April 4, 2007
For the Experience
During the admissions process Yale was the last law school from which I heard. Before I received news from YLS, it seemed that everyone I spoke with about admissions offered the same advice: “Go to the highest ranked school that gives you money, unless you get into Yale. [Insert a laugh and shoulder shrug] In that case, just go to Yale.” I never really asked why I should just go to Yale. Instead, I just thanked the individual that clearly knew more about law school than I, and accepted their particular suggestion as fact. Of course, once I actually heard from Yale and it became decision time, I could no longer accept suggestions as fact. I had to do what I had always done when a decision was due: fret about it. I made a cost benefit analysis, I requested counsel from my parents, I visited all the schools, I read all the admissions websites, and delayed as long as possible. During the process someone told me – I can’t remember who now – to pick a school for the experience. Ultimately, that’s what I did. I picked Yale because it stood out. I believed that the small size and unique grading/grade disclosure policy would allow for a distinct law school experience.
The luxury of the small student-faculty ratio at YLS is somewhat self explanatory, but the benefits of the grading policy are less intuitive. First let me dispel a comment myth that Yale doesn’t have grades. We do have grades. They aren’t A, B, C, and D instead they’re H (High Pass), P (Pass), LP (Low Pass), and F (Fail). But, one can draw distinctions between our grades similar to those of a more conventional grading system. Receiving an H instead of a P generally conveys more focus and preparation as, arguably, receiving an A over B reflects. So for those individuals that need a hierarchical grading system, we have it. This refutes the criticism that students productivity will decrease because we don’t have grades. Believe me, receiving an H can motivate just as much as receiving an A.
However, I consider the more interesting aspects of our grading policy to be the fact that we don’t calculate GPA and that there is no class rank. As you may imagine, this takes some of the pressure out of law school. Don’t get me wrong, students still work hard. But because of the absence of the all-consuming GPA folks’ efforts are directed at more than just prepping for class. Students have been quick to engage in extracurricular activities outside of the classroom, ranging from tutoring local high school students, to writing national security books, to fighting for access to genetic drugs in Africa, to establishing leadership institutes. The grading system also sparks creativity and freedom within the classroom. If I had a GPA or class rank to be concerned with, I doubt that I would have taken chances on some of the classes that I have. Entering law school I was most comfortable within the parameters of constitutional history and voting rights law; however, I decided to take advantage of the lack of GPA and pursue classes outside of my comfort zone. As a result I have found that I enjoy engaging financial markets, examining tax structuring, and exploring the intersection of law and business.
The most common concern regarding the YLS grading system is that it makes getting a job difficult. That is undoubtedly false. It does make the interview a little bit harder for the employer – they have to look for more than just a GPA and a class rank. An employer that interviews a student with several Hs will be just as excited to hire her as a student with several As. Further, my personal experience demonstrates that employers are excited to see a diverse course load even if one’s transcript is not cluttered with Hs. Of course, employers will not sacrifice intelligence or hard work for a varied transcript – achievement is still desired. That said, employers don’t want students that dwell in their comfort zone and only take classes in which they will excel. Finally, students with a dearth of Hs but incredible experiences to discuss – like starting a community development bank, working with the Liberian TRC, or suing the state of CT for adequate education services – will always be in demand. In short, the grading system allows students the flexibility to pursue courses and activities outside of their comfort zone yet still distinguish themselves within a particular class.
The other day while I was back in Washington, DC over spring break a concerned father saw my Yale Law T-shirt and stopped me to ask a few questions about law schools. He told me that his daughter had heard good news from several top schools and inquired if I had any advice. I told him that she should go to the best school with the best financial aid package she gets into. Then I added, “But if she gets into Yale she shouldn’t think twice. She should come.” “Why?” he responded. I couldn’t help but smile and say, “For the experience.”