Closes a Door, Opens a Bottle

Note: This series is fictional.


FROM: Lisa Burns

SUBJECT: Fall 2012 Grades Now Available



Fresh off a resoundingly successful run of Solving Problems, Fenno was strolling to his first bit of Crim when his phone buzzed. In retrospect, you’d say “buzzed ominously,” but come on, that thing goes off about 85 times a day with crucial email dispatches (“Queueing Theory, Salad Bars, and You: A Message From Restaurant Associates”), and besides—three weeks of pass-fail stakes have a way of driving these sorts of things from one’s mind. But anyway. With the full benefit of hindsight, we can now say “buzzed ominously,” because that subject line sent a shiver down Fenno’s spine.


To dispense with the suspense, Fenno’s grades were fine. I mean, they’re not going to be naming any buildings after him in 100 years, but on the whole things could have been a lot worse. The author does not wish to leave that drama hanging over the remainder of the piece. Fenno himself isn’t going to have a chance to check HELIOS until after class, but there’s no reason we can’t get this out in the open now.


The First-Year’s Guide to the Law School’s “Grades” entry contains a subsection on “Getting Your First Results.” Fenno skimmed it while he walked to Austin:

Brace yourself. There are those who will try to talk you down, console you with stories about how Professor So-And-So TOTALLY got an embarrassing grade on an exam one time, and look how that turned out. Do not listen to these people. Like it or not, your 1L grades are pretty much the most important thing that comes out of law school. At most, your 2L grades come into play depending on when you start hunting for your second summer job, but if you’re a properly soulless EIP-type even those don’t matter.

If you’re at this school, there’s a… fairly good chance you’ve been getting good grades for a while. With that comes a better-than-average chance of being terrified of closing off any doors to possible futures: as long as your grades are solid, you can keep pushing off the “my life means this now” day of reckoning. That ends now. A good chunk of your fellow first-years just received confirmation that they’ll never be clerking on the Supreme Court or working for Wachtell. Now, this is fine. Life continues. You will not be thrown out of school. But if you’re part of the set who’s been living each day chasing that awesome sticker that says “Grape Job!” and there’s a little bunch of grapes with a smiley face and when you scratch it it smells like grapes, it’s time to get that soul-searching out of the way. This problem is particularly acute among those affected by Small Pond Syndrome. 

“Small Pond Syndrome” is cross-referenced:

A particular affliction common among small-town, state-school types. These kids come to Harvard from the top of their classes at middle-of-the-road schools, eager to test themselves in the big-leagues. Symptoms include an outwardly indifferent, folksy-charm manner masking an inner fear that they’re not really very smart at all and will be rapidly exposed as frauds leading to expulsion, shame, and ditch-digging. Remedied by an early Low-Pass and an evening with an old friend.


Fenno’s Crim class was one of those cruel, laptop-free affairs, delaying any immediate HELIOS run. (And HELIOS on a phone is the sort of hell only wished on one’s worst enemies.) This left him plenty of time to stew, to craft elaborate contingency plans, to steel himself for what was to come. (Here your narrator is compelled to remind you that everything turns out fine, and no grim fate awaits your protagonist.) A like mood hung over most of the class; you could tell who checked their phones on the way over on the basis of each unfortunate soul’s glazed-nervous look.

Post-class, walk back. Chevy was reclined in the common-room, bag of Haribo and a sixer within reach.

“Whoa there. You in some kind of hurry? Kick back, crack a barley-pop. Maury’s on.”

Fenno relayed the situation in re the unfortunate email and his current mission w/r/t computer access. He expected the characteristically blasé response typical of any Chevy/academics intersect. Instead, solemnity:

“Hmmmm. Yes.”

The first-year retired to his chambers, poured a stiff one, and logged in. Turns out, everything was fine. I mean, they’re not going to be naming any buildings after him, but… Anyway. More important things are afoot: is he the father or not?

“Fenno” is a fictional serial written by an anonymous law student. The main character is always named Fenno and is always a 1L, but his or her character changes every school year. This installation is part of the series for the 2012-13 School Year, entitled “Fenno: Mostly Harmless.”


We Can Handle the Truth (About Grades)

We live submerged in information. Even when we don’t know it, we know how to get it. Anything is a Google search away. Arguments over facts still happen, but at least I, and my smart phone, know how to bring them to a quick and decisive end.

I have had two great frustrations at Harvard Law School. Like many of my classmates, I arrived here last August with a little anxiety, a lot of pride, and overwhelmed awe at my presence at this institution. This was Harvard. I am the first in my family. In my excitement to be here at the best, among the best, I thought that everything would be the best.

My first great frustration was finding that Harvard is a bureaucracy like any other large institution, and like its august companions, it keeps its secrets. Issues that seem to be fundamentally important in an academic environment are obscured. Grades aren’t important, says one professor. You should study hard and not worry about joining too many organizations, says another. No, really, no one cares about grades, say the 2Ls and 3Ls at those organizations I went ahead and joined. Well, unless you want a clerkship, someone else interjects. (What’s a clerkship, and why do grades matter for that but not other things? That’s another tangle, one I have not yet completely unraveled.)

Here I was—1L, part-student, part-detective, fully broke, thoroughly confused—and I asked the most salient question: “So how are exams graded here?”

You already know the answer, or rather how there is no answer. All that is clear is that some portion of the class receives a Pass and a smaller portion receives Honors. The first number is greater than 50 percent and the second is greater than 0 percent. That is all I can say definitively. Apparently, there is another grade called a Low Pass that a small or possibly null set receives. There is an even more mysterious grade called a DS that may be even rarer (or not, depending on which of my guesses about LPs is correct). Someone then tells me that the DS is assigned with names attached to exams. But I thought the system was blind! There is a shrug, a smile, and we both take another drink.

What does this all mean? It means a nontrivial expenditure of mental energy on my part, puzzling over the standard by which I may (or may not, depending on who’s right, see supra) be judged. It means this particular inefficiency of thought, multiplied by 559 similarly-situated inductees.

This brings me to my second great frustration with Harvard Law School. Law students talk about law school. 1Ls obsess over law school grades. All the time. I am guilty. I do not deny that this is unhealthy. I am writing about it now, at length. Last semester, we also talked about it, at length, repetitively, with no resolution. Remember what I said about arguing over facts? This time, the magic Internet could not help us. It was exhausting, and then frustrating. The answers are there, locked in some office not too far away, in the heads of those luminaries we see every day, but they’re not for us to know. Those who know are not allowed to tell us. This school doesn’t want to make us anxious or anything.

Please, put us out of our misery. Law students in grade-anxiety mode must be the most unattractive creatures on Earth. Free us to talk about anything else. All I am asking for is a little transparency: distribution, what is set and what is discretionary, what is blind and what is not. We will soon belong to a profession built upon rules. Can you please tell us the rules before we start the game? It may be too late for this 1L class, but August will come around again and a new batch of us will arrive. If not for us, then for them. Think of the children.

Geng Chen is a 1L. Her column runs every other Tuesday. 

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters.

Fenno and the Ultimate Failure (Part 2 of 8)

Note: This serial is fictional.

Fenno’s heart stopped when he saw it. The “LP” next to “Torts” was tiny, yet it seared him. A thousand thoughts ran through his head, and his tiny dorm room spun. He lay on the floor, wishing it would just swallow him already. He remembered his college friends teased him about becoming president one day. “Good luck with that now,” the positively gleeful voice in his head said. He tried to straighten the room, plot a new path, and count all his blessings, but it didn’t work. All he could see was that LP. That mark that would live with him forever.

And then his computer started dinging. G-Chats flooded the room, “How’d you do?” “Bar Review to celebrate?!” “Yes! H in Crim!” He shut off his computer and climbed under his covers. He reached for his phone, but then he realized there was no one he could call. He couldn’t tell his parents; they had been so proud of him. He couldn’t tell his friends; they would think less of him. So he just sank into his bed, hoping someone would run into the room and tell him everything was going to be alright. But no one did, probably because it wasn’t going to be.

Fenno was awake long before his alarm blared at 8:30 a.m. the next morning. He wondered if he should even go to class or just walk straight off campus and keep on walking until he could find a place to hide and simply disappear. He eventually decided to strategize his day. He would have to walk into class late and leave early to avoid questions from class mates. But maybe that was too obvious. Maybe he could enter class normally but feign a sore throat. He was still contemplating his options while brushing his teeth in the dorm bathroom when Raj walked in.

“Hey, how’d you do?” Raj said.

“Yeah, good, pretty good. You?” Fenno replied, surprised at the stillness in his voice.

“DS’d in Contracts! Can you believe that? I barely went to class. But I’ll take it.” Raj said.

Fenno heard himself congratulating Raj as he slinked away.

“No one has to know,” he thought.

“Fenno” is a fictional serial written by an anonymous law student. The main character is always named Fenno and is always a 1L, but his or her character changes every school year. This installation is part of the series for the 2011 to 2012 School Year entitled “The Uncertain Fenno, 2011 to 2012.”

Of Course Grades Matter, But Who Cares?

Yesterday, the vast majority of the 1L class was disappointed with their grades. Since the 25th percentile of the Class of 2014 had an undergraduate G.P.A. of about 3.8, an overwhelming percentage of current 1Ls were at least at the top 10 percent of their undergraduate class. Therefore, the vast majority of 1Ls, familiar only with stellar undergraduate academic performance, were probably disappointed by their grades, constricted by the infamous semi-mandatory grade curve.

This of course led to feelings of anxiety, self-doubt and mediocrity. For many 1Ls, this was the first time they put forth their best effort and it did not pan out. The legal profession’s heavy emphasis on academic performance during law school during the hiring process makes matters worse.

Law School institutions tried to counter these feelings of inadequacy. The administration tried to downplay the emphasis on grades by exchanging letters at the beginning of the alphabet for those in the middle. Student Government attempted to sooth anxiety by publishing and distributing a series of anecdotes of professors who got one or two poor grades yet still thrived.

But the exception proves the rule. The reason we like these anecdotal stories is that they are out of the norm. Firms, judges and professors use grades for hiring criteria frequently. Faculty Research Assistant listings conspicuously request transcripts. Early Interview Program interviews usually feature an awkward moment where students slide their transcripts across a side table to interviewers, only some of whom have the courtesy to wait until the end of the interview to inspect them.

Nonetheless, below-average or average at Harvard Law School is still a pretty good deal. A prestigious Supreme Court clerkship might be unlikely, and it will be tough to become a tenured professor absent a spectacular publication record. But there are a large number of law firms and other employers that are happy to hire Harvard Law graduates without top grades. The Harvard brand is highly appreciated in both legal and non-legal spheres. The vast majority of the human population would gladly trade places with any one of us with the “first world problem” of low grades from Harvard Law.

Ultimately, grades, of course, matter. Low grades will probably close a few elite doors. Nonetheless, we are all in an extremely fortunate position professionally and socially, and should be happy with our lives regardless of the weight of our transcripts. Friends, family and strangers will not be able to distinguish between a fancy law firm and a relatively middling one. And even if you are completely determined to chase the aforementioned legal brass rings, there is still Spring semester.

The author is an anonymous Harvard Law student.

Before You Feel Anxiety About Your Grades…

Student Government’s Faculty Grades Initiative distributed the following letter primarily to 1Ls (edited for style): 

Before you feel anxiety about your grades, think about the following:

Former Dean Elena Kagan received several B’s during law school, especially her first year. She went on to become the first female dean of Harvard Law School, the U.S. Solicitor General, and the 112th Supreme Court Justice.

Tax Law Professor Daniel Halperin received his worst law school grade in: tax.

Dean of Students Ellen Cosgrove received a Property exam back that had a note from the professor saying “this is exactly what I warned you not to do”—followed by her lowest grade since kindergarten. She went on to work at a top law firm before becoming a dean at Harvard.

At the time Judge Richard Posner hired Professor Robert H. Sitkoff to be his law clerk, Sitkoff had received his lowest grade in law school in Law and Economics, which had been taught by Posner. Thereafter, he had one grade that was worse, in Legal Ethics. He graduated law school with High Honors.

Professor Joseph Singer earned a B- in Property. After graduating, he clerked, worked at a law firm, and has written one of the leading casebooks and treatises on—wait for it—Property. He has also authored two theoretical books on property and teaches Property courses at Harvard.

Professor Jeannie Suk received her worst grade in law school—and ever—in Criminal Law. She went on to practice and research in criminal law. No employer has ever asked about her grade, and her Criminal Law professor has remained a powerful mentor and reference for her throughout her career. “I care much more about students’ preparation and performance in a course throughout a long semester than about performance on one timed exam taken on one day,” she said.

Professor Frank Michelman’s worst law school grade was a C+ in Property. He has written and published repeatedly in the field and has taught Property courses at Harvard for over 40 years.

Professor Jim Greiner received his worst grade on the exam he felt best about after finishing. And he nonetheless was retained as a research assistant for the course’s professor.

Professor Hal Scott got a D in Constitutional Law. “We do some of that here,” Justice Byron White told Scott when he went for a clerkship interview. Scott nonetheless was selected to serve as one of Justice White’s few Supreme Court law clerks.

Professor Daniel Meltzer’s father was a law professor who taught Labor Law. His lowest grade in law school was in Labor Law. His Labor Law professor later said to him, “I thought you might have done better, so I re-read your exam and it was every bit as bad as I thought it was the first time.”

Professor Mark Ramseyer received a B on an exam at Harvard Law School and went into the professor’s office to complain. On the professor’s desk was a plaque that guided his grading: he reserved B’s for “excellent, perceptive exams.” The professor told Ramseyer he had gotten a B because he “wrote an excellent exam.”

In the second semester of his two-semester Contracts course, Professor John Goldberg earned himself a B-. The next year, his former Contracts professor hired him as a T.A. to help 1Ls with the class. Years later, as a Vanderbilt professor, Goldberg was awarded a teaching prize for teaching … Contracts.

Professor Mark Barnes received a Pass on his Trust and Estates exam while a friend whom he tutored received Honors. Upon review of their exams, Barnes realized that his friend had given the obvious answers while he had read nuances into the questions that were not intended. He learned two important lessons: one, when you hear hoof beats, think horses first, and not zebras and, two, the line between “Honors” and “Pass” is blurred.

Professor Einer Elhauge said“I know a guy who got mainly C’s his first year at Harvard Law. He went on to become general counsel of a major federal agency, leading lawyer in his field, and author of the leading casebook in his field. It is much more about the passion you have for your field than anything.”

Dean Martha Minow’s sister’s law school grades were so troubling during her first year that she never picked up her grades after that. Last year, she was honored as a distinguished alum for her professional accomplishments, and no one even thought of her grades.

Professor Gerald Neuman’s first semester grades were quite mediocre and his Criminal Law professor, Charles Nesson, told Neuman that he didn’t know how to take a law school exam. Neuman spent time with Nesson learning how to take exams and revising his approach. Neuman went on to graduate first in his class at Harvard Law, though no one asked about his grades when he ran for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Be well,

Your Harvard Law School Student Government

Fenno and The Prophecy (Part 1 of 8)

Note: This serial is fictional

“You will all fail on January 26.” The words had appeared mysteriously on the white board beside Fenno’s room in Ames dormitory. When Fenno saw it this morning, still groggy from sleep, that terrible knot that had occupied his stomach since the end of finals stirred and tightened. Just as he was about to erase the awful prophecy, Raj walked by, read it aloud, and shrugged. “I think that message is for you, Raj,” Fenno said, jokingly, but a horrible voice in his head whispered in reply, “No, it’s for you, Fenno.”

He tried to brush the thought away, but it stayed with him all day, through the drone of another day of Problem Solving Workshop and through the sloppy group meeting following it. That night, at Cambridge Common, he sat with his section mates and played a game they had been playing every night since finals had ended: Who’s Getting an LP?

“Jessica.” He heard himself say, “She was late to like every class. She never knows what the fuck she’s talking about. And she wasn’t in a study group.”

His friends debated his claim, like they did every night. But even though Fenno thought he had downed enough beer to dull the voice, he heard it again, louder than before. “Fenno. He had a panic attack when he saw the last fact finder in Torts. He was six hundred words under the word limit. And he went to a state school.”

“Fenno” is a fictional serial written by an anonymous law student. The main character is always named Fenno and is always a 1L, but his or her character changes every school year. This installation is part of the series for the 2011 to 2012 School Year entitled “The Uncertain Fenno, 2011 to 2012.”