It is now no secret that MBA students often cheat, but much less has been written about cheating in law school. A 2006 study by Don McCabe, Linda Trevino, and Kenneth Butterfield found that 45 percent of law school students admitted some cheating. But that study actually focused primarily on cheating by MBA students and didn't explore in depth the dynamics of cheating by law students.
There has been some anecdotal discussion of cheating by law students over the years. Two years ago, Syracuse University College of Law changed its rules about bathroom breaks during exams to reduce cheating. An email explaining the change to students said that "During this exam period, we have received a significant number of reports from (first-year) students alleging academic dishonesty." The problem was not just students using bathroom breaks to cheat, but using other techniques as well. Administrators at the school promised to get tough in a variety of ways to reduce cheating by its law students.
Cheating has also gotten attention at Fordham Law School. One student there was so incensed at cheating by fellow law school students he wrote to the website Abovethelaw.com to complain:
I am a current [Fordham law student] and I am contacting you because of the widespread and pervasive cheating that appears to take place amongst a portion of the current 1L class. Specifically for my closed book [Redacted] exam this spring semester there were a number of students who left the class under the guise of a “bathroom break” to consult their outlines. Furthermore there are a number of allegations that students brought outlines into the room and were copying from their notes into their bluebooks before the time began. Unfortunately school officials refuse to acknowledge a problem and have failed to implement an effective enforcement policy to minimize cheating.
Pretty bad for a Jesuit university.
As for the motives of cheating by law school students, nothing here will surprise long-time observers of academic integrity issues: law students cheat because the pressure is intense and the stakes are high -- and getting higher as tuition rises for law school and student debt loads increase.
Student cheating is often related to an obsession with grades, the folcrum through which anxiety about high stakes is channeled, and as William Chamberlain pointed out in an astute column in the National Law Journal, the grades of law school students play a huge role in determining their future chances of economic and career success:
In no other profession do grades play such a central role in hiring decisions, and they matter even ten years out of law school.
Grades especially matter at the largest firms, which pay six-figure salaries to students right out of law school. Because supply far exceeds demand for those positions, grades become an efficient evaluation tool, however flawed, for these employers. They also influence hiring at the federal government honors programs. Judicial clerkships at all levels have become more competitive in terms of grades. Even non-profits are not immune. Several post-graduate public interest fellowship programs consider grades.
Chamberlain points out the importance of grades increases during hard economic times, because fewer lawyers are being hired, increasing the competition for jobs.
The downturn in legal hiring has made getting good grades, particularly in the first year, even more important. Formal summer programs at large firms have become so small that many firms can make offers to the same set of "top" students and not be too disappointed if they do not get all of them to accept. What do "good" grades mean these days? Is a 3.3 "good enough"? a 3.6?