New Harvard Law Grading Policies Emerge as Students Head to Interviews

BY SEVERIN RANDALL

The Harvard Law School administration quietly made changes at the start of the academic year to the grading policy and calculation of Latin Honors. The only public mention appeared in the Handbook of Academic Policies for 2010-11, which was emailed to students on August 27, 2010 – the last day of the Early Interview Program.

“Students were informed the same way that they were informed about everything,'” Dean Martha Minow said. The grade changes were passed on the condition that that may be revised by the faculty over the academic year with updates included in the Handbook, she explained. “We’ve concluded that the only way to be sure that we can be clear about what are the governing rules of the school is to say they’re in the Handbook, and you’re responsible for knowing what’s in the Handbook.”

There are three main changes to the law school’s grading scheme. The recommended grade distribution for large classes, which was published last year for the first time in the law school’s history, will no longer be publicly available. It will only be disclosed by the administration to faculty. Second, the Handbook previously allowed up to two Dean’s Scholar Prizes to be awarded per class. It no longer contains any recommendation for how many should be awarded. Finally, but perhaps most importantly for students heading to interviews, the Law School has adopted a new grade point average formula for calculating Latin Honors that more closely resembles a traditional 4.0 GPA scale. It awards a student five points for each Dean’s Scholar Prize credit, four for each Honors credit, three for per Pass credit, two for a Low Pass credit, and zero for a Failing grade. Last year’s system assigned no direct point value to each credit, but calculated honors based on the difference between the number of Low Pass and Honors credits a student received divided by her total number of graded credits in a year. Dean’s Scholar Prizes then only factored in as rare tie-breakers.

There was “zero” truth, Minow said, to speculation that employers had demanded the new calculation method. Instead, a working team, comprised of the faculty, administrators and staff that developed the Pass-Fail system, made the new tweaks to the system.

The team’s analyses showed that last year’s formula and this year’s formula reached similar results, but that the new five-point scale would be easier to administer, Minow said. However, she said she did not know why the Dean’s Scholar Prizes are now worth an entire point more than the Honors grade.

“I didn’t develop the system,” she said. “The people who developed the system figured out the best way. Again, they compared what they used in the past with several different alternatives. This seemed to match what the results had been in the past but was easier to administer.”

As for the grade distribution, Howell Jackson, while acting as interim dean, decided to publicize a curve for the first time in school history. Last year, the recommended grade distribution for large classes was designed to have 37 percent of the class receive Honors, 55 percent receive Passes, and eight percent receive Low Passes or Failing grades.

“When I became dean, we went back to the longstanding tradition of no published

curve. We found it more successful,” said Minow, as the general response from faculty, alumni, and students was that the published curve actually focused attention on grades.

Minow said the handbook statement on Dean’s Scholar Prizes was altered because faculty members simply were not giving out the award. “The [new] written description of the option is intended to say, ‘We mean this to be given. It’s not just once in a blue moon. We mean to recognize extraordinary work,'” she said.

That may mean more Dean’s Scholar Prizes for students in the future, but some have expressed concern that the new GPA formula will be used by employers during the current hiring process or that they will be asked about their GPA during interviews.

Students won’t be told what their GPAs are, said Minow. She said students should use their time to pursue unique opportunities at the Law School instead of worrying about grades and trying to calculate their GPAs.

Still, the new GPA calculation method appears on the reverse side of official transcripts.

Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean for public service, said students should not be concerned about any changes with regards to public interest employers because they do not have GPA cut-offs and tend to consider GPA as just one factor among several. She also noted that she “would tell students to say there was no class ranking” if asked by an employer, advice she already gives to students applying to the Department of Justice.

Mark Weber, the assistant dean for career services, said students should not be concerned about grades at callback interviews for law firms. Harvard Law students are successful in the job search process regardless of what grading system is being used, he said. By the time a student gets to a callback interview, law firms have already expressed interest, and the focus should be on students selling themselves and what they bring to the table, not their grades.

“What is frustrating for me is that we are spending more time talking about something we all shouldn’t be because I know how the story is going to end,” he said. Weber said he doesn’t want students’ preoccupation with grades to overshadow what should be a “fantastic” experience.

But students in the midst of interviewing for law firms and clerkships are confused by the changes and surprised that the administration did not explicitly notify students in a separate e-mail about the new policies.

“Does [the GPA calculation change] apply to last year’s grades or just prospectively?” wondered 2L Breanne Gilpatrick.

Jenny Lee, a 3L, said rumors and confusion about the new policies just lead to more student stress.

“It is inscrutable to me why [the release of the changes during EIP] seemed to be good timing,” she said.

Minow said there were no plans to have a town meeting with students to discuss the changes, as Dean Elena Kagan did to discuss the Pass-Fail grading system in October 2008. Minow views this as an administrative adjustment to the larger policy change to move to the new grading system.

“Wouldn’t it rather diverge from the whole point,” she asked, “to then say, ‘Oh, now we need to have a meeting with the students every time we have a tiny administrative adjustment with the grading system,’ which was designed to make sure you don’t spend too much time spending your attention on grades?”

Jennifer Dein, the Harvard Law School Student Government President, said the student government was not informed about the decision-making process that led to the changes, but representatives from student government are writing to Minow to discuss concerns about the changes.

“The overall gripe [from students] is, ‘But I thought we got rid of grades,'” Dein said.

Dein said the new formula for calculating GPAs worried her.

“It’s not really supposed to be that an A is a Dean’s Scholars, so it really decreases the success of what a P is. The main idea of changing to the new system was that most people are getting Ps with a sprinkling of Hs, and this kind of defeats the purpose,” she said. “It’s making it easy for employers to see a P as a C.”

Dein said she does not think the administration intended the grading policy change to be secretive.

“My impression is that someone didn’t think the changes were a big deal,” she said. 

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