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Do Better Grades Make Better Lawyers?

Do good grades correlate with success, at least at large law firms? Jonathan Adler throws this question out for discussion at Volokh, which was, in turn, initiated by this post by Richard Sanders at the Empirical Legal Studies Blog titled New Evidence on GPA and Success In Law Firms.

Sanders writes that his interest in the relationship between law school grades and law firm success originated with his study on the fate of minorities at large firms, which we earlier posted about here. In that study, Sanders suggested that minorities were not succeeding at large firms because firms hired them based on racial preference rather than merit. Sanders posited that the disparity between minority lawyers' GPAs and those of other candidates might account for the disparity in their work quality and, relatedly, their ultimate success at the firm. 

Sanders' study generated plenty of controversy, including comments from many successful attorneys claiming that the firm would never had hired them had they seen their GPAs. So as Sanders writes in his ELS post, he decided to revisit the correlation of grades and law firm success. And based on data from white graduates (see Sanders' post for a summary of the data), Sanders concludes that:

this data shows clearly that GPA matters a lot to one's success and longevity in the world of big firms. And, since this data is just for whites, we know that discrimination is not playing a role in these outcomes (unless, as seems unlikely, firms do pay attention to transcripts after hiring). Moreover, if we think about this data carefully, we'll see that low GPAs will probably have even more harmful effects when they arise from racial preferences. In the table above, I can't distinguish between different sorts of big firms. But it is likely that the high-GPA whites are at tougher, more competitive firms (on average) than are the low-GPA whites. Their success rates are swimming upstream against more competitive environments and lower partnership rates. Naturally, low-GPA whites have both a better chance of being hired, and of succeeding, at a firm which is big but not super-elite. If we could control for firm quality, the GPA disparities in outcomes in the chart would probably be much greater.

Leaving aside whether success at a "large firm" correlates to success in the legal profession, I still question Sanders' data. Generally, top grades are distributed relatively evenly between men and women in law school yet women comprise only 17 percentage of partners at major firms. I'd be curious to see how Sanders' study accounts for that.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 5, 2007 at 05:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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