(One of)The Reason(s) that Law Students are Basket Cases


Since it's in the midst of finals and I'm in a very brief inter-final period (Crim's in-class final was yesterday from 10AM to 2PM, tomorrow morning I'm picking up a 24-hour take-home final for Constitutional Law) I thought I'd take a moment to post about grades and their peculiar impact on the mental and emotional state of law students.

Let me start by explaining the material elements that form grades in law school classes. This is actually really easy, particularly for my classes this semester. Final grades are computed by taking into account your individual grades in a number of assignments and tests, as well as your overall in-class performance throughout the semester. Each element is weighted according to how important the professor thinks it is. The following, then, are the possible elements that could go into computing a law school grade:
1. The Final.
2. There is no 2.

This is all a fancy way of saying that, generally, your entire grade in a law school class comes from the final. In most classes, the only feedback on how you're doing that you'll ever receive from your professor is in the form of a single letter, with a plus or minus distinction, on your report card three weeks after the class is over. Most classes have no TAs or discussion sections, most classes have no practice assignments or other ways to get feedback on your understanding of the material. Nobody has any idea of how they're doing until they're already done.

Now, I used some qualifiers above, but they're not significant. Some classes do have discussion sections, always optional, taught by upper-division students with a dubious understanding of the material and an even more questionable prowess for pedagogy. Some classes give written assignments, inevitably graded by the same upper-division TAs who will provide feedback that may or may not be useful. If classes do give written assignments, they either will not count toward your grade at all or they will provide a push-factor in the unlikely event that your final leaves you on the cusp between two grades. Since roughly 3 or 4 students out of 100 will find themselves on said cusp, and since it is unlikely that any of them will have done notably well on their assignments, the chances of your assignment actually altering your grade are virtually nill. Occasionally professors will use class participation as a similar push-factor for borderline grades; if you contributed during the semester in a way that was insightful enough for the professor to take note, you might get pushed to a higher grade level if you're on the edge. The same problems with assignments-as-push-factor applies, except that it's even less likely that a professor will remember your verbal contributions to the class. Finally, some classes assign papers or use class participation as an actual percentage of your grade; in all of these cases the weighting will be 90% Final, 10% participation or 95% final, 5% two written assignments. In other words, the final is so dominant in the weighting that the papers/participation are de facto borderline push-factors. (Also, in the interest of making sure I've left noone out, some crazy Marxist professors who hate America will grade you entirely on the basis of papers. If this occurs in a first year course, the course will be an elective in which the entire organizing theme of the course will be "Everything that's wrong with the law and why all you students are evil for failing to be part of the solution, and therefore are part of the problem." Any advantages gained by not having a final will be more than lost by having to put up with the professor for the entire semester. Moreover, the professor's paper-grading will be just as random and arbitrary as your other professors' final-grading.)

So your whole grade comes from the final and generally you have no idea how well you're doing until courses are done and you've gotten your grades. The other major reason law students are basket cases is how exam performance is translated into final grades. Law School classes are graded on a strict curve. Everyone takes a final and the professor grades it in her own idiosyncratic way, assigning a number score for the total exam. All the students' grades are entered into a spreadsheet, they're sorted from highest grade to lowest, and from there grades are determined. At Columbia, assuming a class of 100 students, the top 8 students will get As. The next 12 students will get A-s. The next 35 students will get B+s. The next 35 students will bet Bs. The remaining 10 students will get B-s. It is possible to get a C, a D, or an F, but they're not built into the curve. You have to have done something notably and outlandishly wrong, or betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the material, to get below a B-. (Inevitably, now that I've said this, someone who has gotten less than a B- will read this and get very angry. I apologize in advance. I do not, however, apologize to those who might read this and say "I haven't actually GOTTEN a C, D, or F, but I'm so incredibly behind in studying for _____ Law that I just know that I WILL get a C, D, or F." This is symptomatic of the basket-caseism that is the plague of all first-year law students.)

So you not only have no idea how well you're doing in understanding the material, your entire grade is based, not on some objective measure of how well you know the material, but on a more subjective comparison of how well you know the material to how well all of your fellow students know the material. This leads some (that is, all) law students to eventually make a fairly simple deduction: I can't tell how well I'm doing in understanding the material, but I can maybe get a sense of how I compare to other students in understanding the material. Down this road lies madness. This sort of thinking leads to studying arms-races, where students produce larger and larger outlines and spend 36 hours straight in the library, because if the guy in the study carrol next to me goes home later than I do, he'll have done more studying than I did and will do better on the exam than I do, which will make my grade lower. And of course the guy next door is thinking the exact same thing about me.

There is another factor. It is well known that, at Columbia Law, everyone gets a job when they leave school. Everyone. Not only that, everyone gets a good job, defined as a job that pays six digits as a starting salary, or a job that's notably prestigious (a judicial clerkship that will likely lead to a six-digit salary), or a low-paying job at a non-profit or politically activist organization that is highly competitive and thus hard to get (working at the ACLU, for instance). Everyone gets a good job, regardless of grades. Once you've gotten to Columbia, the difference in life outcome based on your law school grades will be negligible at best. Moreover, you'll note that the curve is designed to give lots and lots of people Bs and higher, and almost noone anything so low as a B-. In theory, everyone should be pretty much indifferent about grades.

But they aren't, and they aren't because of iron-clad laws of mathematics: Only 10% of a given student body can be in the top 10% of the class. This is unfortunate because, at a school like Columbia, 100% of the students are accustomed to being in the top 10% of their class. This leads to a general feeling that if you don't get at least an A-, that is, if you aren't in the top 20% of an exceptionally bright and hard-working group of students, you're an incompetent moron.

And so we have finals, when everyone goes batshit crazy studying in the hopes that their batshit studying is more batshitty than at least four out of five of their fellow students.

And here I am, biding time until my take-home Con Law final tomorrow. I should probably be going batshit studying at this point, but... eh. Maybe posting on blogs is the key to great law school grades. It seems as reasonable a theory as anything else I've heard.

(Lawyerly Disclaimer: In the above, any mention of "law school classes" or discussion of how law school classes work should be taken to apply only to first year law school classes. My understanding is that things generally work much differently in upper division classes.)


I just have to mention that there are now so many posts on this page that I haven't read that the prospect of commenting on them is starting to intimidate me. I keep clicking here, reading an entry, finding that there are more entries beyond the one that I'm reading, and suddenly feeling inadequate to the task of responding to them. Still, I'm reading. I just figured it would help to point that out.

Er. Not so many posts that I haven't read, I mean so many posts on which I haven't commented. Proofread, girl, proofread!

No problem, take your time. I was getting a bit worried, though; two more posts without comments and I'd have had an entirely comment-less front page. Perhaps if some of the people whom I know read this blog but don't comment would pop out of their holes and say hello...

Nonsense. It's just you and me in this blogosphere, didn't you know?

See, this is easier. Short comments aren't nearly so intimidating as long posts, because I have so many fewer things to say.

Hey, you know what band I don't like? Weezer. Can't abide them at all. I don't like their music, plus they get extra minus points because their songs get stuck in my head every time I hear them and I can't get them out. Grr! I don't care about your fucking sweater! Go find a better metaphor! It didn't help that one of the sups at the library really liked them and played her Weezer CD in the 4RS boombox every time she had a shift.

You... but... the... what...?

How is it possible to not like Weezer? Their whole guiding principle is being poppy and cute and sounding like you've known their songs your whole life the first time you hear them! Except on Pinkerton where their whole guiding principle is sounding poppy and cute but actually writing disturbing and inappropriate songs about underage Japanese fangirls. Man. I just cannot agree with you here.

Which sup?

I can't explain it rationally; I've just heard so many of their songs and I dislike all of them. I don't like the vocals. I don't like their lyrics. I don't like their tendency to write lyrics that have more syllables than the music can support, forcing them to rush and squeeze mulitiple syllables into a note. I suppose the instrumentals are okay, and I've heard it said that they're pretty fun to play on the guitar, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt in that regard. I don't doubt that they're poppy, but the poppiness just increases the ear worm factor, which only leads to them getting stuck in my head with no chance of dislodgement.

I think the Sup in question became a Sup after you left and left before you came back, but it was Keelin.

I can see that, actually. I think I have a higher tolerance for stupid syllable-to-note ratios than you, but at some point it does drive me up the wall. Just don't ever listen to Midtown or Brand New. Your head will explode.

And no, I don't know Keelin. Though I do wonder if she's the owner of the Weezer CD I keep seeing hanging around the back room?

"Any advantages gained by not having a final will be more than lost by having to put up with the professor for the entire semester. Moreover, the professor's paper-grading will be just as random and arbitrary as your other professors' final-grading."

I am so offended. I *loved* that class! You must take this down immediately!

But you're wrong. The lack of a final is worth the class. Because, you see, this professor's head is stuck so far up his ass that he doesn't care if you attend or not. So. No final, no class....I would say that's worth some arbitrary grading! Especially when 15 minutes of work will get you a median grade.

Heheh. Fair enough. Plus now you don't have to worry about a silly final two days before then impending Property doom.

I do like, though, the way they have carefully adjusted schedules so that all three Property finals end at exactly the same time next Friday, meaning that the entire 1L class will be done at once.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on May 3, 2006 6:50 PM.

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