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As the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus has had devastating impacts on every aspect of life around the globe, the legal industry is just one of many struggling to cope.
Here in America, a large majority of law schools have chosen to institute a mandatory pass/fail system in response to COVID-19 disruptions. The topic has been a source of intense debate among law students, law schools and firms alike. The truth is that whether a law school decides to make pass/fail grading mandatory, stick with their traditional grading systems, or give students the choice—it seems like someone is bound to lose.
One of the reasons that this is so crucial for students is that recruiting teams have a limited amount of time to speak with candidates during OCI, so it is widely known that firms tend to use GPA as a cut off for who they are even going to consider speaking to. The higher up the big law ladder you go, the higher that GPA cutoff tends to be.
At the most basic level, it is impossible right now to be sure that any student will have an equal and fair opportunity to attend courses or complete coursework. And if we define success to mean students will be hired into an AmLaw 100 firm after graduation, whether they were on track to beat them or not, the odds of ‘success’ were always going to be even little lower demographically-marginalized students at top law schools. So, of course, the current circumstances disproportionately make those odds even lower for those same students.
On the other hand, students worry that choosing a pass/fail grade can reflect poorly on them when it comes time to enter the candidate pool for on-campus recruiting. For others, a mandatory pass/fail system mandatory could potentially mean that anyone that struggled in their first semester of law school but figured it out and earned (or expected to earn) consistently strong grades after that would be unfairly penalized.
Gavin White, the global hiring partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, shared his concerns about this in the context of summer associate recruiting with ALM last week.
“Unless we change the timetable for hiring, you are hiring off of one semester of grades. That probably hurts the students who have a less-than-stellar first semester, but otherwise would have been able to show an improvement for the second semester. They are sort of being robbed of that opportunity. That’s something we look at—particularly students who don’t come from a privileged background may have a slower start at law school, but they figure it out in the second semester.”
But there may be a bigger question to ask in the midst of all of this: Is it actually necessary for firms to continue to rely so heavily on candidate GPA to make recruiting decisions in the first place? Are there other metrics that could be stronger indicators of success? One of the central issues at hand centers around the fact that either grading system on the table right now could result in a GPAs that don’t accurately predict candidates’ likelihood of job success. But research shows that, to an extent, this has always been true, especially for diverse candidates.
In a recent episode of Above the Law’s Thinking Like a Lawyer podcast, editor and former BigLaw litigator Joe Patrice explores the idea that law firms could see these challenges as opportunities to look beyond GPA and find other ways to widen their historically limited candidate pools.
“Firms don’t have to live in a world where they only talk to ten kids. Obviously, if you’re having an on-campus conversation, there are limitations to how many hours there are in a day,” he said. “There are ways in which these firms could change their processes to ensure that they talk to more people [...] And that is really all that is required. Looking and saying, ‘From among all of the excellent people that went to Chicago last year, we don’t know who was slightly more excellent than the others. How about instead of making arbitrary distinctions based on second-semester grades, let’s talk to more people and try to parse it out that way.”
Though GPA still remains the primary selection criteria for in-person interviews, there are firms exploring ways to rethink their recruitment processes—especially since NALP lifted restrictions on on-campus recruiting. While some firms are launching pre-recorded video interview submission platforms, others are exploring ways to use other data and assessment metrics to widen their candidate pools. This is especially beneficial for strong candidates at reputable mid-level law programs that don’t always get on-campus visits from top law firms. These innovations also have the potential to make the interview experiences more consistent and transparent. And hopefully, this will mean that we will eventually uncover solutions to make it easier for the law profession’s future talent to end up in the best places for them to start successful and fulfilling careers.