Breaking: 15 more ABA-approved law schools to be sued

Two law firms, Law Offices of David Anziska and Strauss Law PLLC, have announced their intention to jointly file class action lawsuits against 15 more U.S. law schools (full press release below). The law schools are located in seven states:

  • California: California Western School of Law, Southwestern Law School, and University of San Francisco School of Law (3)
  • Florida: Florida Coastal School of Law (1)
  • Illinois: Chicago-Kent College of Law, DePaul University College of Law, and John Marshall School of Law (3)
  • Maryland: University of Baltimore School of Law (1)
  • New York: Albany Law School, Brooklyn Law School, Hofstra Law School, Pace University School of Law, and St. John’s University School of Law (5)
  • Pennsylvania: Villanova University School of Law and Widener University School of Law (also has a campus in Delaware) (2)

These complaints will follow previous complaints filed against New York Law School, Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan, and Thomas Jefferson School of Law in California.

With these lawsuits, nearly 10% of all ABA-approved law schools across eight states will be accused of tortiously misrepresenting job placement statistics and violating state consumer protection laws. As with the previous complaints, the relief sought will include tuition reimbursement, punitive damages, and injunctive relief such as mandatory auditing of employment data and cessation of false advertising tactics.

LST is a forward-looking organization focused on improving legal education through policy efforts, thus our interests do not adequately align with plaintiffs seeking to be made whole. As such, we will not be directly involved in filing and prosecuting these lawsuits. Nevertheless, we will join these law firms on a media call this afternoon because of the role that class action lawsuits can play in incentivizing change through highly visible impact litigation. We will help put these lawsuits in context for journalists unfamiliar with law school consumer information issues.

These cases will create more awareness among prospective law students that the employment statistics advertised by these law schools do not mean what prospectives tend to think they mean. It is our hope that these complaints, along with future claims made against other law schools, will help bring about broad social change by altering how law schools operate and by pressuring the ABA Section of Legal Education to fulfill its regulatory duties. In the meantime, LST will continue seeking ways to expand the debate about legal education reform and to help usher in a new approach to the recruitment and training of attorneys and judges.

Press Release

Post-Graduation Employment Rates at Fifteen Law Schools Questioned

October 5, 2011
New York, NY
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Law Offices of David Anziska and Strauss Law PLLC announced today that they are seeking to file class action complaints challenging the post-graduate employment rates reported by the following 15 schools:

1) Albany Law School, which reports rates of between 91% and 97%;
2) Brooklyn Law School, which reports rates of between 91% and 98%;
3) Hofstra Law School, which reports rates of between 94% and 97%;
4) Pace University School of Law, which reports rates of between 90% and 95%;
5) St. John’s University School of Law, which reports rates of between 88% and 96%;
6) Villanova University School of Law, which reports rates of between 93% and 98%;
7) Widener University School of Law, which reports rates of between 90% and 96%;
8) University of Baltimore School of Law, which reports rates of between 93% and 95%;
9) Florida Coastal School of Law, which reports rates of between 80% and 95%;
10) Chicago-Kent College of Law, which reports rates of between 90% and 97%
11) DePaul University School of Law, which reports rates of between 93% and 98%
12) John Marshall School of Law (Chicago), which reports rates of between 90% and 100%
13) California Western School of Law, which reports rates of between 90% and 93%;
14) Southwestern Law School, which reports rates of between 97% and 98%;
15) University of San Francisco School of Law, which reports rates of between 90% and 95% percent

The average debt load for 2009 graduates of these fifteen schools is $108,829.4. “The lawsuits against New York Law School and Thomas M. Cooley Law School are prompting many recent law school graduates with high debt loads and disappointing job prospects to question the employment rates reported by their schools” stated David Anziska. “The numbers reported by the schools just don’t comport with the reality of the legal job market. We hope that litigation, combined with pressure from regulators, applicants, students and alumni changes the way legal education is marketed and provides compensation to those who may have been mislead in the past.” he added.

Law Offices of David Anziska and Strauss Law PLLC are advising graduates of the above schools that they may have certain legal rights and should contact David Anziska at david@anziskalaw.com or visit www.anziskalaw.com to learn more.

Law Offices of David Anziska and Strauss Law PLLC will be hosting a media call to explain the current status of litigation regarding law schools’ post-graduate employment data and to address the nation-wide problem of high debt burden and low employment rates among recent graduates. Joining the firms on the call will be Kyle P. McEntee and Patrick J. Lynch from Law School Transparency, a Tennessee-based non-profit whose mission is to improve the quality and presentation of post-graduate employment data.

TJSL Representative Speaks Out About Class Action Suit

Despite news of Alaburda v. Thomas Jefferson School of Law breaking the day before the holiday weekend, the legal community has been abuzz about what the first class action suit filed against a law school for misleading consumer information means for TJSL, prospective law students, and the legal profession. This post looks at some of the responses thus far.

Many commenters have been debating the merits of this suit and whether the class will be certified. Others are wondering whether more lawsuits will follow in other states against other schools. And many commenters suggest that the ABA and/or U.S. News should be joined as defendants. Social media traffic to our website alone was substantial, suggesting that members of the legal profession are very interested in the case and may continue watching it closely.

Comments from the Parties

Ms. Alaburda’s attorney, Brian Procel, had this to say to Sara Randazzo when she first broke the story at the Daily Journal (subscription required):

This lawsuit is about ensuring that law schools are held to the same standard as other businesses and that they are not permitted to misrepresent information.

Ms. Randazzo also reports that:

Beth Kransberger, associate dean of student affairs at Thomas Jefferson, said the school has always “reported honestly and with integrity” when providing data to various agencies, including the American Bar Association and the National Association for Law Placement.

Ms. Kransberger then added:

A law degree remains an amazingly versatile degree, and that continues to be what drives us.

Ms. Kransberger made additional comments to Karen Sloan in the National Law Journal:

The school has always followed the guidelines established by the ABA. We’ve always been accurate in what we report, and we’ve always followed the system given to us by the ABA.

This lawsuit is very much about a larger debate. This is part of the debate about whether it’s practical to pursue a graduate degree in these difficult economic times.

The Reality of TJSL’s Comments

Ms. Kransberger’s comments about the ABA Section of Legal Education are not surprising, as they will represent a crucial part of TJSL’s substantive legal argument. In particular, the law school hopes to show that it has acted properly by responding truthfully to the ABA questionnaire and NALP survey each year.

This conflates two separate acts by TJSL: reporting and presenting employment data. Although false reporting would be problematic for TJSL for each cause of action, as they focus on misrepresentations, acts of concealment, and misleading statements, TJSL could have reported true data to the ABA, NALP, and U.S. News and Ms. Alaburda would not be precluded from recovering under any of the actions.

As we have continuously emphasized, the issue is how law schools present consumer information to the public, not only what they report to the ABA, NALP, and U.S. News. (Although truthful reporting may be an issue at some schools, especially in light of the Villanova Law scandal, many, many more law schools mislead prospective students, intentionally or unintentionally, with how they choose to present consumer information.)

Law schools deserve the brunt of the blame for the current lack of quality employment information, including the provision of misleading information, even though the ABA Section of Legal Education has a responsibility to regulate under its accreditation authority. It is worth noting, however, that the Section only has to act because schools do not voluntarily release the information prospective students need to make an informed investment. The responsibilities of law schools to prospectives and the profession are not absolved or delayed because the Section regulates law schools; nor does it matter that the Section is considering more careful regulations. The failure of the Section to monitor whether schools are behaving legally is an argument against the Section, not in favor of a particular law school.

These responsibilities are confirmed by Standard 509, the ABA’s (minimum) consumer information standard. Standard 509 is just one of the Section’s standards that law schools must meet to obtain and retain ABA approval. Compliance with this standard in particular is at the core of Ms. Kransberger’s claim that “[TJSL] has always followed the guidelines established by the ABA.”

Standard 509: Basic Consumer Information
(a) A law school shall publish basic consumer information. The information shall be published in a fair and accurate manner reflective of actual practice.

Interpretation 509-4
Standard 509 requires a law school fairly and accurately to report basic consumer information whenever and wherever that information is reported or published. A law school’s participation in the Council-designated publication referred to in Interpretation 509-2 and its provision of fair and accurate information for that book does not excuse a school from the obligation to report fairly and accurately all basic consumer information published in other places or for other purposes.

In addition to the Interpretation above, Interpretation 509-1 provides a list of what information is considered “basic.” Concerning employment information, only the “any job at all” employment rate and bar passage statistics are included in the list, leaving it up to the interpreter to determine whether the list is exhaustive or whether other basic employment information must also be reported in a fair and accurate manner. We think it does. Under Standard 509, for example, it is not explicitly stated that a law school must fairly and accurately report the number of graduates employed in a fulltime legal job. However, it would be absurd to think a law school can unfairly and inaccurately report the number of graduates employed in legal jobs should the school volunteer that information. It is in part due to the inadequacy of this list that we have pushed for a revision of Standard 509.

Grounding a defense against misrepresentation by pointing out that a school complies with an ineffective standard should fail, particularly if the school is arguably not even in compliance. If a law school is aware that the information it shares does not adequately explain its post-graduation outcomes and is aware that the information misleads consumers, the law school is open to an investigation and potential sanctions by the Accreditation Committee. The fact that no sanctions have yet been issued is only a sign that the ABA hasn’t received any complaints, which hardly makes TJSL unique. In an email response to LST last month, Consultant Bucky Askew informed us that during his tenure as Consultant to the Accreditation Committee (since December 2005) there has not been a single complaint filed against any law school alleging violations of Standard 509. You can read more about the complaint process and how to file a complaint against your law school here

Perhaps most telling is that even the ABA doesn’t seem to think that TJSL’s tactics are in compliance. The Subcommittee on Standard 509, charged with improving Standard 509, also asserts that the kind of behavior that TJSL engages in is in fact misleading. According to the subcommittee, “a school that touts median salary information, without appropriate qualifiers, is misleading prospective students.”

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 »»