Feb 27 (Reuters) - Lawsuits claiming law schools
misled applicants about future job prospects have drawn plenty
of attention, but they may not help disgruntled graduates
get their money back , some legal education experts say.
According to the lawsuits -- three of which were filed last year followed by 12 this month -- the law schools overstated the
job prospects of their students. The plaintiffs, who are
graduates of the law schools, say they have been left with huge
student debts and a dim career outlook after graduation.
Nine of the 15 law schools denied any wrongdoing. The
others could not be reached by Reuters.
While the lawsuits have generated plenty of coverage in the
legal media, the underlying legal claims are not strong,
according to some legal education experts. That's because it is
not clear that the law schools in question failed to meet
minimum industry standards when reporting job placement data,
these experts say.
"I have a feeling a lot of the lawsuits will not get very
far, especially if the schools can show they were complying with
the rules," said Brian Leiter, a professor at the University of
Chicago Law School who runs a popular blog on legal education.
"Plaintiffs would probably have to show they simply would not
have gone to law school at all, since all schools (followed) the
It also seems "extremely unlikely" that courts will grant
class certification, which has been requested by all the
plaintiffs, Leiter added. This is because individual questions
are likely to predominate over common ones, he said.
Historically, the American Bar Association, which accredits
law schools, provided little guidance on what job placement data
law schools should report. It asked law schools to use the
guidelines of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP)
when reporting the careers of their graduates. The association
allowed law schools to report their graduates as employed if
they held part-time, low-wage jobs that did not require a law
That changed last year, when the ABA asked law schools
to provide more detailed information on where, how, and whether
recent graduates are employed.
Before these changes were made, many poorly rated law
schools reported that upwards of 90 percent of their
graduates were employed nine months after graduation. (None of
the 15 law schools facing lawsuits are among the top 50 law
schools, as ranked by US News & World Report, and six are not
ranked by the magazine at all.)
In their lawsuits, the plaintiffs argue that the marketing
and outreach efforts of their alma maters led them to believe
that these percentages referred to graduate placement in legal
In a lawsuit filed Feb. 1 against Brooklyn Law School, for
example, plantiffs said the law school advertised employment
rates from 88 percent to 98 percent within nine months of
graduation. One plaintiff, Adam Bevelacqua, said in the
complaint that he was misled when he took on tens of thousands
of dollars in debt. He said he is unable to find legal work
after graduating from the law school last year.
Before enrolling, Bevelacqua "specifically relied on
Brooklyn Law's representation that, depending on the year, well
over 90 percent of Brooklyn Law graduates secured employment
within nine months of graduation," the complaint said.
A spokeswoman from Brooklyn Law School said that the claims
in the lawsuit "are without merit, and we will vigorously defend
against them in court."
David Logan, dean of Roger Williams University School of Law
in Bristol, Rhode Island, said he is skeptical about the merits
of the lawsuits. The schools' graduate job placement data
may be "opaque" he said, but still in compliance with industry
standards. (Roger Williams University School of Law is not among
the law schools facing lawsuits by graduates.)
And, while the complaints point to statements about how each
school's exemplary education will help graduates establish a
legal career, "'puffing' is not the same as fraud," Logan said.
Whether claims against law schools stand up in court depends
on the how strong consumer protection laws are in each state,
said Douglas Rush, a professor at Saint Louis University who
specializes in legal education.
An explanation of how law schools have defined
"employed" is available from NALP or the ABA , and
in some states the burden is on the consumer to track it down,
Rush said. If the applicant didn't bother, those courts will say
"too bad, plaintiff loses," he said.
On the other hand, a state with strict consumer protection
laws might consider it deceptive to tell a "bunch of starry-eyed
applicants" that 95 percent of graduates are employed when only
22 percent of them are working in legal jobs, Rush said.
Mark Gergen, a law professor at the University of California
at Berkeley, said he finds the claims in the lawsuits credible.
Even if the job data reported by law schools was technically
accurate, courts could find them guilty of common-law fraud for
stating something they knew or had reason to know was
misleading, he said.
"People going to bottom-tier law schools ought to know that
they won't go like hot cakes on the job market," he
said. But that doesn't mean you're allowed to exploit their
Gergen compared the litigation against law schools
to the tobacco litigation in the 1990s: "People had been calling
(cigarettes) 'cancer sticks' for years, but tobacco companies
were still held responsible for their behavior."
The Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego was the
first law school to be sued when a graduate filed a class action
complaint last May. The school's dean, Rudolph Hasl, said that
since the information the school published about job placement
is "accurate and correct," the school is in a "very strong
position" in the litigation.
Information on graduate job prospects are not the main
reason individuals choose a law school, he added.
"The key is, to what extent was the applicant's
decision to attend the law school motivated by (job placement)
data?," said Hasl. "My sense is, it is not a significant
motivating or driving force. It is probably dwarfed by so many
other factors, including the applicant's credentials and what
choice (of law schools) he or she has."
Law schools facing lawsuits by graduates include: Thomas
Jefferson School of Law, Thomas M. Cooley Law School, New York
Law School, the Albany Law School of Union University, Brooklyn
Law School, the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra
University, California Western School of Law, Golden Gate
University School of Law, Southwestern Law School, University of
San Francisco School of Law, IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law,
DePaul University College of Law, the John Marshall Law School,
Florida Coastal School of Law and Widener University School of
(Reporting by Moira Herbst)
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