The point of having law schools, as I’ve written before, is to “lay the foundation for graduates who are capable of learning and developing technical skills and of exercising sophisticated and mature judgment in the face of uncertainty.”
These schools exist to prepare students to take the bar and then practice as competent lawyers. We can reasonably presume, then, that every word, clause, sentence or paragraph in a law school’s brochure or on their website is aimed towards describing the school’s sound program of legal education, towards showing how the school prepares its students for passing the bar and then being effective and responsible legal practitioners. When a law school brochure says “classes,” they mean classes on legal issues, typically on the law itself. “Professors” are people with some pretense to being learned in the law. “Exams” assess the student’s understanding of the law and their ability to apply it.
But when they say “employed,” they mean making frappuccinos, or delivering pizza, or receiving a temporary stipend from the law school that’s granted to students for the sole purpose of manipulating U.S. News ranking. At least that’s what a trial judge in New York ruled yesterday. Above The Law had the scoop.
As a matter of background, last summer two enterprising Class of 2003 lawyers in New York City began filing a series of class actions against lower-rated law schools like Thomas M. Cooley, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and New York Law School, eventually growing to more than a dozen schools. The essence of each lawsuit was the same: that the schools had deliberately misrepresented their employment rates to entice potential students into attending. Everyone who had any job — including temporary “jobs” created by the law school — was counted as “employed,” and survey data was cherry-picked to include only the most successful students.
Yesterday, the court presiding over the lawsuit against New York Law School dismissed the case entirely, holding that, even “accept[ing] plaintiffs’ allegations as true” and giving them “the benefit of every possible favorable inference,” it still had to dismiss several New York Law School students’ claims against their alma mater. In sum:
The court does not view these post-graduate employment statistics to be misleading in a material way for a reasonable consumer acting reasonably. By anyone’s definition, reasonable consumers – college graduates – seriously considering law schools are a sophisticated subset of education consumers, capable of sifting through data and weighing alternatives before making a decision regarding their post-college options, such as applying for professional school. These reasonable consumers have available to them any number of sources of information to review when making their decisions.
Of course, there is one and only one “source of information” that a “reasonable consumer acting reasonably” can consult about a given law school: the law school. If you read a number anywhere in the world about the employment rate of New York Law School graduates, the number was either provided by the school or was made up out of thin air.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers have vowed to appeal.
I’ve been doing plaintiffs’ work long enough that I’m a pessimistic and a cynic, and I figured the case would at some point be dismissed prior to trial, regardless of how deceptive the law school’s brochures. The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, Jesse Strauss, summed up the feeling among other lawyers perfectly: “I think everyone is cheering for us, but not necessarily betting on us.”
But I wasn’t nearly pessimistic enough. I figured the case would survive the initial motion to dismiss, only to die, the way most consumer class actions die, on one or both of the twin horns of reliance and causation. (Want to be depressed about the future of consumer class actions? Take a look at defense lawyers Andrew Trask’s and Russell Jackson’s predictions for the future.)
Instead, the case was dismissed on the merits as to everybody, regardless of the class action. It’s not that the court didn’t understand the plaintiffs’ allegations that “a graduate could be working part-time as a barista in Starbucks – or toiling away in any job – and be deemed employed in ‘business,’ although such employment is temporary and does not require a law degree,” because that quote comes from the court itself.
Despite recognizing the absurdity and falsity of the law school’s claims, the court held that “the reasonable consumer of legal education must realize that these omnipresent realities of the market obviously trump any allegedly overly optimistic claims in their law school’s marketing materials.”
Whatever happened to the “omnipresent realities” of expecting an ABA accredited law school that charges nearly $150,000 for a juris doctorate to describe the legal careers of its students accurately? Then again, if the “reasonable consumer” already knows the numbers are a sham, why should a law school limit itself to having merely 100% of students employed nine months after graduating? If a recent graduate works three different coffee shop jobs to pay their student debt, count them as three lawyers.