Law in Contemporary Society

The Role of Grades in Law Firm Hiring

-- By TheodoreSmith - 23 May 2008

Table of Contents


Law school grades are generally understood to be one of the most important factors in associate hiring. Common wisdom links the value of the grade to its capacity to measure the quality of legal work. A cursory examination of law school exams, however, shows that the skills tested have nothing to do with the ability to turn out the work of an associate lawyer. Looking harder at the purpose of grades in hiring, we find that, to the degree that they play a substantive role, they likely measure adaptability and the ability to conform to a set of externally imposed institutional motivations. Moreover, the firms’ use of the grade system as a hiring metric creates the very external goal structure that the student is being tested on conforming to. Grades not only identify students that can be motivated by grades, but at the same time provide a tool to motivate and retain these individuals.

What does a grade represent?

Quality of work is the characteristic most popularly linked to grade performance; however, it is difficult to make a case for law school grades reflecting facility with the skills that associate work requires. First year grades, and the majority of second and third year grades, are based on a short exam at the end of a semester of reading and lectures. Although this exam doubtless tests some degree of aptitude at writing and legal thinking, it is hard to see how a brief snapshot of writing under severe time constraints measures a students ability to prepare legal documents, research, and otherwise perform the duties of an associate lawyer.

If the firm is not looking at grades as a measure of work quality, it is possible that it is using grades as a measure of motivational capacity. To the degree that grades are based on the work put into learning and preparing for the exam, the law school is measuring effort output. In general, the motivation for this effort is going to come either from the student herself, or from external social and institutional pressures. As the exam becomes more stilted and less indicative of actual learning and useful skills (i.e. approaches the four hour in-class exam), the internally motivated students interested in actual learning are likely to perform more and more poorly. The students influenced by external motivations – the students most likely to adapt to and be motivated by the institutional goals of the law firm – are separated from students who are unaffected by the institutional pressures to conform. This substantive explanation of grades matches well with the limited data that exists on the topic. A Michigan Law School study has shown a strong correlation between high grades in law school and law firm retention, but a very small correlation between grades and future earning capacity. Law firms are selecting for students that are insecure or lack strong internal drive: students that can be easily absorbed, motivated, and held by an institution.

The Wheel of Suffering

In addition to providing a way to identify externally motivated individuals, an emphasis on grades provides a way for law firms to use the preexisting grading structure to capture and hold these students as associates. By emphasizing grades as a vital piece of the hiring process, the firm is using the anxiety and insecurity that the school has created through the grading process as a tool to play on the identical weaknesses that the grades are testing. A student who has accepted the law school’s grading system as an indicator of value is likely to jump at an offer by a firm that purports to only hire top GPA students. Students that have “barely made the cut” or who have been turned down and later accepted are even more likely to take the job – allowing the firm to hire associates both insecure about their own worth and overly grateful for the chance to produce work.

This functional purpose of the grade allows us to explain an additional feature of the system’s development. A strong emphasis on grades in law school is essential to create the artificial value metric and conditions of insecurity that the firm uses to capture new associates. Law firms advertise their reliance on the grading system in order to enhance their leverage over new graduates. The schools recognize the purported value of grades in law firm hiring, and, seeking the donations made by large firms and wealthy alumni, increase their emphasis on grades in an attempt to gain more influence. This increased focus on grades within the school creates more anxiety among the students, which increases their willingness to rely on grades as a rational value metric and sell their futures to the firm. The cycle persists as a feedback loop - law schools and firms interacting to produce an ever stronger emphasis on grades, and placing the student in a position of increasing anxiety as the external signals echo and grow.

Conclusion: But Do Grades Matter?

Although the above analysis may provide a plausible explanation of the use of grades in firm practice, it is important not to overstate their significance. As increasingly institutional law firms outgrow personal recommendations and old-boy networking, grades may simply provide the bureaucratic intermediaries in charge of candidate selection a quantifiable, chartable, and defensible metric to measure and validate their own performance. Indeed, it seems inconceivable that a firm would miss its hiring target simply because it could not find students to meet a grade cutoff. While grades are likely to have some substantive meaning to the firm, and while they probably serve a functional purpose in attracting and retaining associates, it is important to note that these characteristics are largely a result of the role of grades in the hiring cycle itself. The actual value of the grade is not a fundamental, or even largely significant, factor in the overall purpose of the firm hiring process: to acquire and hold associates able to produce a standard product at a fraction of their billing cost.


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r9 - 21 Jan 2009 - 22:52:53 - IanSullivan
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