows for a higher GPA of 4.4.

In essence, this system adds a further letter grade to the evaluation process that allows evaluators to award an A+ grade in cases of exceptional performance. The effect is that it increases the overall class performance, though not to a substantial extent, and hence the final rankings of the students.

The reason is fairly clear; with the evaluators having an option of giving an A+, only the exceptional student would get an A+ in the 4.3 model.

However, very few 4.3 or higher grades are ever awarded, with not more than one or two students in a class ever getting one. There is only a marginal shift in the overall class performance toward the higher side. For a fair comparison of prospective candidates' grades, the recruiter should therefore keep in mind the mean values of the normal curve set by the school.

Increased gradation: Apart from increasing the uppermost acceptable limit, schools also follow an increased gradation that tries to discern students' performances. To do so, instead of following a simple A, B, C, D grade system, schools award grades like A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, and so on and so forth. This further segregates students' performance and therefore, considering criteria for evaluation, will reflect fairer class rankings when calculated based on GPA.

Variants of a 4.0 GPA model: Some schools follow a number system where evaluators award a numeric grade (out of 100), which is later converted into a letter grade. Largely, since the system is a variant of the 4.0 GPA model, the final conversions are in line with the original model. There is some variation, however. For instance, in the case of Ohio State University, a grade of 93% or above is an A grade, which if translated to a 4.0 GPA model would mean anything above 3.72.

The normal curve: In this system, students compete with each other for a limited number of grades. Their grades reflect their relative positions in class. Student performance usually follows a normal distribution referred to as the bell curve. The rationale behind this system is (1) to identify students who perform better compared to their peers and (2) to correct for anomalies (tests that are too difficult or too easy, poor teaching, or poor presence due to a natural disaster) as the scale automatically shifts up or down.

The shape of the normal curve (i.e., the distribution of students in various grades) is based on an earlier discovery, according to which IQ test scores over large populations fall in a certain pattern. It is for this reason that all the law schools that follow the bell curve evaluation system apply it to each class.

However, a rigid normal distribution based on the above-mentioned discovery is rarely followed, as giving a fixed percentage of As, Bs, etc., is de-motivating to a class. Schools usually skew the normal curve such that the distribution is shifted slightly upward, resulting in fewer grades below C and more in the B category. Outliers (very high or very low) may be awarded as deemed fit. This tilt is not based on statistics but more on tradition. Therefore, for the recruiter, it is difficult to ascertain whether a B or a C that a student has received is a reflection of a difference in actual performance or simply because of the distribution curve.

The registrar's office usually instructs the evaluators on the grading pattern for the year and informs them of the percentage distribution of students across expected letter grades. The normal curve instruction also comes along with the minimum number of students required to participate in a course for the curve to take effect. While some schools indicate this minimum number to be between 25 and 27, for some other schools it can be more than 40.

In the 4.0 GPA model, the median of the curve usually varies from 2.7 to 3.1. Schools adopting a 2.7 median for the normal curve have a lower cutoff point for the top half of a class than those with a 3.1 curve. Students of such schools generally have lower GPAs than students of schools that have higher curves.

For example, the University of California-Davis uses a B median, which means a majority of the students receive an average GPA of 3.0, whereas the S.J. Quinney College of Law sets the mean grade between 3.10 and 3.30 (inclusive). Hence, the normal curve values of the University of California-Davis place its students at a disadvantage compared to students of the S.J. Quinney College of Law. The grades of students from schools with higher mean normal values will appear more impressive than those from schools with lower values. To compare such students fairly, the median value of the normal curve should be kept in mind.

No letter grades: Some schools have completely given up the letter grading system and award only Honors, Pass, or Fail to their students when evaluating performance. In the list of the top 50 law schools, Berkeley and Yale do not award grades and only evaluate students on whether they pass or fail a certain course, with better-performing students being awarded Honors. Harvard Law School has also started to award grades as Honors, Pass, Low Pass, or Fail. Stanford Law School has also adopted the "Honors," "Pass," and "Mandatory Pass" grading system for all courses.

Implications of Class Rankings

At the end of each semester, or sometimes at the end of the school year, law schools generally release the rankings for each class. Class rankings are a distribution of the entire class based on each student's overall GPA. A school may choose to release ranks as "top 10%," "next 20%," and so on. Since ranks are related to GPAs, the implications that can be drawn from GPAs are applicable to class rankings as well. However, two points are worth noting:

  • The most important factor impacting class rankings is the normal curve. Some schools tend to skew the curve, while others allow for mild deviations by the evaluators implementing it. Discrepancies such as these can have a slight impact on student GPAs and thus on class rankings. For a recruiter, it is important to understand the composition of the curve and the rankings for each school. Information on grading curves, whenever available, has been presented along with the school profiles.
  • Variations in the 4.0 GPA model, as stated earlier, affect class rankings. For instance, at Washington University School of Law a 92.13 GPA is the minimum requirement to be in the top 10% of the class, which corresponds to an A-. The school's corresponding letter grades seem a bit higher than its number grades since no other school has a 3.8 (the traditional A- grade in the 4.0 scale) as its top 10% cutoff grade. From a recruiter's perspective, although the difference is not very large, care needs to be taken to understand the grading system and the variations that the system has from the traditional grading methodology.