The increasing irrelevance of grades, and what it might mean for women law students.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook

Both the percentage and actual number of enrolled women students has been dropping at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and at a number of other law schools I am aware of. Part of the explanation is that due to the US News rankings criteria, many admissions committees are increasingly emphasizing the LSAT scores over undergraduate grades and life accomplishments as admissions criteria. On average men in many applicant pools outperform women on the LSAT, while women (much more dramatically) outperform men on G.P.A.s and other achievement measures. So the declining importance of grades hurts women. And though there is a widespread belief that efforts by the University of Michigan and Georgetown to discourage high G.P.A. students from taking the LSAT at all is aimed at nefariously gaming the rankings (see also), there may be a real benefit to high achieving women with this approach.

One way to fight over reliance on the LSAT would be to gather data that demonstrates that grades, if weighted by the competitiveness of the undergraduate institutions where they are earned, are a better predictor of law school success in a particular law school than the LSAT. If that is demonstrably the case, law schools that use the less valid predictor to disproportionately admit men would be vulnerable to gender discrimination allegations.

But to make that claim, one needs to be able to compare undergraduate grades to law school grades, and if other law schools follow the examples of Yale, Stanford and Harvard, there won’t be as much information to work with there. In fact, if professors are able to give as many “high passes” as they want, grades at those law schools won’t mean anything at all.

It’s fairly well know throughout legal education that (unlike at most law schools) any YLS student who wants to be “on” the Yale Law Journal can do so. INCORRECT FOR CURRENT YLJ BOARD, SEE COMMENTS FOR CORRECT INFORMATION.

High grades are not required to join the Yale Law Journal. I assume this is or soon will be true for the Stanford and Harvard law reviews as well. Will this mean that more, or fewer, women will participate on these journals? Will anyone even bother to keep track? And I wonder what the effect will be on women law students ability to secure jobs and clerkships. I hope these law schools keep track of such things, and disclose the data. That would be a welcome change for sure.

–Ann Bartow

This entry was posted in Academia, Law Schools, The Underrepresentation of Women. Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to The increasing irrelevance of grades, and what it might mean for women law students.

  1. historiann says:

    Ann, this is a disturbing idea. Grades are effective predictors of who works hard (and who doesn’t). As someone who teaches undergraduates as well as has served as the Grad Studies Chair of her department, I have observed that 1) college women get better grades than college men because they follow directions, listen, go to class, and do their homework much more faithfully, and 2) people with higher GPAs may not be any brighter than those with lower GPAs, but their undergraduate GPAs accurately predict how hard they work in grad school. (I would assume it would be the same in law school too, but take it FWIW from someone who has worked with M.A. students over the past 7 years.)

    Downplaying GPAs in favor of board scores would not only disadvantage women, but it would also damage the institution authorizing such a change. Do we want students who take their studies seriously or not? Then again, plenty of damage has been done in the name of maintaining male superiority throughout history–why shouldn’t the feminization of hard academic work suggest to some institutions that they need to question the value they’ve previously assigned to that work? Seems stupid and self-defeating to me, but then I guess I just don’t value patriarchy over all other “values.”

  2. aleve says:

    Just as a point of clarification, it’s not true that “any YLS student who wants to be”on”the Yale Law Journal can do so.” While all of the ‘secondary’ journals at the school are open to everyone, the YLJ does select students for participation – on the basis of a BlueBook exam, and then, a writing competition – similar to other schools [but you are correct that grades are not a part of the section criteria].

  3. Ann Bartow says:

    Aleve, I checked with a number of people and they all confirmed that the number of YLS students who try out for the Yale Law Journal but are turned away is zero or pretty close to zero. You may require an “exam” and/or competition, but isn’t it that everybody or just about everybody passes or “wins” and qualifies for membership? How many graduates of a typcal YLS graduation class do NOT participate in, at some point, at some level, in the Yale Law Journal? I’d bat that number is very small. Any stats to offer?

  4. Ann Bartow says:

    Historiann, this isn’t an idea, it is reality. Our student body is only 40% women and the reason for this is directly linked to our over emphasis on the LSAT for admissions, which is driven by US News rankings. Meanwhile, the G.P.A.s of our enrolled women students are much higher than the men, so I have to assume we turn away a lot of women with high G.P.A.s but lower LSAT scores. And I know we are not alone in this, not even close.

  5. JR says:

    Professor Bartow,

    I want to amplify what ‘aleve’ said. The competition to get on the Yale Law Journal is pretty tough and I have several friends who tried out and didn’t make it. I graduated a couple of years ago and I know multiple people who didn’t make it in the classes above me and below me as well. (And it’s not like I did a complete survey of the class.)

    It’s true that a large majority of people who apply, get it. But if whoever you talked to thought that “everyone” gets to be on the journal, their information is just demonstrably incorrect.

    The main part of the test is the “bluebook exam,” a timed test about proper citation formats. Most people taking this test just devote a day or two to studying for it. If you REALLY want to be on the journal, you can seriously ramp up your preparation for this test (and the other components), and probably increase your chances. But some people just aren’t good at this kind of odd, random skill of getting citations into proper format. Those people don’t get to be on the YLJ, for better or worse.

    BTW, I think it’s a good thing, on balance, that the YLJ’s competition isn’t about grades, since that makes it into less of an ‘honor society’ and more of a voluntary activity filled with people who have decided they want to do it. (That’s why not everyone applies — some people have other activities they’d rather spend their time doing!)

    On your broader point, I strongly agree with you that law schools should pay more attention to GPAs, and less to LSATs, and that this trend in the other direction is disheartening.

  6. Ann Bartow says:

    JR, if “a large majority of people who apply, get it” then the competition to get on the Yale Law Journal is NOT pretty tough. Just the opposite.

    I talked with a number of people who would surely know, and they all agreed that between the bluebook exam and the writing competition (a second way to get on the Yale Journal staff) any motivated person can succeed, and almost everyone does, in joining the Yale Law Journal.

    It may be true some people do not participate due to lack of interest, but the number actively turned down and denied membership their entire time at YLS is reported as very close to negligible by people who, unlike you, actually know what the numbers are.

  7. Ann Bartow says:

    Just look at the size of the October masthead:

    The Yale Law Journal has more student editors than the Harvard Law Review, and Harvard Law has more than three times as many students enrolled.

  8. It’s also interesting that law schools are moving in the opposite direction from many undergraduate institutions that have abandoned the use of standardized testing in their admissions process. A group of more than 100 college presidents and deans met a few weeks ago to discuss new admissions plans that do not utilize standardized tests as a criteria. I wonder if any law school will be bold enough to do what these colleges are doing, and admit the limited usefulness of standardized testing in admissions. Perhaps it will be a school like Michigan or Georgetown that doesn’t have to depend on US News to keep up its reputation.

  9. law_prof says:

    I believe that the “admissions” policy of the Yale Law Journal varies every year. In the early 1990s, for example, the journal was non-competitive, by design, the year before I was on it, medium competitive (as I recall, about 2/3ds of the folks who wanted to do it got on) the year I joined, and quite a bit more competitive than that the year after. And unlike on the Harvard Law Review, where such decisions are hotly debated in open meeting by the entire membership, at Yale, I think they were made by a limited group of committee members. So one year’s membership may not even know that things are quite different from the prior year, though of course the people in charge of the process know.

  10. Ann Bartow says:

    At present, as part of the fiendish plot by YLS to take over ever law faculty slot in the United States (yes I’m joking, but as Homer Simpson says, it’s funny because it is true), journal membership seems to be pretty noncompetitive again, so that this credential is very widely available.

  11. Ann Bartow says:

    Enough with the abusive anonymous comments. If someone at Yale wants to go on the record about this under her own name, fine. No more anonymous comments will be allowed through moderation, however.

    NB: Clarification: I don’t consider any of the above comments abusive, those I do I have not allowed through moderation.

  12. Ann Bartow says:

    Dear Professor Bartow,

    I read your post with interest about law school grading policies and the YLJ admissions procedure. I write because your statement that “any YLS student who wants to be ‘on’ the Yale Law Journal can do so,” is inaccurate. As identified by one of your readers, the Journal has a two-step admissions policy. First, students must pass a five-hour Bluebook test. Any student who scores 75% or higher on that test proceeds to the second step: the writing component. From the pool of students that received passing scores on the Bluebook test, we select our first-year editors based upon their writing components.

    Specifically, you write that “the number of YLS students who try out for the Yale Law Journal but are turned away is zero or pretty close to zero.” You also note that “the number actively turned down and denied membership their entire time at YLS is reported as very close to negligible by people who, unlike [the above commenter], actually know what the numbers are.” These statements are inaccurate. Last year approximately 110 students participated in the the admissions process, and 60 were offered positions as editors. Two other students gained admission by having their Note published by the Journal, and two transfer students gained admission through our transfer student admissions process, which closely parallels the regular admissions process.

    All the best,
    Anthony Vitarelli
    Editor-in-Chief, Volume 118
    Yale Law Journal

    *Published with permission of the author.

  13. Ann Bartow says:

    Apologies for my errors.

  14. Ann Bartow says:

    Still getting a lot of attempted comments about this, from a variety of perspectives. If you are not willing to have your name associated with your comment, I’m not posting it. Sorry, but I already regret accepting information from people who were not willing to go “on record.” I respect Anthony Vitarellli a lot for submitting his comment above, and anyone who wants to add to the conversation at this point needs to be willing to stand by their remarks personally.