What Does a Good Law School GPA Really Mean?
Deep in the woods, two friends – Bob and Steve – were swimming in an empty lake when out of the corner of Bob’s eye he saw a big bear on the other shore. The bear looked as angry as it was hungry. As the bear began running along the perimeter of the lake, Bob and Steve both swam to shore.
Bob began to panic; he started sweating and jumping in the air in desperation. “Come on Steve!!! Let’s go!!! We gotta run!!! We gotta get outta here!!!” Bob exclaimed.
Steve calmly laced up his shoes, began to stretch, and started sipping a nearby water-bottle. In his panic, Bob asked, “Steve – what are you doing?! Why aren’t you running?! You’re never going to be able to out-run this bear!” Steve calmly replied: “I don’t need to out-run the bear – I just need to out-run you.”
I heard this story when I was a first year law student – and it freaked me out. Law school exams are like bears: they are vicious, ferocious, and they take no prisoners. In most classes, you cannot out-run the bear. Instead, you must out-run your classmates. Grading in law school occurs on a curve.
Typically, this curve is called a bell-curve where most grades are distributed around a median point. This median point is usually set school-wide. Schools have incentives to produce competitive law students (just as they produce competitive future stock traders and investment bankers). But they also have incentives not to water down their grading. Therefore, schools tend to strike balances between these competing considerations and setting their median points in such a way that their students can compete in the marketplace, but so that a 3.7 from a lower-tiered school actually is meaningful.
* University of Michigan: 3.19
* University of Texas: 3.30
* University of Arizona: 3.29
* Villanova: 3.25
The lowest median point I have seen is at North Carolina Central University School of Law which places the center of its bell-curve between 1.67 and 2.33. The highest median point I’ve seen is at Boston University which has its median at 3.44. As a GENERAL RULE, law schools tend to push their median point down when they are ranked low.
Conversely, law schools tend to keep their median point high when they are ranked high. In other words, schools attempt to acknowledge their ranking and make that an implicit part of their grade. With all due respect to all students, but as a general matter, someone who finishes in the top 10% at the University of Michigan probably is more competitive than someone who finishes in the top 10% at the University of Florida. Most schools try to normalize that – even just a little bit – by pushing down their median points so that a 3.6 or 3.7 at Florida can compete with a 3.2 from Michigan.
Published with permission from CorporateLawJobs.org