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A Failed Legal Career: Who Is To Blame?

The New York Times recently reported on the pending San Diego trial of a law school graduate suing her alma mater for allegedly inflating its employment data to lure students to enroll; the first case of its kind to go to trial.

Plaintiff, Anna Alaburda, graduated from Thomas Jefferson School of Law in 2008 and has since been unable to find full-time employment as a lawyer. When she filed the lawsuit in 2011, Thomas Jefferson had an average student indebtedness of $137,000 and lower than 50% bar passage rate, yet reported that 92.1% of its graduate were working full-time.

Ms. Alaburda is seeking $125,000 in damages on the basis that she would not have enrolled at Thomas Jefferson if she had more accurate post-graduate employment data. Thomas Jefferson argues that the plaintiff did not suffer damages because she turned down a law firm offer with a $60,000 salary shortly after graduation.

Acknowledging that employment data is a major factor in law school ranking, Thomas Jefferson argues that it properly filed the employment data as required by the American Bar Association (“ABA”). More recently, the ABA has reworked its requirements to ensure that law schools are reporting more precise information, though precision has proven difficult when schools cannot determine the size of the firm or the salaries of their employed graduates.

Only two of fifteen similar suits filed in recent years remain viable.  The allegations are the same; law schools inflated their post-graduation employment data by including non-law related positions, such as part-time waitressing jobs, to mislead potential law students into believing their employment prospects were better than they actually were. Many of the cases were initially being pursued as class actions but courts in Delaware and California denied certification. Judges in New York, Michigan and Illinois dismissed several of the cases finding that law students assumed the risk of attending law school knowing that a post-graduate legal employment was not guaranteed.

In denying Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to dismiss the case, the Honorable Joel M. Pressman of the San Diego Superior Court found that denying transparent and accurate information to students making decisions about their education can be harmful.

These cases have begged the question: Who is to blame for a failed legal career? The hopeful law graduates who had a rude awakening about the realities of a legal career, the law schools that were supposed to provide the education and guidance necessary to build successful careers, or perhaps the one entity that former students cannot hold accountable in court: the ever-fluctuating and unpredictable legal market.

The trial is set to begin on Monday, March 7, 2016.