Law in Contemporary Society

Thinking on the curve

-- NicoleMorote - 06 May 2023

The logic behind law school exams has been bothering me for the past few days, and I wanted to see if anyone might be feeling the same way.

I had my first exam of the semester yesterday - it was a tough one by all accounts, even relative to others my section has taken; I was satisfied with my preparation, but my planning wasn't the best: I ran out of time. Since then, my friends and I have been commiserating nonstop about how difficult it was; feeling time pressures on the exam doesn't seem to have been a unique experience. There's a sense of camaraderie in the communal struggle; commiserating about the time pressures and the intricacies of the exam feels, as a student in my 18th "grade" of education, to be nothing new.

What's really been frustrating me is in how much instinct there seems to be in reveling in that others, too, feel shaky about their performance on the exam. I have to persuade myself not to feel relieved - maybe encouraged - that others, too, are beating themselves up. Maybe if everyone feels demoralized, I can feel good, right?

But it's a real shame to have that instinct - and I think the curve is largely to blame.

The mandatory curve on which 1L classes are graded means that, if I struggled on the exam and everyone else said it wasn't so bad, their success would actively make it harder - maybe impossible - for me to do well. The incentives to hope that others do poorly are baked into the cake. Referring to it as pressures catalyzed by "the curve" honestly starts to feel like a euphemism the more you do it; it is a requirement that, at least as measured by gradees, only so many of us can do well.

And it seems like we're mostly on the same page about that exam grades are largely arbitrary; that they are in no way reflective of our intelligence; that they are little more than one of the legal fictions we subscribe to, to keep the system chugging along in all its imperfection, instead of meaningfully examining it and daring to create something better. The existence of a mandatory curve would seem to suggest some awareness of the fictitiousness of forcing every class, across every year, along a narrow subset of "preapproved grade distributions." Surely, even the decision-makers who impose the curve would admit that a B+ student by one metric could have just as easily been an A- student in a different class, or with a different professor, or if they'd enrolled one year prior.

And yet, some employers will require us to be in the top half of the class, or note their requirement of a 3.5+ GPA (including the Federal Reserve Board, if you're curious). Alternatively, they may not say it out loud, but leave it open to interpretation in data like their "offers by honors" percentage.

The system creates unnecessary hostility. It creates a widespread reluctance about sharing resources; if everyone gets one very good and comprehensive outline, maybe no one benefits from it. If everyone uses it, maybe it just marginally improves answers across the board - and the curve remains the curve, and you must do more for the same result. It creates understandable sensitivity and hurt feelings from the frenzied answers-comparing that happens with your friends, or with the person next to you demanding to know whether you also applied strict scrutiny to hypothetical number five.

Certainly, other forces feed into this: our already-existing neuroses are hardly blameless. But what truly prevents us building a culture where we collaborate meaningfully - and root for each other's successes meaningfully - is the curve.

On a personal level, I've been trying to combat this feeling by focusing on what law school ideeally might focus on. I really have learned so much over the past nine months; it's unreal to think of how far we've all come since starting our first classes. Concepts that at once felt impossible to understand are now in my lexicon - maybe with some uncertainty - but it's something, and it wasn't there before. I don't just mean the cases and the facts and the little flowcharts that explain what is and isn't a defeasible fee; in fact, I'm not referring to those things at all.

If anything, I mean skills it sometimes feels like we picked up by accident. I'm talking about the training in understanding the real-world consequences and the human impacts of the lofty academic theories; the nights staring at the "facts" in the criminal law textbook and knowing that, for all we know, the truth is far from what became crystallized in the law; the Googling "Kelo New London aftermath" and learning about the terrible consequences of what the doctrine often sanitizes. This may not have been its intended effect, but law school has kept me in practice to tuning in to questioning the way things are. This is what I find some solace in, as we slog through another finals season - and I hope that we can all find some comfort in the amount we've grown.

Nicole — I've been having the same thoughts too. This year, I have constantly questioned myself and wondered what had happened to the intellectual curiosity that I had for my undergraduate studies, where I would actively think about real-world consequences and try to make connections about what I was reading, even if it were a text from over 2,000 years ago, to the institutions and structures around me. The emphasis on the curve has occupied so much of my mental space where the curiosity of my brain has been hardwired to only think in terms of rubrics and what comments could get me points on the final. Your post reminds me of Eben's last words to us about being creative in law school and our career — the school and Big Law's continuous promotion of the curve has actively discouraged creativity, and I can see it in my own approach to my studies. There is a cruel irony in how law school draws so many academically fascinated and thoughtful individuals, yet is structured in a manner which does not reward thoughtfulness. With this realization, I'm hoping that we can carve out our own paths away from the traditional pressures and structures of law school and find space to exercise the creativity which we entered law school with. - Gillian

Hi Nicole! Really enjoyed reading this, once I saw an essay on the curve here I wanted to take a look. For context, my biggest project in undergrad was working with the dean of my program and some senior professors to discuss changes in the grading policy. I took it on because I was surprised by the subliminal hostility that the one used when I first arrived at college brought about. Part of the problem, at least to me, seems to be that virtually everyone in the room both there and here is used to achieving at the highest level, and anything less often results in shock, disappointment, and self-doubt. I certainly saw this among peers in college, when people internalized that, no matter how much we learned, most of us would not "do well," at least not at the level we were all accustomed to. The solution I proposed at the time was that the grades awarded would either be those required by the curve, or those brought about by a more traditional 94% or higher: A, 90-93.9: A-, etc. system, whichever is higher. That way, there is no de-facto punishment for collaboration and excelling as a class, as, saddeningly, collaborative behavior is negatively incentivized under a strictly curved system. As discussed in class, academic incentives are incredibly effective motivators. While our classes here do not lend themselves to a similar system, as a grade of 94% on a law exam is almost unheard of, I would be interested in arguments for other grading systems considered here. I found parts of the project in college frustrating at times, and feel that law school is even more stuck in its ways than my undergraduate program, but feel there has to be a system better than this one that seems to disincentivize collaboration. While I have found people here to be generally friendly and willing to help, I did notice a positive change after grade reforms were enacted in college, and am hopeful that similar improvements would follow here were a reformed policy enacted at CLS. - Michael


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r4 - 13 May 2023 - 15:14:25 - MichaelPari
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