Graduates sue law schools over “fraudulent” employment data

August 16, 2011

Law School BusinessAs most lawyers are aware, especially ones who’ve graduated from law school within the past several years, the legal job market is, mildly put, oversaturated.

Fewer are likely aware, though, of the current battle over law school reporting methods.

Starting a few years ago with “scambloggers” (recent law grads writing about deceptive law school practices), there has been an increasing public demand for accountability in how law schools report their employment data.

The dialogue has expanded to include law professors, veteran attorneys, and politicians, all demanding that law schools change their ways.

As should come as a surprise to no one, recently-filed lawsuits against two law schools – Thomas Cooley Law School and New York Law School – are demanding the same thing.

What is so egregious about school reporting practices to incite such public ire?

As the complaints explain, the data gives a misleading picture of post-graduation job prospects because of its lack of detail.

Specifically, the complaints explain that the two targeted law schools inflate both their graduates’ job placement rates and salaries.

The suits are only against these two schools because they are two of the biggest in the nation; as the complaint concedes, the problem is endemic in the industry.

Why?

Because American Bar Association accreditation requires only self-reported data on whether a graduate is employed nine months after graduation, and how much that graduate makes.

The first set of data is incomplete because, as the lawsuit states, it doesn’t inquire into whether the employment is full-time, part-time, temporary, or whether a J.D. or bar admission is even required.

The second data set is deficient because it relies only on a graduate’s self-reporting, and its reporting isn’t required to be counted in the rest of the employment data.

The complaint gives an example of this: a law school graduate is working as a part-time Starbucks barista, reports as much to the law school nine months after graduation, but doesn’t give his salary (probably because it wouldn’t be anything for a law school graduate to brag about).

Under the current reporting scheme, that graduate would be counted as “employed,” working in “business,” but his salary wouldn’t be counted toward the average for a graduate working in “business” – $71,470 at Thomas Cooley and $86,667 at NYLS.

The practice, the suits allege, creates the impression in unsophisticated consumers that jobs after graduation are common – between 76% and 82% for Thomas Cooley and 90% and 95% for NYLS – and that these jobs are high-paying.

The complaints also list several other practices that law schools, including the two targeted, engage in to further manipulate the data.

One such practice that 42% of law schools engage in is creating short-term “jobs programs” into which they hired their own recently graduated students, sometimes right before the school is required to make its reporting.

The complaints also devote considerable space to detailing how bad the job market is for attorneys, and use copious amounts of data to do so.*

Both complaints are based on theories of fraud or misrepresentation, and in a purely legal vacuum, both of the suits make fairly strong cases.

After all, who would attend a costly postgraduate school when full-time employment rates requiring such a degree may only be around 30%, (as the complaint alleges it may be)?

Indeed, law schools, to put it kindly, finesse the data to make their graduates’ job prospects appear much sunnier.

The fact that the practice isn’t limited to certain schools is a big hurdle facing the suits, though.

Any court ruling for the plaintiffs could spark a wave of litigation across the country, bankrupting many institutions; courts are very reluctant to make such rulings.

On the other hand, this area currently lacks nearly any government regulation, and a court may view lawsuits as the most fitting form of regulation (considering the circumstances).

However these suits turn out will affect how law schools operate in the future, which, in turn, will affect the future of the legal profession.

We can only hope that the law is correctly and justly applied.

 

*One statistic sums up the job market in a nutshell:  nationally, there were twice as many people who passed the bar in 2009 – 53,508 – as there were job openings – 26,239.