As you probably know, there is a curve in law school. This means that I am not graded on how good I am but on how good others are in relation to me. I find this odd in a few ways.
One way is that it produces a lot of false negatives. A false negative occurs when something is incorrectly labeled as “not good.” Think of the NBA. We could rank every player in the league by skill level from 1 to 500, and one player would necessarily be #500. There is a man who has played basketball his entire life with great success and has made it to the NBA! . . . where he is now the worst. He is the worst basketball player in the NBA, and that is truly unfair–this guy is an incredible basketball player who is only bad compared to the absolute best in the world.
At our orientation we were given an allegory of monkeys playing games in trees in a big jungle. In each tree, the cleverest monkey gets to do whatever she wants, and all the others respect her. But a day comes when each “cleverest monkey in the tree” moves to the same tree in the middle of the forest. Suddenly none of these monkeys are special anymore. NYU Law is supposed to be like this. The sharpest students from around the country are picked for the super tree. What happens then? I don’t really know. If we don’t have to compare ourselves to each other, then we just enjoy our intellectual company and play clever games that we couldn’t play before. (It is important to note that while this tree does involve a lot of fun and games, there is also a lot of reading to do, a whole lot. Unfortunately, I think the monkey analogy breaks down when we imagine them reading in their tree all day.)
I like the NBA analogy quite a bit. Actually, in a convenient series of events, ESPN.com recently did rank all players from 1 to 500. Eddy Curry, a 29-year-old, 295-pound, 7-foot-tall NBA champion was ranked dead last (given a rating of 1.21 out of 10), with his former teammate Lebron James (9.99) at number one. Truthfully, NBA fans might argue that Eddy Curry is not a false negative. Instead, he is just an overweight dude who can’t play much basketball anymore. To this, Eddy Curry might rightly reply that they are just jealous. In fact, I bet Eddy Curry doesn’t care that you think he is bad at basketball. Why should he? I still think he would beat me one-on-one (it is also worth noting that in the 2011 version of this study, Eddy Curry was ranked #493 and he still didn’t care).
Another odd thing about the curve is what it incentivizes. I came to law school because I like school, I like education, and I wanted to learn the law and get a J.D. With or without grades, I would read my casebooks and ask questions in class and take my exams at year’s end. I came to law school on purpose. I wasn’t forced to come here. I am paying money to be here—-I don’t need grades to tell me to try. A curved grade may indirectly encourage learning, but it may also directly encourage me to just hope that other people do poorly. In a reverse NBA example, it is easy to become amazing at basketball in a curved system. If I moved to Mars, I would literally be the best player on the planet (population 1).
But this is true of all competitions. Someone has to win and someone has to lose. Different people care different amounts about their final place in the rankings; for example, some people who run marathons try to win, while others just hope to finish. Though it is not entirely clear why law school is a competition at all.
Here is how I like to think of the curve: I am average. We are all average. Every one of us will get a “B.” I know this isn’t exactly true, but if we assume that the grades are centered around a “B” average with rare “A” or “C” grades, and even rarer “A+” or failing grades, then we can feel free from pressure. It is no longer about the grade at the end of the year. As long as I do all the work, if I do my best and try to learn as much as I can then I will get my stamp of approval at the end of the year (in this case, the letter “B” on a sheet of paper), and that is it. Only extraordinary circumstance, maybe luck, will change that. I like this, because in the NBA it is okay to be average. I even think it is okay to be the worst.