In recent years, whispers have flittered through the legal community that some law schools may be exaggerating their post-graduation job-placement statistics to lure in new enrollees. Never have those allegations been given any real weight, though—until now.
Thomas Jefferson School of Law, a San Diego school that claims a 60% post-graduation employment rate while also reporting a bar passage rate of only 46%, was hit with a class-action lawsuit in 2011 led by 2008 graduate Anna Alaburda. According to Alaburda and several other graduates, the school committed fraud, negligence, and multiple violations of state statutes by manipulating data and intentionally counting some graduates as “employed” when they were not. Late last month, San Diego Superior Court judge Joel Pressman overruled the school’s counterarguments and set the case for trial in March.
While more than a dozen class-action lawsuits have been raised against law schools on the same issue in the last several years, this one is the first to be taken to trial.
The US market for traditional law firm associates has been gradually contracting for the last decade, leaving many of the country’s newest lawyers jobless every year. But despite dimming job prospects, law schools are still attracting thousands of new students a year. (While the increased employment rate for graduating law students in 2014 appears to have ended a six-year decline, that boost is actually due to the class having 3,000 fewer graduates than the one before it.)
The possible implications of the San Diego lawsuit are huge: If the school is found to have acted as the suit claims—inflating employment statistics, faking salary data, practicing unfair business strategies, and engaging in a plethora of other dishonest activities—it may owe millions in damages to current and former students. In addition, scrutiny would fall on law schools and admissions offices all over the country.
“We have discovered very compelling evidence of wrongdoing,” the attorneys involved in the class-action told Above the Law this week, citing a number of inconsistencies in Thomas Jefferson’s self-reported data. That the case is being taken seriously by the court is a sign, already, that judges might agree. And if the school is found guilty, perhaps the real lesson here is to never try and swindle people who have just spent the last three years of their lives meticulously learning how to spot deceit.