Concerns mount over consequences of relaxed grading for law students

Life looks different for everyone in the wake of COVID-19, but some law students are finding themselves in a uniquely brave new world. In an effort to mitigate the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic, some schools are opting to determine this semester’s grades based on a pass/fail system instead of the standard 4.0 scale.

Legal Institutions that have made the switch include Stanford Law School, the University of Virginia School of Law, Columbia Law School, Berkeley School of Law, and Cornell Law School. Others, like the University of Michigan Law School and Harvard Law School, have made the pass/fail system optional to students.

[RELATED:  Cornell makes letter grades optional. Some students say that’s not enough]

With classes now being held online and students scattered across the country and beyond, schools are confronted with unprecedented challenges to learning. A memo sent by Cornell Law to students and faculty outlined a few challenges to consider such as the responsibility some students now have to care for family members, the lack of consistency of students’ learning environments, online exams that open the door to cheating, and the general disruption and anxiety surrounding the pandemic. In light of these factors, schools like Cornell view the pass/fail system as the best way to account for the extraordinary circumstances, a decision the institution said was based on considerations of “compassion, equity, and integrity.”

Likewise, Berkeley Law moved to a credit/no credit system in an effort to lessen stress and level the playing field, reported the Los Angeles Times.

“I worried that students who were most likely to get high grades would opt for [letter grades] and then credit would be perceived as a mediocre grade,” law school Dean Erwin Chemerinsky told the newspaper in an email. “That would put pressure on students to retain grades and undermine what we are trying to accomplish.”

[RELATED: Prof tells students to ‘stop’ doing their work: ‘A’s for every student’]

But others argue that the new system will have an impact that lasts far beyond the spring semester. Grades and class ranking are a deciding factor in law students’ employment and extracurricular opportunities, such as law review eligibility and summer internships. Some students fear that a pass/fail grade system could negatively affect their future ambitions.

Brandon Hanley, a second-year law student at Cornell and president of the school’s chapter of the Federalist Society, is one example. Hanley said he believes mandatory pass/fail is the best way to give everyone an equal opportunity to perform well, but he recognizes the potential fallout down the road.

[RELATED: ‘No Fail Yale’: Ivy League lowers academic expectations amid coronavirus]

“The pass/fail may have an impact on 1L job recruiting as it seems like summer recruitment may be pushed back to January,” he told Campus Reform. “It’s going to be like the Wild West this year with law firm recruiting.” 

Brian Weber has a slightly different perspective. Weber is a second-year student at Michigan Law where some of his classmates are pressuring the school to make the pass/fail system mandatory instead of just optional. While Weber noted that he sees a place for the revamp in light of the circumstances, he said he believes requiring all students to accept a pass/fail grade is unfair. 

“The optional system also allows people to succeed in the face of adversity,” Weber told Campus Reform. “I would be extremely frustrated if the hard work I put into this semester was all for naught.”

Weber also worries about the unintended consequences in the long run. 

“It could potentially alter my entire career trajectory,” he said. “Overall, I think a mandatory pass/fail system would marginally help a few people but would significantly hurt many others.”  

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP global hiring partner Gavin White that these changes are sure to impact the legal hiring process. 

“Unless we change the timetable for hiring, you are hiring off of one semester of grades,” said White. “That probably hurts the students who have a less-than-stellar first semester, but otherwise would have been able to show an improvement for the second semester. They are sort of being robbed of that opportunity. That’s something we look at—particularly students who don’t come from a privileged background may have a slower start at law school, but they figure it out in the second semester.”

As Campus Reform previously reported, National Association of Scholars Director of Research David Randall said that coronavirus is being used “as an excuse” for colleges to implement easier grading.