- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2020

University of Arizona third-year law student Logan LaFleur says she agrees with her school’s decision to grade all classes pass/fail amid the coronavirus pandemic, but she has concerns about those grades’ value in the hypercompetitive market for legal jobs.

“A lot of times employers are just looking at that one level [grade point average],” said Ms. LaFleur. “It does make a difference.”

Law schools, like colleges and universities, increasingly are assigning pass/fail grades to facilitate remote learning amid travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of COVID-19. But the grading scheme doesn’t level the playing field, professors say.

“For those [students] who are in the middle of class, this was a god-send. For students who were already very high in their class, this is good news because they can’t go down,” said Josh Blackman, who teaches constitutional law at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. “But for students who want to move up in the class row and are set to graduate, this is definitely a setback.”

Law school grades play an outsized role in graduates landing clerkships and entry-level professions, meaning that third-year students now eyeing graduation, the state bar exam and future employment face greater uncertainty than ever before.

Rick Jeffries is a partner of and recruitment chairman for the Cline Williams Wright Johnson & Oldfather law firm in Omaha, Nebraska. He said he has told nearby law schools — Creighton University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, both still using letter grades — that his firm is concerned about what could be hidden in a pass/fail grade.

“It would deprive us of a very important data point,” Mr. Jeffries said. “There’s a difference between ‘C’ students and ‘A’ students in law schools. And it’s a pretty darn good predictor of the success that you’re going to have at a place like ours.”

Harvard University and Dartmouth College already have implemented a mandatory pass/fail system. A number of other schools — from the University of Minnesota to New York University — reportedly are considering such a change. The University of Notre Dame initially resisted dropping letter grades but agreed to a pass/fail option after a student petition drive. But not all law schools are going pass/fail.

“There is no answer that is right for everyone,” Tom Miles, dean of the University of Chicago Law School, wrote in an email to students announcing his decision to keep letter grades for the next quarter. “One of the benefits of being part of a small, intimate community is that we can adjust swiftly if that proves not to be the case.”

According to the American Bar Association, about 112,000 students reported to ABA-approved law schools last fall, down from a high of 130,000 a decade ago.

Typically, the top graduates vie for employment at big law firms to clerkships with federal judges.

Meanwhile, coronavirus protocols have required local, state and federal courts to suspend cases and forced law firm employees to work remotely without access to usual resources — dimming prospects for soon-to-be lawyers.

Last week, a group of law professors argued in a white paper for alternatives to this summer’s bar exam, laying out the case for a range of options from online tests to postponement to conferring licenses upon graduation.

However, Mr. Jeffries of Cline Williams Wright says the key component of grades — the end-of-semester exam — comprehensively assesses students’ mastery of legal matters.

“We’re going to be blindsided by the lack of a significant differentiator if the law schools carry out that plan,” he said.

Some schools have taken a middle-of-the-road approach. The University of Michigan has adopted an optional pass/fail system, while the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University is offering a “post-grading request for pass/fail accommodation” by which students who can demonstrate they were “adversely affected” can request their final letter grade be converted to pass/fail.

How those varied approaches would affect law firms’ decision-making in hiring new attorneys remains to be seen, but Mr. Blackman was adamant in his assessment.

“Employers will still look at grades,” he said. “They’ll just look at grades minus this one semester.”

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