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Duquesne law school to alter system to aid grads' placement rate

| Saturday, June 26, 2010

When Laurie Lenigan begins to review law school candidates for the summer associates program at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, grade-point average will be a major consideration.

"As far as someone right out of law school, we tend to look at grades first," said Lenigan, director of recruiting for the Downtown law firm, which employs more than 200 attorneys.

Lenigan's firm isn't unique. Gicine Brignola, assistant dean of career services at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law, said good grades are the best way to land a job at a big law firm. Law schools, eager to tout their placement rates in the tough economy, are taking notice.

At least 10 law schools, including New York University and Georgetown, have instituted more lenient grading systems in the past two years. Duquesne University School of Law will join them in the fall.

"Our overriding goal is to be fair to our students and future employers," Duquesne law Dean Ken Gormley said. "Our former system wasn't serving that goal properly."

The new scale will allow students to earn "minus" grades at the Uptown school. Under the old one, a student with grades between a B and a C would end up with a C instead of a B-minus.

"Professors were torn by this," said Gormley.

Some law school administrators said they don't agree with the changes.

"I was surprised at the schools that were doing it," said Lu-in Wang, associate dean for academic affairs for the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, who thinks the benefit will be lost once firms realize what's going on.

For Duquesne, the intent was to fix a broken grading system, not inflate GPAs, Gormley said. The last change to the grading scale was five years ago.

"Will some students' GPAs go up after the new system• Yes, they will," he said. "Less people will be knocked out of the starting gate unfairly."

Administrators and law firms often view class rank as a more effective indicator of a student's ability. Duquesne and Penn State rank students; Pitt does not.

"The (GPA) comparison is only going to come out favorably if you ignore rank in class and reputation of school," said Maria Reilly, associate dean for academic affairs at Penn State's law school. "When the job market tightens up, the first people to experience it are at the bottom of the class."

Ella Qwisnek, director of career services for Duquesne's law school, said the job market "is more competitive with more applicants for fewer positions." The placement rate for Duquesne's 2009 law school graduates was about 90 percent, but it took students longer to find jobs, and they had to be more creative in their search, she said.

"I know a lot of smart, really qualified people who don't have jobs," said Lindsey Conrad, who graduated from Pitt's law school in May and has a job lined up.

Qwisnek said large law firms have reduced the number of positions they make available to recent grads.

At Penn State, the placement rate for the class of 2009 was 92 percent, according to Brignola. She said the job search takes much longer.

Starting salaries for firms with 50 to 250 lawyers range from $65,000 to $145,000, according to Brignola. For firms with more than 500 lawyers, starting salaries can go as high as $160,000.

Firms are hiring laterally, which means they'll take candidates who have prior experience instead of recent graduates. Summer programs have been slashed, including one at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

While grades are important, firms consider experience and involvement with a law review. Lenigan said Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney's applicant screening process is extensive, and her firm researches grading policies of law schools with which it isn't familiar.

"We have to do a little investigating," she said. "But that's part of our job."

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