Trial Over Law School’s Job Statistics Symbolizes an Industry Gone Wrong

March 14th, 2016 / By

Originally published online and in print in the National Law Journal.

In May 2011, Anna Alaburda filed a lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson School of Law alleging that the school in San Diego lured students with deceptive and fraudulent employment statistics in violation of California consumer protection laws. With the trial starting last week, Alaburda’s case highlights how far the law school transparency movement has come in reforming U.S. legal education.

Outsourcing, automation and a ­thriving legal tech industry have ­fundamentally changed the legal profession. Law firms large and small closed or laid off huge swaths of attorneys in the wake of the Great Recession. Even recently, in Febru­ary, Milwaukee’s largest minority-owned firm, Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan, abruptly discontinued its business, laying-off more than 100 attorneys and 200 staffers. Many remaining jobs on the legal market are temporary or paying low wages.

But Alaburda’s claims about an unknown glut of law school graduates predate the financial crisis. After graduating from New York University in 2002 and working for several years, she started law school in 2005. Her lawsuit reflects several decades of unethical marketing from law schools of all types.

When Alaburda applied, Thomas Jeffer­son and the American Bar Association reported a graduate employment rate north of 80 percent. In court documents, she alleges that she relied on reports about Thomas Jefferson’s success in deciding to enroll.

To say she should have known better is to miss the cultural context in which she made her decision. Until only recently, “education debt is not bad debt” dominated career advice that college provides a positive return on investment. Law school especially has been portrayed as a ­ticket to financial security or even wealth. Students are told to and, indeed, want to trust the institutions they’re seeking to attend for higher education. To mistrust schools, your advisers and common wisdom required a divergent leap of faith.

Alaburda decided to attend law school before The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, The Wash­ington Post and hundreds of other publications covered misleading employment statistics. Coverage of law school deception started in earnest in April 2010 in this very publication — nearly five years after Alaburda started law school. That fall, after decades of conditioning, law school enrollment peaked while thousands of recent and not-so-recent graduates began to realize they were not alone in feeling duped. Against an overwhelmingly positive cultural backdrop, they misplaced their trust.

I co-founded Law School Transparency with Patrick Lynch in 2009, although our work started in early 2008 a few months before I started at Vanderbilt University Law School. Our school’s transparency inspired us to ask others to help their prospective students understand job outcomes, too. Soon into our research we uncovered systemic deception blessed by the ABA.

In many cases, the deception was unintentional and based on the same cultural conditioning that afflicted applicants — typical for systemic problems. However, career-center staffers had ample access to contradictory information. They helped students find jobs, collected data about those students after graduation, and received from NALP each year a detailed breakdown of their school’s job statistics.

Playing With Numbers

Law schools gleefully advertised employment rates above 90 percent and salaries of $160,000. They failed to disclose that the employment rate was constructed in a law school’s favor at every turn. All types of employment counted — whether short or long term, part or full time, legal or not legal, or even funded by the law school. At times schools reported graduates with an unknown employment status and graduates pursuing an additional degree as employed. Often the denominator for the basic employment rate did not even include all graduates in a given year.

Glossy salary statistics relied on other tricks. Schools would report salary medians as averages — technically true, but sloppy — without survey response rates. In one jarring instance, a law school reported an average salary of $160,000 without disclosing that only 4 percent of the class made that much.

The result is a fabric of fictional statistics that confirmed consumer expectations. When those expectations go unmet, people seethe. When those people are also law school graduates, they sue — at least once knowledge of the fraud reaches critical mass. Today we know that, since 2011, less than a third of Thomas Jefferson graduates landed long-term, full-time legal jobs within nine months of graduation. We also know that, for the third of Thomas Jefferson graduates that report a salary, the mean is about $60,000.

Consumers now have access to this information because Law School Trans­parency and other members of the law school transparency movement advocated for changes to the accreditation standards and altered disclosure norms. As a result of these reforms and the increased media coverage, enrollment is down about 30%, law schools are more accountable, and students start school more informed than ever before.

The success of the movement does not rely on a verdict in Alaburda’s favor. But as a consumer advocate and lawyer, I am rooting for her. We collectively changed the way law schools interact with applicants through arguments about professional and educational ethics, not the law. The law, however, should protect students from predatory practices of sophisticated parties. We must consider consumers as they are, not how we think they should be.


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