What’s in a grade?

The Financial Post recently reported that your law school transcripts leave a lasting impression on your career path. At the articling and junior associate level, this would not surprise me. In fact, this is a reality I am well aware of.
The article in the Post was about a senior partner making a lateral move to another firm and the importance of grades in consideration of his being hired or not. Consequently, my tranquil morning coffee was ruined and frankly I’m now a little nauseous.

The rumours are all true: law school students are obsessed with grades.

In terms of my academic career, I have always strived to be well rounded. I have a part-time job, I go to the gym, I participate in extracurriculars, and occasionally I’ll have a drink or two and engage in something I’d like to call “dancing.” However, all of this well-roundedness literally disappears during exam time. My friends get the silent treatment, my mom barely sees me, and my trainer calls to ask if I’m still alive. One month pre-exams, my life is accurately reflected by the words “read, read more, eat, sleep, read again” — all fuelled by coffee and anxiety. Now the Post has confirmed my greatest fear: not only do marks matter now, but they will always matter (to a certain extent).

Among my peers, it seems as though there are mixed reviews on the law school grading system. Some students love the curve, and others (myself included) hate it. Getting an A is an amazing feeling, however, there is something deeply dissatisfying about getting a B. You are lumped in with a large number of students with no real indication of how you did. When I get a B, I take it to mean that I survived the exam. I didn’t do great, but I did fine.

For me, the issue with the letter-grade curve is that it seems to strip law school of its original awe. As an undergraduate student considering law school, I recall daydreaming about groups of students sitting together, musing about the law, and playfully bouncing ideas off of each other.

Sadly for me, my dream has not come to fruition. Osgoode Hall Law School has an amazing and warm community of students, however, my experience has not been characterized by academic chatter and sophisticated legal analysis in swanky cafés. Instead, what I get from my chats with peers and friends is far more essential to my academic success: survival tips — how to best perform on an exam, how to skim read, how to write a summary, and so on. Ultimately, I can’t help but wonder if we are selling ourselves short by obsessing over grades.

The University of Toronto Faculty of Law is considering changing its grading system to address grade obsession and uneven distribution by initiating a pass/fail system based on five categories: high honours, honours, pass, low pass, and fail. (See the Canadian Lawyer 4Students article.) My critique of the suggested system is that it is merely a change in semantics. If there is some distinction between an A+ and high honours, it escapes me. I would not expect this new system to change the way law students learn or tackle exams in any way, but perhaps this is an impossible goal.

The only way to keep students from transitioning from the wide-eyed enthusiastic stage to the weary-eyed exhausted and bitter stage is to implement a system that is based on two tiers — pass or fail. For reasons which are both readily apparent and numerous, such a system will never exist in a Canadian law school.

The first reason that jumps to mind is Bay Street. With hundreds of applicants for limited summer and articling positions, the firms need a way to distinguish candidates. Although grades are not determinative, it is no secret that a straight-A transcript will help get your foot in the proverbial door. The grading curve makes it easy for firms to establish a threshold for interviews. Everyone above a certain average can be interviewed and except for extenuating circumstances (i.e. you’re Spiderman in your spare time), if you are below the average threshold you won’t get an on-campus interview. With some firms receiving 1,000 applications, I really can’t blame them.

Even in an amazing school like Osgoode, where the vast majority of students are friends, and notes and summaries circulate with ease, the underlying truth is that grades are stressful and competitive. Replacing an A+ with high honours will not impact this reality.

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