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Mar 21 2012

Law Students Hit With Harsh Reality as Court Dismisses Lawsuit Against Their Former Law School

As a graduate of New York Law School and an adjunct professor there for the past seven years, I was following with interest a lawsuit filed by several NYLS grads against the school. Their claim was that NYLS engaged in false and misleading marketing when it posted its graduate’s employment information and that this false information led them to pay $47,800 in annual tuition. They further claim that since none of them have been able to find steady lucrative work they are entitled to a whole or partial refund of the tuition. This morning, NY State Supreme Court Justice Melvyn Schweitzer dismissed the lawsuit in its entirety in a sweeping 35 page decision that should be a loud warning call to all those who think a law degree is a ticket to instant riches.

Law schools are required to post the employment rate and starting salaries of their graduates because their students seek federal financial aid and the Higher Education Act requires this information be made available. Through the Higher Education Act, the Department of Education is entitled to choose a third party to administer and monitor this data and for law schools, the DOE chooses the American Bar Association. The law students allege that NYLS numbers were inflated and false. According to the plaintiffs, NYLS reported that 92 percent of their recent graduates were employed, with 42% in the private practice of law, 27 percent in business, 17 percent in government, and 3 percent each in public interest and judicial clerkships. The average salary of those reported to be in private law practice was $107,000 and those in government around $57,000.

But what the plaintiffs did not realize or failed to understand is that these numbers are not comprised of the total student population but only of those who chose to voluntarily respond to an employment survey sent to the whole graduating class. So it is logical that those who are happy and employed would respond more than those that are not. The plaintiffs also allege that the “business” category included at least one student who was working as a “barista” at Starbucks. NYLS’s response is that if this is true, their website also stated that all the underlying information and responses were available for viewing at the law school and that the plaintiffs would have learned of the size of the response sample and of the manner in which each responder was actually employed.

The court correctly took this available information as the death knell of the lawsuit as one of the main elements of the plaintiffs’ claims is that they “reasonably relied” on the allegedly false information. The court stated that as post-college graduates, they were sophisticated and intelligent enough to have done the requisite research to ascertain the truth behind the numbers. But the court also pointed out that their own complaint alleged numerous other sources that showed that lucrative employment in the law field was a diminishing proposition as a result of the Great Recession that hit the US (and the world) in 2008. The judge himself stated it was the worst legal market he had ever seen since the 1970s.

The judge cited statistics included in the plaintiffs’ own complaint that according to the National Association of Legal Professionals the hiring rate of all law school graduates around the country was about 40%. He went to to add that it was also public knowledge that NYLS was not a top tier or even a middle tier law school in the national law school rankings so that it was logical to assume that its hiring rate would be at the lower end of a bell curve that produced a 40% average. The court continued to cite other examples of available information including US News and World Reports publications that detailed which schools’ graduates were paid the least and which were hired most frequently. Furthermore, NYLS reported that for 2005 and 2006 starting salaries ranged form $35,000 to $125,000 for its graduates but also had a sentence that cautioned that the higher number is “not the typical salary for most law students.” The bottom line is that the court felt that these students should have done their homework before entering NYLS and they would have seen the true prospects of landing a lucrative job upon graduation. In recognizing the reality of the legal market today the court stated:

In these new and troubling times, the reasonable consumer of legal education must realize that these omnipresent economic realities of the marketplace obviously trump any overly optimistic claims in their law school’s marketing materials.

The judge went on to note that while NYLS fully complied with the ABA’s reporting requirements maybe it was time for the ABA to come up with more transparent methods of reporting accurate figures. Even though he dismissed the lawsuit, he acknowledged that lawsuits such as this did at least turn attention onto the problem and hopefully will be a catalyst for change in the legal profession by having less people apply; allowing the marketplace to correct the overabundance of law schools and law graduates;having more accurate employment information; and that

It is this court’s fervent hope that all the heat generated around this issue over this last year will be replaced with a renewed sense of responsibility to prospective applicants and students, starting at the law school level, and extending to the entire legal industry as we strive to address the concerns that have arisen to the surface in this changed, challenging career environment.

So I say this to current and prospective law students. Law can no longer d=be the “default” profession. If you want to succeed in the law field in this current climate, you better want to be a lawyer and do not enter law school just to delay the real world and hope for the best. Keep your expectations reasonable. Know that the lower your law school is ranked the higher in class ranking you will have to be to get a paying job. Realize that while maybe you start off at the $50,000 range, if you are good at what you do, your salary and earnings usually catch up and then pass your non-lawyer peers. Most law graduates are earning more than their non-law peers after about ten years. Can you hang in there that long? Can yo do the hard, drudging, difficult sometime monotonous work that is the actual practice of law for that long while you wait for a better payday? Keep in mind the words of Judge Schweitzer in this case as he sent the plaintiffs’ packing:

It is also difficult for the court to conceive that somehow lost on these plaintiffs is the fact that a goodly number of law school graduates toil (perhaps part-time) in drudgery or have less than hugely successful careers.

In summary: It’s a tough world out there and no one promised you a rose garden. Words to live by and to practice law by.

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