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Nearly a decade has passed since an aspiring young lawyer in California, Anna Alaburda, graduated in the top tier of her class, passed the state bar exam and set out to use the law degree she had spent about $150,000 to acquire.
But next week, in a San Diego courtroom, she will tell a story that has become all too familiar among law students in the United States: Since graduating from the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in 2008, she has yet to find a full-time salaried job as a lawyer. From there, though, her story has taken an unusual twist: Ms. Alaburda, 37, is the first former law student whose case against a law school, charging that it inflated the employment data for its graduates as a way to lure students to enroll, will go to trial. Other disgruntled students have tried to do the same. In the last several years, 15 lawsuits have sought to hold various law schools accountable for publicly listing information critics say was used to pump up alumni job numbers by counting part-time waitress and other similar, full-time jobs as employment. Only one suit besides Ms. Alaburda’s remains active. None of the other cases reached trial because judges in Illinois, Michigan and New York, where several cases were filed, generally concluded that law students had opted for legal education at their own peril, and were sophisticated enough to have known that employment as a lawyer was not guaranteed.
But a California judge let Ms. Alaburda’s suit proceed, brushing aside efforts by the law school to derail her claims. “It has taken five years,” said her lawyer, Brian A. Procel of Los Angeles. “But this will be the first time a law school will be on trial to defend its public employment figures.” Ms. Alaburda’s day in court will take on added meaning: These will be her first public words after years of silence while she pursued a remedy for a legal education gone wrong. She now has student debt of $170,000, with loan interest around 8 percent. Her law degree was not a ticket to a stable, well-paying career, but an expensive detour before she went on to work in a series of part-time positions, mostly temporary jobs reviewing documents for law firms. As her debt mounted and her job prospects faltered, she filed a lawsuit in 2011, arguing that she would not have enrolled at Thomas Jefferson if she had known the law school’s statistics were misleading. Thomas Jefferson’s average student indebtedness, then about $137,000 — higher than that at Stanford Law School the same year — was among the highest in the nation. She also pointed to her school’s bar passage rate as consistently lower than 50 percent, which was below the average in California. Thomas Jefferson, like other accused law schools, maintained that it filed only the data that the American Bar Association’s accrediting body required. And judges largely agreed. Students would have to be “wearing blinders” not to see that a “goodly number of law school graduates toil (perhaps part time) in drudgery or have less than hugely successful careers,” Justice Melvin L. Schweitzer of New York Supreme Court wrote in 2012, dismissing a lawsuit by nine former students against New York Law School. The nine had asked for $225 million in damages, on grounds that they had been misled by the school’s stated employment figures to believe they had rosier employment prospects than the job market actually offered.
The one lawsuit still pending, other than Ms. Alaburda’s, accuses Widener University School of Law, in Delaware, of posting employment data that included “any kind of job, no matter how unrelated to law.” A Federal District Court judge denied the case class-action status, and that decision is on appeal. Judges in California, which has strong consumer protection laws, have offered more solace to the generation of lawyers who lost out in the legal market, allowing Ms. Alaburda and other plaintiffs there to go forward with claims. However, in two cases — one against Golden Gate University School of Law and the other against the University of San Francisco School of Law — judges did not grant law graduates suing the schools class-action certification, which could have led to higher damages awards. The students later dropped their lawsuits. In San Diego, Judge Joel M. Pressman restricted Ms. Alaburda’s claims to her own situation. But he ruled against the law school’s efforts to get her suit tossed out, on grounds that denying transparent and accurate information to students making decisions about their education can be harmful. Thomas Jefferson, which was fully accredited by the A.B.A. in 2001, says its employment data is accurate and Ms. Alaburda’s claims are “meritless.” The school has 434 full-time students at its eight-story building in downtown San Diego. Thomas F. Guernsey, the dean, said he could not comment on continuing litigation but noted in a statement that the school had “a strong track record of producing successful graduates, with 7,000 alumni working nationally and internationally.” In recent years, the A.B.A., prodded by widespread attention to questionable school data, sagging numbers of law school applicants and skyrocketing law school debt, has revamped its reporting requirements so that law schools must reveal more precise information about their graduates. “Transparency has substantially increased in the last few years. Students can now easily compare law school outcomes,” said Brian Z. Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of “Failing Law Schools.” Even so, he noted that “it’s still a little harder for them to determine that the size of the law firm where graduates are employed also reflects the level of income that they can expect.”
Law schools labor to keep their employment data at the highest percentage level because it is a major factor in national law school rankings, which in turn give schools the credibility to charge six figures for a three-year legal education. Fudging the numbers, as Mr. Procel plans to argue in the case against Thomas Jefferson, entices students to choose an education that can result in lifelong debt that cannot be easily discharged even in bankruptcy. Even as legal hiring dropped in 2011, according to Mr. Procel, Thomas Jefferson stated that 92.1 percent of its graduates were working at full-time jobs. That was a major increase from the 83 percent graduate employment the school claimed during the prosperous years of 2006 and 2007. But even in 2006, according to testimony expected at trial, a former school employee says she was pressured into inflating graduate employment data.
Thomas Jefferson’s lawyers will argue that Ms. Alaburda never incurred any actual injury, because she was offered — and turned down — a law firm job with a $60,000 salary shortly after she graduated. Ms. Alaburda said, in legal papers, that she received “only one job offer — one which was less favorable than non-law-related jobs that were available” — after she sent her résumé to more than 150 law firms and practicing lawyers. She is asking $125,000 in damages.