Law School and High School Credential Corruption

In many high schools around the country, as many as fifty graduating seniors were designated “valedictorians,” because the traditional honor for the top academic performer is a coveted credential, and the schools wanted as many students as possible to have the benefit of it. On their future resumes, will these students footnote “valedictorian” to let potential employers know that it doesn’t mean they were #1 in their class? Of course not. Their schools have given them a license to inflate their qualifications and achievements. Until every school clones its valedictorians, the credential now is inherently deceptive, and it is the high school administrators, not the students, who are doing the deceiving.

Ah, but “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” The New York Times reported that at least ten law schools, S.M.U., New York University, Georgetown, and Tulane among them, have deliberately altered their grading curves—-some retroactively—in order to make their graduates artificially look better to employers.

“Law schools seem to view higher grades as one way to rescue their students from the tough economic climate — and perhaps more to the point, to protect their own reputations and rankings. Once able to practically guarantee gainful employment to thousands of students every year, the schools are now fielding complaints from more and more unemployed graduates, frequently drowning in student debt,” writes Times reporter Mark Graham.

As with the fake valedictorians, this tactic is ethically objectionable on three fronts.

First, it deliberately sets out to make employers think graduates performed better than they really did, engaging in a game that invites the schools of competing law school graduates to do the same in order to protect its students from projecting a false inferiority. It is true that many diligent employers track the grading trends in various schools, but most do not.

Second, it unfairly penalizes the graduates who would have justifiably stood out as prime performers if the grading curve was left alone, in order to reward students who did not do as well for, well, paying their tuition and needing a job.

Third, combining these, it makes it difficult for employers to hire the best candidates, by encouraging the development of a system that disguises all law school graduates’ records to look the same.

The excuses and rationalizations offered by the law school officials who talked to the Times are self-evident rationalizations that do not excuse or justify the practice. Law students who pay so much tuition don’t want to look like losers. Times are tough, and the schools want to help the graduates get jobs. It looks bad when an elite degree doesn’t attract job offers. Most of all,  all the other schools are doing it.

These are nothing more than defenses of dishonest and deceptive behavior from schools that are supposed to be training their graduates for a profession that explicitly forbids “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” Small wonder prominent lawyers have been caught with fake or misleading credentials on their resumes, when the schools that taught them regard credentials as just another ambiguous fact to be manipulated, spun, obfuscated and corrupted.

It is true, as another defender of this corrupt trend weakly argues, that grades are relative. So are the performances of students, if schools will only allow the distinctions in performance to be discernible. A simple, elegant, honest and fair system employs a legitimate grading system to arrive at a class ranking, from #1 to the bottom. Anyone can understand that graduating #6 at Stanford Law School is more of an achievement than graduating #1 at Podunk U. Law, so such a system also encourages schools to improve their image and reputations the old-fashioned way: by becoming better schools, not by concocting ways to trick employers into thinking their C students are stars. Similarly, every potential employer will understand that the #12 graduate at Georgetown  was a better student than the #156 student. Employers have a right to know that. The #12 graduate has a right to have her superior performance recognized.

Besides the dishonesty, corruption and unfairness, this practice reeks of incompetence. It is stunning that in 2010, the supposedly intelligent people who run law schools are still falling for one of the oldest and best documented fallacies. W.S. Gilbert, in his song (sung by Don Alhambra, The Grand Inquisitor) from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Gondoliers, couldn’t have taught the lesson more clearly:

There lived a King, as I’ve been told,
In the wonder-working days of old,
When hearts were twice as good as gold,
And twenty times as mellow.

Good-temper triumphed in his face,
And in his heart he found a place
For all the erring human race
And every wretched fellow.

When he had Rhenish wine to drink
It made him very sad to think
That some, at junket or at jink,
Must be content with toddy.

He wished all men as rich as he
(And he was rich as rich could be),
So to the top of every tree
Promoted everybody.


Now, that’s the kind of King for me.
He wished all men as rich as he,
So to the top of every tree
Promoted everybody!

Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats,
And Bishops in their shovel hats
Were plentiful as tabby cats–
In point of fact, too many.

Ambassadors cropped up like hay,
Prime Ministers and such as they
Grew like asparagus in May,
And Dukes were three a penny.

On every side Field-Marshals gleamed,
Small beer were Lords-Lieutenant deemed,
With Admirals the ocean teemed
All round his wide dominions.

And Party Leaders you might meet
In twos and threes in every street
Maintaining, with no little heat,
Their various opinions.


Now that’s a sight you couldn’t beat —
Two Party Leaders in each street
Maintaining, with no little heat,
Their various opinions.

That King, although no one denies
His heart was of abnormal size,
Yet he’d have acted otherwise
If he had been acuter.

The end is easily foretold,
When every blessed thing you hold
Is made of silver, or of gold,
You long for simple pewter.

When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care —
Up goes the price of shoddy

In short, whoever you may be,
To this conclusion you’ll agree,
When every one is somebodee,
Then no one’s anybody!


Now that’s as plain as plain can be,
To this conclusion we agree —
When every one is somebodee,

Then no one’s anybody!

9 thoughts on “Law School and High School Credential Corruption

  1. The only problem with your ranking scheme is that it may conflict with FERPA. If you know your ranking, then you probably have a good idea what other people’s grades are. I disagree with most of FERPA (why should grades be confidential?) but I am bound by the law and the courts’ interpretations of it.

    The real solution is standardized testing in the schools. I don’t mean the kind they do now, but ones to keep people honest. Give students standardized tests in September, testing over the previous year (no time to teach to the test). Then, the test will only be used to compare outcomes (grades). If your students fail the test, but also failed the class, fine. If they all passed the test and got good grades, fine. If they failed the test, but you passed them…you lose funding. This may give the principals some backbone to tell the parents “We had to fail them or we couldn’t keep the school open.” Then they have to choose whether to have a bunch of 12 year old third graders (with funding) or actually require the kids to learn.

    • Surely FERPA distinguishes between having a general idea what one’s over-all GPA is and actually knowing his or her grades. Some idiot might challenge it in court, but I can’t see how a mere ranking has privacy implications.

      • I teach very small classes. If I give a mean on an exam, the students know what everyone else made on the exam.

    • Oops. It should be “reeks.” This is because my grade inflation in spelling stopped me from getting the requisite tutoring. Thanks for alerting me. Couldn’t anybody else who read that post spell better than me? That’s frightening…

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