The Myths About UK Law Schools: Lower Grading & Passing Requirements

The Myths About UK Law Schools: Lower Grading & Passing Requirements

In my last post, I set out to tackle some of the myths in the Canadian legal community that foreign legal education is substandard compared to its Canadian counterpart; I started with the idea that it is easier to get into a UK Law School than a Canadian one. Today I’d like to address the second most common, and perhaps most damaging, myth that passing law school in the UK is much easier than it is in Canada.

Before I dive in, it’s fair to note that I have never attended a Canadian Law school so my point of comparison is based on second-hand information I’ve gathered from close friends, colleagues, and legal recruiters. I did, however, receive my LL.B from an English Law School and have a full working knowledge of how difficult it is to achieve and maintain high marks in the UK system. While I graduated in the top 12% of my class while simultaneously working and volunteering, it was certainly one of the hardest (but most fulfilling) two-years of my academic career so far. To help explain why, I’ll start by putting UK grades into context before analyzing the differences in assessment methods.


Putting Context Around Grading in the UK

As mentioned in my last post, LL.B programs are generally considered undergraduate degrees in the United Kingdom. This means, grades are step-marked and categorized as follows:

 -          First Class: 70% and above

-          Upper Second Class:  60% - 69%

-          Lower Second Class: 50% - 59% 

-          Third Class: 40% - 49%

Even with the equivalencies provided above, these grades mean very little without their surrounding UK education system context. During my first term at City, University of London, I quickly learned that if I wanted to achieve a first class mark in the UK, I’d have to put in the same effort it took to get an 80% - 85% during my graduate studies in Canada; after polling my network, this effort-correlation seemed to align with what my Canadian law school counterparts experienced as well.

With this in mind, the “low” passing mark of 40% in the UK seems less drastic given that it equates to the effort of around a 50% - 55% in Canada. Additionally, the FLSC requires that students receive at least a Lower-Second Class mark in order for a UK course to be counted during one’s NCA assessment—equating to achieving a 60% - 65% in a Canadian Law school.

So, if we re-write the UK Grading chart in a Canadian Context, it would look like the below:

-          First Class = A in Canada  (80/85% and above)

-          Upper Second Class = B+ in Canada (70/75% - 80/85%)

-          Lower Second Class = B- in Canada (60/65% - 70/75%)

-          Third Class = C in Canada (50/55% - 60/65%)

Notably, the letter-marks assigned above are representative of the official marks-equivalency chart that City provided on my official transcript and is accepted by those Canadian legal recruiters who are familiar with the UK’s grading system.

Consistency & Fairness

Finally, it’s also worth noting that grade allotment is highly controlled in the UK. All examinations are blind-marked in an effort to guard against biases and inconsistencies. Additionally, universities employ internal and external grade moderation systems where non-teaching faculty and external markers review sample exams and class averages to ensure grade consistency and fairness. Finally, second markers have the authority to adjust as necessary to correct any inconsistencies. This also means that any grade posted on a UK graduate’s transcript is representative of his/her performance as comparable to his/her peers.


Differences in Assessment Method

To put my grade-versus-effort-required calculation into context, we should also look at the differences in assessment methods between the UK and Canada. In the UK, closed-book hand-written examinations are often the only assessment method in upper years where the standards for upper second (B+) and first class (A) grades are set very high.

These exams are notoriously hard not only because they are closed book, but also because the level of detail and information volume expected is closer to that of an open-book exam. During examinations, students are expected to provide detailed responses that include direct quotes from judges and academics and in-depth case knowledge under challenging time constraints.

This is nearly the polar opposite of Canadian Law Schools’ open-book, generally typed, examination method. Of course, both methods have their own challenges and are perfectly legitimate examination methods. But understanding this stark contrast in evaluation helps further put Canada and the UK’s differing passing thresholds into context.


Grades Matter -- No Matter Where You Studied

Law students everywhere are quite aware that grades matter to prospect employers. Whether a prospective summer or articling student went to school in the UK or in Canada, firms request transcripts and consider GPAs as a key part of their evaluation process.

For students returning (or coming) to Canada with foreign degrees, take some time to ensure your transcript includes a grades equivalency chart to help prospective employers put your education and performance into perspective.