Student: clinic grading system is broken

Anna Gorisch, 2L, is a guest writer for the Law Weekly and can be reached at akg33@law.georgetown.edu.

When I enrolled in the Domestic Violence Clinic in the fall of 2010, I fully expected it to be the highlight of my law school career. Unfortunately, the final assessment process has left a terrible taste in my mouth, and I am uncomfortable with what appears to be a complete disregard for students’ rights.

Full disclosure: I was disappointed with my grade. The faculty had given me no reason to think I was not on the right track. While the stated grading criteria in the manual were so vague as to be meaningless–comprising some 5 pages of bullet points–I thought I had met the requirements. I never missed a seminar or failed to complete an assignment. Throughout the semester, I consistently went beyond what was required, including assisting another team with the case and fighting to get my client released from jail on a charge completely unrelated to our representation of her through the clinic.

Most of you probably know the gut-punch that follows seeing a grade you were sure was going to be better. After receiving the grade, I quickly wrote to the faculty and asked if they might provide some guidance as to where I was downgraded. Initially, one faculty member told me she did not even know what my final grade was. Another faculty member told me that she had little input in the grades as she did not observe students in the field, which would mean that two faculty members out of four were largely responsible for my grade. But then I was told that it was decided by the entire faculty by unanimous consent. Obviously something did not fit.

I continued to push for feedback, asking for a copy of my final evaluation. I was told that there is no such thing–no contemporaneous written record of how the grades were determined. There is no clear set of standards nor any objective method by which they are applied. When I asked to see the grade distribution so I could get a sense of where I fell in the curve, I was accused of asking the faculty to violate students’ privacy and told that the other grades were irrelevant (which prompted me to think: isn’t a curve relative by definition?).

After two weeks, I was able to sit down with the faculty for half an hour. One member of the faculty, Dean Deborah Epstein, did all of the talking, describing with emphasis and in great detail events that she did not personally witness; everything she said had come from one of the other faculty members. In my opinion, much of what she told me was a gross exaggeration, if not demonstrably false–in one instance, she waived off written evidence that contradicted their assertions as irrelevant.
Most upsetting, two of the events cited to justify my lower grade had happened with what, at the time, appeared to be consent of the supervisor present. If we were already perfect lawyers, we would not need the clinic, and it seems especially unfair to penalize a student for following the lead of the supervisor in handling a case.

Worst of all, almost everything they said was news to me. No faculty member had discussed their concerns with me contemporaneously. The essence of clinical education is supposed to be working and then reflecting through meaningful feedback from supervisors and peers.

I did not receive any formal feedback after my first case closed, and most of my classmates were in a similar position.  Dean Epstein began our meeting by explaining how faculty meet diligently each week to discuss the progress of each student. Perhaps they should consider sharing some of their insights with the students themselves. How else can we be expected to adjust and improve our performance?
As a clinic student, you invest countless hours and close to $15,000 in the experience, and you trust that you will be guided efficiently and evaluated fairly. The consequences of a lower grade for the student are substantial (we’re talking about 10 credit hours of GPA here), and it’s too much to ask that we quietly accept whatever they give us on faith. What was presented to me by the Domestic Violence Clinic faculty was the academic equivalent of “because I said so.”

Let’s say my grade was a fair assessment of my performance, thoughtfully determined in an objective manner. Without any formal feedback or written record, there is no way for me to know. Maybe bias played no part in the determination of my grade; the fact remains that the current system is ripe for such abuse.

My experience was unfortunate, but my hope is that it might be the catalyst for a productive conversation on campus about what students are expected to invest and what they should expect in return. Clinics invite students to go into the community to fight for transparency, accountability and due process, yet their grading standards and final evaluation of students include none of the above. 

5 thoughts on “Student: clinic grading system is broken

  1. Are all the clinics there problematic with grading? Or was it just the DV clinic? And did anyone else in the DV clinic have a similar problem, or was it just you?

  2. I was at GULC in 2004-2005 for an LLM. You should look at the rules for grading – I was able to have a relatively poor grade changed to P/F (thus no impact on GPA) because the professor failed to follow the guidelines. As I recall, one of the of the guidelines was that students must be provided feedback and time to revise work before a grade is given. That was a writing course, not a clinic, but still: there are actual guidelines. You should refer to them in making any arguments or appeals. That's the lawyerly way!

  3. Thanks for the tip on the guidelines, Sam. I'll look into that.

    And to Anon – other students in the DV clinic expressed the same concerns. I got very little response from those with good grades, unsurprisingly (they wouldn't want to jeopardize their references). Put my grade aside though; the concern I have is that they can decide the grades however they like and there is nothing in writing or any formal evaluation to go with it. In other words, grades can be based on personality assessments or gut instincts and then, if necessary, justified later. I think I am the only student who pushed them for feedback and they were clearly painfully unprepared to respond. There are no clear standards and by the end of the semester we were all nervous because we had no idea how they might evaluate us. If you want to do a clinic, choose another one.

    It seems to change some from clinic to clinic, but there's a current nightmare for some in the Institute for Public Representation where the highest grade for the whole class was a B+. I've heard similar stories from people in CALS. It's a systemic problem because professors are given full discretion without any requirement of objectivity. However, I am sure there are some clinics that are better organized and more focused on student support. I don't mean to suggest for a moment that clinical education isn't worthwhile. Just ask important questions before diving in.

    Anna Gorisch (author)

  4. I heard about the IPR issue, and it's definitely made me think twice about even thinking about applying to that clinic. I get that grades are important, and I get that this school is not in a position to go P/F on a widespread basis, but when people are devoting 40+ hours a week to this work and then are told, here's your B or whatever — that's just not right.

    They want to push clinic education; so, make it fair. Great article, and I'm sorry this happened to you.

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