Are Law Schools Guilty as Charged?

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Prospects were already growing bleaker for the country's 200 accredited law schools. The enrollment for the fall 2011 class was the lowest in a decade. The news media were lambasting them, with a widely reprinted New York Times article openly asking if going to law school is now "a losing game," as recruiting and hiring of graduates dries up.

Now comes the unkindest cut of all: Law students without jobs are putting their education to work by suing their schools.

According to the American Bar Association, students have filed suits for misrepresentation of employment prospects against New York University Law School, Thomas M. Cooley Law School (four campuses in Michigan and one in Florida), and Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.

Plaintiff law firms are threatening to sue up to 15 additional schools for the same reason.

Law School Transparency, a nonprofit group formed for "encouraging and facilitating the transparent flow of consumer information" about law schools, has claimed that with these and other lawsuits, "nearly 10 percent of all ABA-approved law schools across eight states will be accused of tortiously misrepresenting job placement statistics and violating state consumer protection laws."

Members of Congress are, of course, getting into the act, with senators such as Barbara Boxer of California and Charles Grassley of Iowa calling on the ABA to require all law schools to determine more accurately where their graduates go after school and what kind of employment they procure.

In a teleseminar that I conducted not long ago, recent graduates were angry that they spent so much of their money (and incurred so much debt) to receive an education in a profession that does not offer them employment opportunities. They considered it fraudulent for the schools to have taken their money.

But those feelings are different than these lawsuits. On the one hand, the students want jobs and believe the schools have an obligation to help get them. On the other hand, the current spate of lawsuits merely wants information — consumer information — to be accurate and available to law school entrants.

While one could argue that there is no obligation on the part of schools to portray any employment statistics, the statistics they do provide should be accurate. One can also sense the frustration of the students when we realize that the very large student debt they carry is for a lifetime; it's not a debt that can be discharged in bankruptcy.

Law schools fuel the problem by trying harder than ever to get high rankings in the annual surveys conducted by several national publications. They want these rankings, of course, to attract more law school students.

And what do these students get for their money? There are few law schools — Harvard, Yale, Stanford, perhaps several others — that have long-term career impact over and above any particular ranking. Beyond those, what really does it matter if a potential new hire got a law degree from number 17 or number 29 on the list? Implying that high rankings mean better employment prospects simply breeds unrealistic expectations.

What is the obligation of the law school? How could anyone have predicted the shifts in our economy and the disruption of the profession? Not even senior partners are safe at their firms. Why should students be protected?

Lawsuits, both filed and threatened, bear watching as the profession continues to change. The drivers will be the dynamics of the economy and technological advancement, rather than law school claims about how well their graduates do.

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