Alumni take law into own hands over jobs 'hype'

Legal graduates sue alma maters after employment prospects fail to materialise. Jon Marcus reports

March 1, 2012

At least 75 alumni of law schools in the US have put their learning to use by suing their alma maters for allegedly inflating employment and salary data.

One campaigner sees this as the first rumblings of a trend that could result in graduates demanding that universities keep their promises.

"For a long time, people looked at higher education as something where you didn't necessarily have the expectation of getting a return on your investment", said Kyle McEntee, co-founder of Law School Transparency, a non-profit organisation pushing law schools to be more honest about graduates' job prospects. "Now people are expecting a return on their investment."

The case may be of interest in the UK, where the government is set to require universities to give more information on graduate employment and where higher tuition fees are also expected to make students more demanding.

Mr McEntee started the group with fellow Vanderbilt Law School graduate Patrick Lynch after the pair learned that the employment rates some law schools cited in their promotional materials included part-time work or unrelated temporary jobs. Neither they nor Law School Transparency are involved in the lawsuits, and Vanderbilt is not among the schools being sued, but Mr McEntee believes he knows what has prompted the flurry of legal actions.

Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics for 2008 show that 89 per cent of US law-school students borrowed to pay their tuition fees, graduating with an average debt of $92,937 (£59,314).

"It has to do with consumer expectations," Mr McEntee said. "People are entering law school expecting to get a job afterwards." Because of "inaccurate" employment promises, "people have inflated expectations, they graduate and they're unhappy".

So unhappy, in fact, that 15 law schools are currently facing lawsuits for fraud, unfair competition and false advertising. Among those being sued are Albany Law School, DePaul University College of Law and New York Law School.

"The numbers reported by the schools just don't comport with the reality of the legal job market," claimed David Anziska, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

In counter-motions, the law schools state that some of the plaintiffs have found jobs - indeed a few have opened their own law firms.

Law schools report that 93 per cent of their graduates found jobs within nine months, at average annual salaries in the private sector of $160,000. But that was because the employment rates on which the reports were based counted "other kinds of jobs - part-time legal work, part-time waiting tables", Mr McEntee said. The reported salaries, he alleged, were fiction.

One institution in the line of fire, the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, issued a report saying that the unemployment rate for lawyers is the lowest for all management and professional occupations - a statement Mr McEntee and others dispute.

Now the American Bar Association, a division of which accredits law schools, has stepped in to propose that the schools change the way they report placement information so that it "shall be complete, accurate, and not misleading". Law schools publishing misleading data would place their accreditation at risk.

The proposal will receive final consideration in March.

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