Letter grades are now passé at the three of the top law schools in the country.

Harvard Law School announced recently that it is converting its traditional letter-grade system to a variation of the pass/fail system.

That change will bring Harvard in line with Yale Law School’s longtime grading system, which divides grades into honors, pass, low pass and fail. Stanford Law School decided to drop letter grades in May.

“It will be interesting to see if other schools follow,” said Stanford Dean Larry Kramer.

Officials at Harvard and Stanford said the changes are intended, in part, to discourage students from focusing so much on specific grades, and to focus instead on learning. In addition to cutting down on competition among students, the schools want to eliminate the perception that students who earn a B-plus average are measurably better than those who earn a B average.

“We just felt as though, given our student population, we were slicing the baloney pretty thin in making such distinctions,” said Harvard Law Dean Elena Kagan.

Many questions remain

Daniel Thies, president of the Harvard Law School Student Bar Association, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the new grading system, but has many questions about how it will be implemented. Students learned of the change on Sept. 26 by e-mail from Kagan.

“We need more information right now. We were blindsided by it,” Thies said.

The new grading scales at Harvard and Stanford essentially create fewer grade categories, thus fewer differentiations between students. At Harvard, for example, grades of A-plus, A and A-minus all become “honors” under the new system, B-plus, B and B-minus becomes “pass,” C and D are a “low pass” and an F is a “fail.”

Kramer said Stanford’s old grading system had been piecemeal, complicated and weighed down by many rules. Although the school had a required grading mean, not all professors abided by it. Students would flock to classes taught by professors who doled out a larger number of high grades, he said.

“It had become a major factor in class selection,” Kramer said.

With fewer grades to assign, grading should also be easier and more consistent among professors, Kagan said. Harvard faculty voted unanimously last week to approve the grading-scale change.

It remains to be seen how the grading changes will affect employers who hire Harvard and Stanford students. Both schools met with employers before making the switch, and were told the new grading system would not affect the number of their students hired by the respective firms.

Some hiring partners did tell Stanford that they plan to do more research when hiring, since the new grade scale will create less stratification among candidates. Kramer, for one, thinks that’s a good thing.

Stanford’s new grading scale took effect this semester, while Harvard’s will be implemented for students who start next fall.

More changes at Stanford

In addition to doing away with letter grades, Stanford is changing the way it awards honors. Instead of giving out Order of the Coif honors to the top 10% of students and Graduation with Distinction honors to the top 30%, professors will give out individual “book prizes” to students in their classes. The number of prizes available in each class is limited, based on the class size.

The book prizes will enable students who excel in one specific class or area to receive honors, whereas they may not have been recognized under the old system, Kramer said.

Harvard hasn’t yet decided how to handle honors, Kagan said, but a decision likely will be made during the next two to three weeks.

University of Chicago Law School Dean Saul Levmore doesn’t anticipate a wave of law schools emulating the changes made by Stanford and Harvard.

“They’re really just getting rid of the pluses and minuses,” he said. “It’s not so different from the ABC system, and you will still see grade inflation. For some students, it’s good. For some, it’s not good.”

Levmore said he doesn’t have any sense that Chicago will abandon its numerical grading system any time soon. Nor does Liam Murphy, vice dean of New York University School of Law.

That school is reviewing its grading practices, but Murphy said he believes it is unlikely that school would switch from the letter grade system.