Shortly after Thanksgiving, a California court denied Thomas Jefferson Law School’s motion to dismiss fraud claims lodged against it by a group of alumni. The school made headlines in early 2011 when some of its graduates claimed that misleading employment statistics caused them to incur staggering debt to acquire a degree that didn’t lead to a job in the legal industry. It was the first school to face such a suit and is now the third to lose a motion to dismiss the claims.
Last summer, two other law schools—the University of San Francisco and Golden Gate University—failed to get similar cases brought against them thrown out when the California state court judge hearing both ruled that the issue of whether those schools’ representations were “likely to deceive a reasonable consumer is a question of fact.”
The court further observed that “plaintiffs allege that they were in fact deceived by the statements they attribute to defendant, and there is nothing before me to suggest that any of the plaintiffs were not reasonable consumers of a law school education.”
The California court’s decision in the USF and Golden Gate University cases was at odds with an earlier ruling that went the other way. In a similar case brought against New York Law School, a New York State court judge described prospective law students as “a sophisticated subset of education consumers.” He thought the plaintiffs should have looked more carefully at the numbers that the school touted, as well as data available from other sources. Those plaintiffs have asked the appellate court to consider the issue.
Likewise, courts in Michigan and Illinois have dismissed lawsuits filed against Thomas M. Cooley Law School, DePaul University College of Law, John Marshall Law School, and Chicago-Kent Law School. Wait for the results of more appeals before accepting as definitive the schools’ quick claims of vindication.
Who’s right about these prospective consumers of legal education? Are they a special class of individuals who possess unique skills in evaluating what law schools say about their graduates’ fate? Do they have some kind of special strength that allows them to resist the promise of a well-paying legal job as the reward for three years’ work and an investment of more than $100,000?
Either Way, Aren’t They Somebody’s Kids?
Today, it seems easy to say that students who believed law school claims of 90+ percent employment rates and six-figure starting salaries for their graduates should have known better. But abandon such hindsight for a moment and think back to 2004, when some of the current plaintiffs were thinking about attending law school.
The lawyer bubble was growing, but until the summer of 2012 the ABA didn’t require schools to provide meaningful employment data to prospective students. Full-time, part-time, no-degree-required, and law school–funded positions were lumped together to create a rosy picture of job security that was, in fact, a cruel illusion. As the Great Recession began in 2007, that picture looked even more appealing to young people seeking out any employment lifeboat in a sinking economy.
So far, no plaintiff has prevailed on the merits in a claim against a law school. The preliminary rulings in California mean only that those plaintiffs get an opportunity to prove their allegations. As those cases unfold, no one should let would-be law students off the hook completely. But confirmation bias is a powerful force; it takes uncommon perception to see things that contradict preconceived notions, including some students’ naive dreams about what life as a lawyer might mean.
If law schools continue to act without any serious accountability for their roles in creating the massive and growing oversupply of lawyers, greater student introspection alone won’t solve the problem. Case Western Reserve Law School dean Lawrence E. Mitchell proved that point in his recent (and flawed) New York Times op-ed, “Law School is Worth the Money.” For those who prefer data and analysis to self-serving salesmanship, Vanderbilt Law School professor Herwig Schlunk has a response to that headline: for too many young lawyers, it isn’t.
For far too long, deans have avoided accountability for behavior that has created the lawyer bubble. At long last, perhaps some judges will correct that injustice.
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at www.thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.