In support of the strict C: a year later

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Nov 12, 2011 in Randomness | Subscribe

Waaayyyyy back during the halcyon days following 1L year, I wrote this entry explaining why I supported the “strict C” curve we use at the North Carolina Central University School of Law. “Setting the middle grade in the middle of the grading scale,” I wrote back then, “provides law professors with a full range of options to give you — and gives you the student a full range of feedback so you know where you’re weak and need to improve.”

In the subsequent comments I expanded on that theme a smidge more, but basically my philosophy on the curve was/is this: we’re attending law school to become proficient in the law (not simply to become employed as lawyers), grades are the best opportunity for professors to give feedback to students on where they’re strong or weak, and anything short of what we use at NCCU Law encourages “innovation”/inflation in grading to the point where that feedback becomes functionally useless.

Nothing I’ve seen or experienced in the 17 months since writing that post has prompted me to change my mind or otherwise reconsider my position.

Well now the faculty are contemplating some tweaks to the curve — whether or not to explicitly codify it in a new publicly-distributed document and, if so, whether to inflate where it’s centered — and I’m in a bit of a pickle as SBA President as a result. Literally 100% of the classmates I’ve spoken to about the issue over the past 2 years have expressed unconditional hostility toward our grading system…

…and I still think they’re all wrong :beatup:

The main argument given to me is that inflating the curve will make our people more competitive in the job market, especially with bigger employers who don’t bother to read the paragraph of text atop our transcripts explaining we use a C curve.

It’s an understandable theory, but (to the extent people pay attention to rankings or “brand name”) we’re still a regional Tier IV law school that simply cannot expand much beyond where we are without spending a ridiculous amount of money. Consider: Campbell Law‘s tuition and fees ($33,910.00) are downright obscene compared to what NCCU Law charges ($5,207.49) and they’ve only just now broken from Tier IV to the very bottom of Tier III — still only regional in reach, with graduates still facing the same challenges as us Legal Eagles if they try to venture beyond the borders of North Carolina.

Then there’s my personal suspicion that NCCU Law just plain doesn’t tell it’s story very well. Judging by the search queries and the emails I get, apparently law:/dev/null is one of the main sources of information for prospective students looking to attend the institution. Now as much as I love (love love love) the attention and visitors, it’s downright crazy that a one-man blawg can have any marketing reach at all relative to an established law school with decades of alumni. If you’re concerned about employability of the portion of our graduates going to other states, let’s get our branding and outreach up to par before we start tinkering with the grading system.

While the potential benefits to re-centering the curve are hypothetical at best, I’d argue the things we lose as a result are far more concrete.

The family atmosphere at the law school (see #4 on why NCCU Law was my first choice) is rooted on the shared experience of trying to overcome such a gruesome curve; being one of the survivors of 1L year is A Big Dealâ„¢. And our graduates are practice-ready on Day 1 because we don’t sugarcoat incompetence — if you do something poorly, the curve let’s you know you do something poorly. I can’t help but feel a little nauseous every time I hear Jack Boger (Dean at UNCCH Law) talk about all the “innovative” things they’re doing to make UNCCH Law grads practice-ready — stuff NCCU Law has been doing literally for years through our clinical programs, rigorous grading, and willingness to kick out people who come up short.

Is it worth sacrificing our identity as a no-bullsh*t law school just for a boost to some folks’ GPAs? Sacrificing graduates who are practice-ready on Day 1? Sacrificing the “we’re in this together” mentality?

Personally I vote no.

I know I’ve got a roughly 0% chance of convincing my colleagues to concur though, so I’ll just have to grab a bag of popcorn and see what happens next :beatup:

Good night folks! :)

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Nov 13, 2011 at 10:41 AM

Did you use your fingers to count the months between when that post was written and now? ;)

I didn’t realize Campbell had broken into Tier III. You’re right, though- there’s no way paying nearly 5x more is worth the difference between a III and IV. But where does UNCCH factor in? Aren’t they Tier II or something? And their tuition isn’t as bad as UNCCH, so there’s a bit of an extreme in your analogy, although I suppose you could’ve compared our tuition to that of CSoL in my QC hometown. (LOL wtf NCCU is “Tier II” here: …they must have us confused.)

“…being one of the survivors of 1L year is A Big Dealâ„¢” Yeah, and unfortunately, no one outside of the Family really understands that. Folks just assume, once you’re accepted to law school, you’ll start practicing in three years.

Nov 13, 2011 at 3:10 PM

I see where you’re coming from, but I think NCCU’s curve just compounds the reputation problem rather than distinguishes the school. For most jobs, you have to submit a resume (which have your law school and GPA on them). Those are the two biggest factors in deciding initial eligibility for employment. There are hundreds to thousands of applicants for every legal position that opens. The initial “in or out” cuts are made with, on average, less than 1 minute’s review of your resume and qualifications. (And although you’ve worked hard for your connections and networking, many of your classmates do not have that to help them get a job.) There are plenty of jobs for which having NCCU on your resume instead of UNC-CH substantially hurts your prospects, and many jobs have formal GPA cutoffs (or informal GPA cutoffs due to the size/quality of the applicant pool).

People don’t read the paragraph on the top of your transcript. They read your resume. In a quick scan. And unless you’ve got a paragraph on there explaining NCCU’s grading philosophy (which I don’t recommend), it doesn’t matter how eloquently it’s explained on the NCCU website or the transcript. And no amount of marketing, “branding”, or outreach is going to do anything about the general popular perception that GPAs of less than 3.0 suck.

Also, totally disagree with you re: the purpose of law school. It is not to learn the law. If you are memorizing statutes and elements, then there’s a major problem with pedagogy there.

(And as a side note, I’d also contend that the “yeah, but we’re totally ‘practice-ready’!” is much more marketing/branding than substantive differences in graduates’ readiness to practice law. Particularly because “practicing” law means lots of different things and very different skills depending on your area of “practice”. Can I defend a speeding ticket? I don’t think it’d be too tough to figure it out, but I’m not ‘practice-ready’ for that because that’s not what I do. Can I meet with clients from one of the biggest companies in the world and contribute meaningfully to discussion in a two-day meeting? Done and done. Am I practice-ready to do structured finance gobbledygook? Oh hell no.)

Nov 20, 2011 at 3:42 PM

I think whether or not the “practice-ready” moniker is mere marketing depends on the view of the purpose of law school — if it’s just to get a job, then sure it’s nothing more than a gimmick. On the other hand, if it’s to ensure some basic minimal level of legal competence than I think there’s a substantive difference in declaring someone “practice-ready”. See, e.g., this piece from the New York Times yesterday:

You also did a little switcharoo with your commentary: “learn[ing] the law” and “memorizing statutes and elements”, to me at least, are two very different things ;)

To the first paragraph, does having NCCU instead of UNCCH “hurt” one’s prospects, or does it simply not help as much as the UNCCH name? Maybe I’m just being pedantic but I think the answer to that question matters — if people hear “NCCU Law” and think “sh*tty lawyer” then that’s a problem, but if they hear “NCCU Law” and don’t think anything at all (because they just don’t know about the school) then that’s basically blue-sky territory for better branding/outreach, independent of the curve.

There are ~200ish law schools in the country, and simply by virtue of math at least half of them will be in the bottom two tiers. If people simply don’t know about a T3/T4 school, I don’t see much value in those schools inflating their GPAs just for the sake of “competitiveness” — the nature of their position in the USN&WR pecking order decrees they’ll need to either establish a regional profile or some other nontraditional way of getting the bulk of their graduates employed anyway (preparing them to hang out a shingle, funnel them to a certain type of LLM, etc).

Nov 20, 2011 at 3:44 PM

@Molly: yeah the Tier II thing made me lol, someone actually had that as a search query back during the summer :)

UNCCH Law is now Tier I and their tuition is roughly 2x ours, but they also benefit from being around much longer and being affiliated with a “public Ivy” undergrad institution

Nov 22, 2011 at 8:38 PM

The part you’re missing out on is that *even if* people don’t see “NCCU” and think “shitty lawyer”, most people see “2.5” and think “lazy, dumb or both?”. And if there IS a negative valence to NCCU (or if it’s viewed as an easy school) people see “2.5 at NCCU” and think “dumb and/or lazy lawyer who even got bad grades at an easy school.” That doesn’t help anyone.

And don’t even get me started on that article. Firms just try to claim that first-years can’t practice so they can keep associate salaries at the same level they’ve been for years and cut off a rush to the top. While *collecting* (not just billing) $500-700k per year off the backs of EACH first-year.


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