The Law School Curve
Published on October 1, 2020
Unlike most undergraduate courses, many of your law school courses will be graded on a curve. Sometimes grades are assigned to a pre-determined distribution, e.g. 30% A's, 40% B's, and 30% C's. Other times the grades must produce a pre-determined average that can be reached through any combination of grades, i.e. some above the average and some below the average. Either way, the law school curve pits highly capable, hard-working, and intelligent students against each other for a scarce number of the best grades.
Using Your LSAT and GPA to Predict Your Law School Performance
The curve is among the reasons law schools have notoriously competitive environments. Your grades not only affect making law review and maintaining scholarships at some schools, but also what kinds of jobs you can get during school and after graduation.
Applicants commonly try to predict performance based upon their combination of LSAT score and undergraduate GPA relative to others in the entering class, or a belief that they can outwork everybody. While the LSAT and GPA do correlate to law school success, it is not effective for predicting how you will perform on the curve.
As such, do not focus only on the best-case employment scenarios.
The top 10% of the class usually has very promising employment options. But you should also consider your comfort level with the job outcomes for students who finish in the bottom half or bottom quarter of the class. Although your grades are not necessarily indicative of your potential to be a high-quality lawyer, they may say a lot about your chances of being able to prove your talents without starting your own practice.
At certain schools, your grades affect whether you keep your scholarship in your second and third year of school. These scholarships are known as conditional scholarships because keeping your scholarship is conditioned upon maintaining a minimum GPA or class standing. Conditional scholarships can carry tens of thousands of dollars (or more) of risk, which you should factor into your cost and debt analysis. The unpredictable results of the curve mean working hard or having better entering scores than many of your peers does not mitigate the risk.
Startlingly, some law schools design these conditional scholarship programs so that more students accept conditional scholarships than can possibly retain them. In other words, the law school curve often necessitates that not every student who accepts an award can keep it after their first year. So not only will you lose out on certain job opportunities because you do not do well, but your degree will cost you more money. More information about which schools offer conditional scholarships and how many students lose their scholarship can be found on the costs tab of each law school's profile on this site.
By Joshua Zaslawsky