Breaking: Class Action Suit Filed Against Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Update: Follow the latest on Alaburda v. TJSL here.

At least one graduate has chosen to seek judicial relief from her alma mater in a class action that could include over 2,300 graduates of Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California. Sara Randazzo broke the news (subscription required) at midnight PDT in the Daily Journal. The story will be available in print Friday morning.

The complaint (see the case summary below) alleges that Thomas Jefferson School of Law (TJSL) has engaged in “fraudulent and deceptive business practices,” including “a practice of misrepresenting its post-graduation employment statistics,” and that “the disservice TJSL is doing to its students and society generally is readily apparent.” The complaint cites a number of news articles over the last few years, and quotes from law school faculty and administrators to demonstrate the widespread consensus that schools are engaged in unfair and misleading practices. You can check out the complaint for yourself here. The complaint was filed by lead plaintiff Anna Alaburda, a 2008 honors graduate of TJSL. Additional court documents are attached to this post.

This lawsuit is of historical significance. It is the latest example of the breaking trust relationship between law schools and their students, their graduates, and the profession. Law schools have a duty to be honest and ethical in their reporting and presentation of employment data. This lawsuit shows that at least some members of the profession believe these duties are legal requirements, in addition to being merely professional or educational in nature. Perhaps importantly for some critics, Ms. Alaburda decided to attend law school before the legal market collapsed and before stories of misleading information were widespread.

Current Employment Information

As of today, TJSL is still providing misleading employment information (the “TJSL Report”) on its website for the Class of 2009. Compounding the problem, TJSL has thus far declined to report any Class of 2010 information on its website, despite already collecting sufficient employment data about the class when they reported to NALP back in March of this year. Almost every law school could do a much better job educating prospective students about the nature of the jobs obtained by their graduates; TJSL is no different. The most serious fault we find with the TJSL Report is how the school misrepresents starting salaries.

The underlying data match for the TJSL Report and U.S. News-provided information

The TJSL Report claims that the school collected at least some data from 86% of graduates (respectable, though still putting them in the bottom 5% of all law schools), and that of those graduates 84.7% were employed. This means that 72.8% of Class of 2009 graduates were known to be employed, which is the same as what the career services office reported to U.S. News. Likewise, both sources indicate that 80% of the graduates known to be employed were employed in the private sector, i.e. working for law firms or in business & industry in some (any) capacity. This data match makes it possible for us to examine TJSL’s advertised placement success with the more detailed reporting rates submitted to U.S. News.

TJSL Salaries

Based on our calculations from the data submitted to U.S. News, only 17% of those working full time in the private sector reported a salary. This means that at most 22 graduates reported salary data for full-time, private-sector jobs to TJSL. (This puts TJSL in the bottom 10% of law schools by percentage reporting.)

We say “at most” because the U.S. News salary figures only include full-time jobs. Only about half of TJSL graduates had full-time jobs for the Class of 2009. Some of these were likely with law firms and in business, but probably not all of them. The only thing we gain from the information provided on the TJSL Report is that at least five salaries underly the average salary figures for law firm practice ($62,443) and for Business jobs ($90,267). Based on the other data, the average figures probably each only use data for a few more graduates than the minimum five. As such, the $90,267 and $62,443 average salaries are each based on data for between 2-8% of the entire class (for a total not to exceed 10%).

The substance of these salary averages is not apparent from TJSL’s Report or website. In fact, the picture which the published averages present is of a magnitude far more appealing than reality. The business salary average is significantly higher than the California mean salary, $83,977, for the business category according to NALP.

For law firm jobs, the problem is a little different. While the national mean salary for law firms is $115,254, that average is misleading on its face because 40% of the salaries used to calculate the average were $160,000 and 5% were $145,000. If we factor these salaries – the salaries most likely to be reported – out of the average, the average reduces to $80,007.

Although this average still likely skews high, the effect of large firm salaries on the adapted average is apparent. Those with higher salaries are far more likely to report. These salaries are also usually publicly known, thus the graduates do not need to report their salary to be included in these averages since schools can report any salaries they have reason to believe are accurate. This adjustment is not only common at law schools, but encouraged by NALP. As the TJSL Report states, “Our annual employment statistics are compiled in accordance with the [sic] NALP’s Employment Report and Salary Survey.”

The main point here is that the average salary reported in the TJSL Report skews high without context: no salary ranges, percentiles, or observational data besides the five-graduate floor has been provided. TJSL could, if it wanted, provide the following chart as specific context. This information, specific to graduates from all NALP-reporting graduates working in California, comes from NALP’s Class of 2009 Jobs & JDs. TJSL receives a copy of this report, since it is an active participant in NALP’s research. Our example uses all California salary information because 83% of TJSL’s graduates known to be employed were employed in California.

TJSL Data California Salary Data (All Grads)
Firm Type # Grads 25th Median 75th Middle 90% Avg.
2-10 Attys. 36 $52,000 $62,400 $72,000 $36,000 – $100,000 $63,526
11-25 Attys. 2 $60,000 $70,000 $80,000 $45,000 – $135,000 $77,096
26-50 Attys. 3 $70,000 $78,000 $95,000 $50,000 – $130,000 $83,152
51-100 Attys. 4 $79,000 $90,000 $135,000 $62,500 – $160,000 $105,449
101-250 Attys. 2 $100,000 $145,000 $160,000 $85,000 – $160,000 $135,171
251+ Attys. 7 $160,000 $160,000 $160,000 $140,000 – $160,000 $156,904

The total number of TJSL graduates in each category indicates that the salaries TJSL used to calulate its published average firm salary skews even higher than normal. If between 5 and 17 graduates reported a law firm salary, at least some were from jobs paying six figures. But it’s difficult to know how many of those were six-figure jobs because the employer category includes non-attorneys making significantly less than attorneys with the same employer. Of course, prospective law students could know all of this if the school had decided to tell them.

Overall, it is easy to see why a prospective TJSL student today would be misled into thinking that a $200,000 investment in the TJSL degree is worth it. It remains to be seen whether our analysis holds for previous years, as well as whether what we consider misleading is sufficiently fraudulent, misrepresentative, or unfair according to a Cali state court.

TJSL is not alone

Countless other law schools across the country engage in similarly misleading practices, making them equally at risk of facing a class action. Every law school has the opportunity to provide better information and better context for that information. Some schools are proactively reforming how they present employment data, but many more have not yet felt compelled to change their behavior. Lawsuits like this will make law schools quickly rethink how they promote their programs.
See a summary of the complaint after the jump »»

California Bar President Favors More Transparency

The president of the State Bar of California, Bill Hebert, recently advanced the discussion on law school transparency. In an address last week he highlighted recent developments in the movement and called for widespread change. He said:

The profession needs to require greater transparency in reporting by law schools. As a condition of ABA accreditation, law schools should be required, at a minimum, to comply with the [ABA Young Lawyers Division’s] Truth in Law School Education standards, if not even more rigorous reporting standards. In California, it might be time to consider imposing the same requirements on our state-accredited schools, so applicants can make informed choices.

As we wrote about last month, the YLD’s nonbinding resolution does not fully address the problems that applicants have in making informed choices. It is therefore encouraging to see Hebert suggest that the ABA should be doing more. While Hebert did not detail specific courses of action the state of California could take regarding state-accredited schools, revising the Admissions and Educational Standards is a possibility. When compared to the accreditation standards put forth by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, California’s standards fall far short. Seeing as the ABA requirements themselves are inadequate at protecting applicants from misleading employment statistics, California‚Äôs introduction of a disclosure requirement would be an important step. It could also lead to similar consumer protections in other jurisdictions trying to address reform. And it could send a strong message to the ABA at a crucial time, as Dean Yellen’s Standard 509 Subcommittee continues drafting proposed changes to legal education’s lone consumer protection provision.

Taking Responsibility
The most important element of Hebert’s comments was to whom he assigned the responsibility for reform. He did not put the responsibility on individual law schools. Rather, the legal profession itself has the duty to make sure the country’s future lawyers know what they’re getting into. Hebert’s comments also push things further than other proposals to date. Hebert mentions the Young Lawyer Division’s recent resolution, but then goes on to suggest more rigorous measures.

By framing the solution in terms of what the profession should do, rather than pointing the finger at either law school deans or disgruntled graduates, Hebert is engaging members of the profession who genuinely care about these problems and want to do something about them. Increased transparency in the reporting of employment statistics is a necessary step to restoring the values of the profession. But reforms will only occur as influential leaders like Bill Hebert motivate their colleagues into action.

In the meantime, the opportunity still stands for those of you who are thinking of entering the legal profession and want to get involved. Schools recently submitted detailed employment data for Class of 2010 graduates to NALP, which means they have plenty of useful information at their fingertips. This is the perfect time for people to contact career services offices and request to see information on the Class of 2010.

If schools care about the welfare of future attorneys as much as the State Bar of California, they have the ability – right now – to get that information out to you. All you need to do is ask.

We’ll be reporting more in the coming weeks on new developments that are in the works. In the meantime, please let us know if you hear about schools taking the initiative to release Class of 2010 information.