Volume 1, Issue 2 (Originally Published 5 March 2012)
MARKS, grades, GPAs - whatever name we call them- are never far from the collective JD conscious. By their nature, law schools are competitive places filled with ambitious high achievers. That’s why it’s a stimulating place to be, as well as place to forge real friendships based on shared intellectual passions and respect.
I never worried much about marks until I came to Melbourne Law School. One reason for this was that, after years of professional life, I knew the importance of personal qualities in an office environment.
People know little and care less about the difference between H2B and H2A but punctuality, adaptability, emotional intelligence and trustworthiness (to name just a few) are considered indispensable. Moreover, as a serial collector of postgraduate qualifications, I knew that I love learning and thrive in a learning environment.
Then came the first semester marks, and, worse, the second semester’s. I, for one, found it hard to get motivated going into a new school year with the knowledge that I would be burning the candle at both ends just to pass my subjects. The work and the reward seemed out of sync with each other.
The experience also contrasts with what I know of graduate schools in the USA. Having earned a master’s from an Ivy League school, whenever anyone at MLS has given me a compliment about the supposed difficulty of that degree, I am quick to point out: “It wasn’t as hard as law at Melbourne!” The unfortunate fact, perhaps known more in the US than here, is that grade inflation is rampant in the States, linked inextricably to the astronomical cost of education.
This even applies at prestigious law schools, as I learned at Christmas, when chatting with a friend who teaches the JD at Georgetown University.
She told me that Georgetown doesn’t fail anyone because they want the student’s money. From her point of view, this is demoralising as it makes a travesty of higher education. If people who should fail get a C, there is an inflationary effect on every mark.
I know from my own experience at Wharton that, unless you mess up spectacularly, you’ll get an A or a B. Perhaps a B- if you’re a really lousy student.
In this context, Yale Law’s first year grading policy makes sense. The first semester is grade-free. Afterwards, it’s ‘honors’ or ‘pass’, and theoretically ‘fail’ as well, though this is very rare.
One student there blogs: ‘[I]t allows one to ease gently into the work of the law, establish relationships with classmates and professors free from the pressure of grade-induced competition, and direct energy to projects outside the classroom.
‘Each of these ... made the first few months of law school among the most engaging and enjoyable of my life.
‘This lack of grades is a life- long gift. It allowed me to construct my identity in law in terms more meaningful to me than grades.’
The context in Australia is very different. Yet I can’t help pondering the pros and cons of the Yale approach.