Several days ago I read with interest a story about a law school graduate who had sued her former school, the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California. The case made it all the way to trial, but the plaintiff, Anna Alaburda, was unsuccessful. The case is interesting for a number of reasons.
The essence of the plaintiff’s claim against the school was that the school had engaged in deceptive business practices, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation when it came to stating the employment figures of graduates. “But for” these “misrepresentations,” the plaintiff claimed, she would not have borrowed in excess of $100,000 to attend the school.
Alaburda claimed that she had at least in part based her decision to attend the school on statistics published in the 2004 edition of US News and World Report. Those figures claimed that 80% of the school’s graduates had found jobs within nine months after graduation. Those figures were arguably misleading, in that they included all types of jobs, rather than law-related jobs.
There have been cases similar to this one in other parts of the country, but it is very rare for them to go all the way to trial. In this case, the jury ruled 9-3 against Alaburda. They were obviously not convinced by her arguments.
Initial rulings in the case seemed to favor Alaburda. The judge presiding over the case allowed the case to proceed to trial, and even noted in previous rulings that the school’s employment figures which included all types of jobs were “meaningless in the context of a legal education.” However, the school was able to counter by showing that it reported its employment data “correctly” in that it comported with the method required by the American Bar Association and US News.
Indeed, the real statistics are hardly impressive. In 2014, graduates of Thomas Jefferson getting jobs that required passage of the bar exam was closer to 66%. Last year, the school reported that only 31% of its graduates found a job that required passage of the bar exam. Another 27% were still looking for jobs, and the status of the remainder was unknown.
The market for legal jobs has been depressed for years, but is starting to climb back slowly. Lack of employment opportunities is a real problem, not an imaginary one. One law school, the Brooklyn Law School, recently took the unprecedented step of actually offering graduates a refund if they were unable to find a job.
So it all depends on how the statistics are reported. It is revealing that law schools now have to reveal “true” statistics: that is, they have to disclose the figures for people who are actually getting legal jobs, without including people working as Starbucks baristas. The method of reporting has changed since Alaburda was in school, and this may be a tacit admission that she (and other similar cases around the country) had a valid point.
What went wrong for Alaburda at trial? One can only speculate, but in this writer’s opinion, she was facing an uphill battle from the beginning.
Educational institutions before the Great Recession, like the big banks, had been engaged in—to use the term delicately—selective reporting and cherry-picking when it came to public disclosure. Institutions took full advantage of the lax reporting rules. No one really cared because the whole system was awash in money.
But then the economy tanked, and things began to get grim. Any law school reporting its “real” numbers would look awful, so they all continued to do the bare minimum that the rules required. Was this ethical? Probably not, but the courts are not prepared to hold higher education accountable.
Alaburda herself, it must be said, was not much of a sympathetic figure, at least to this writer. During the litigation, it was revealed that she actually turned down a $60,000 per year offer from a Southern California law firm because they would not pay her bar dues (only a few hundred per year) and required a month of travel.
When I graduated from law school in 1998, I took a job as a rural prosecuting attorney that paid only $30,000 per year. No one gave me any jobs; I had to find them on my own, and had to move far away from home to get it. I supplemented my income by doing military reserve duty. I was single, had no dependents, no school loans, and was used to living an austere lifestyle.
And I wanted to learn how to do jury trials, rather than be one of those paper-shuffling office lawyers who couldn’t try a case if their life depended on it. Even then, I only did this job for one year. After that, I formed my own firm, and have been rolling forward ever since. For me it is a satisfying and rewarding career. I love trying cases, meeting with clients, solving problems, and advocating for people. But like any career, it is not for everyone.
The student loan problem is a real one, make no mistake. There is a justified sense of betrayal among graduates. This case was an interesting one because it did draw attention to a problem that has not yet been solved. I myself am currently litigating the bankruptcy dischargeability of a married couple (high school teachers) with over $260,000 in student loans, who have no hope of ever paying it off. The situation is grotesque, but until Congress addresses these problems in a coherent way, they will continue.
In the meantime, every person must do his or her own due diligence. The only person who cares about you, is you. Are there too many lawyers? Yes. Are there too many law schools? Yes. Do institutions skew things their way when they can? Yes.
But in my opinion, Alaburda did not have the go-getter attitude she should have had. She was not hustling, not being proactive, not being aggressive. I would never have sit around looking for a job for years. I would have done something, anything to get moving. Even if I had to go do something else, I would have done it. Who cares? What matters is survival.
She let opportunities pass her by. She failed to appreciate that no one out there is going to “give” her anything. Her failure to find a job was due more to her lackadaisical attitude, rather than the “deception” of the school. As bitter as the truth may be, no graduate is “owed” anything. I believe the jury also saw it this way, which is why the verdict went against her.
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