Friday, March 25, 2016

Unemployed Lawyers with Student Loan Debt: The Law Schools Should Be Forced To Bear Part of The Cost of Law School Loans

Recently, I wrote about Anna Alaburda, who sued Thomas Jefferson School of Law, her law school alma mater. Alaburda spent  $150,000 to attend TJSL. After graduating in 2008, she was unable to find a remunerative law job; and her student loan debt grew to $170,000. She claimed she was induced to enroll at Thomas Jefferson by the law school's false assertions that most of its graduates got well-paying legal jobs.

Alaburda's case went to trial, and this week a jury ruled against her.  Alaburda's loss is the latest in a string of defeats by unemployed or underemployed law school graduates who sued their law schools for fraud or misrepresentation.

Some unemployed or underemployed lawyers have filed for bankruptcy to discharge their student loans, but they've had mixed success. Michael Hedlund, a graduate of Willamette Law School, succeeded in getting a partial discharge of his law-school debt, but he endured ten years of litigation before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rendered a decision in his favor in 2013.

More recently, two heavily indebted law-school graduates were denied bankruptcy relief. Mark Tetzlaff, racked up thousands of dollars in debt to pursue post-secondary studies; and he eventually received an MBA and a law degree from Florida Coastal School of Law, a bottom-tier law school. Tetzlaff actually paid off his law school debt, which he was required to do in order to get Florida Coastal to release his transcripts. But he never obtained a good job as an attorney, and he was unable to pay off other student loans. When he filed for bankruptcy in 2012, he owed $260,000 in student-loan debt.

The Eighth Circuit was not sympathetic to Mr. Tetzlaff's plight and refused to discharge his student loans in a decision released last year. And the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal.

Likewise, a bankruptcy court in California ruled against Mark Lilly in 2013. Like Mr. Tetzlaff, Mr. Lilly took on a massive amount of student-loan debt, including debt he acquired to obtain an MBA and a law degree from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, which is not a top-ranked law school. His request for bankruptcy relief was denied, but he never found work as a lawyer.

This is the tragic reality: the legal job market has imploded, but law schools have not reduced enrollments sufficiently in response to the shrinking demand for lawyers. Law schools continue to pump out far more attorneys than American society needs, and many law schools have lowered their admissions standards just to get students in the door. For people like Mark Tetzlaff and Mark Lilly, who graduated from mediocre law schools, there are virtually no jobs. In California, for example, there are now 2.5 law graduates for every job opening.

Thus far, law graduates have borne most of the suffering created by a shrinking job market, especially graduates who received their degrees from nonprestigious law schools like Florida Coastal, Thomas Jefferson, and McGeorge. On average, law graduates who borrow to finance their studies acquire $140,000 in student-loan debt. Graduates of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, where Anna Alaburda obtained her degree, now graduate with an average debt load of $180,000! Many simply can't find jobs that will allow them to pay off their student loans.

In my view, some of the suffering experienced by unemployed law graduates should be shifted to the law schools, which have charged students exorbitant tuition and are graduating more students than our economy can absorb. These schools purport to maintain the highest ethical standards, but in reality, many of them are making admissions decisions based on their revenue needs and not the welfare of their students.

Whether or not they are guilty of misrepresentation, as Ms. Alaburda asserted  against TJSL, many law schools are certainly guilty of behaving contrary to the public interest. Surely, these schools should help their unemployed graduates pay back massive student-loan debt that was acquired to obtain degrees that are virtually worthless.

References

Hedlund v. Educ. Resources Inst., Inc., 718 F.3d 848 (9th Cir. 2013).

Lilly v. Illinois Student Assistance Comm’n, 538 B.R. 45 (Bankr. S.D. Cal. 2013).

Elizabeth Olsen. Law Student Gets Her Day in Court. New York Times, March 6, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/07/business/dealbook/court-to-hear-suit-accusing-law-school-of-inflating-job-data.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=1

Tetzlaff v. Educational Credit Management Corporation794 F.3d 756 (7th Cir. 2015). Accessible at http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1708687.html

Thomas M. Cooley Law School v. Kurzon Strauss, LLP, 759 F.3d 522 (6th Cir. 2014). Accessible at http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/14a0139p-06.pdf

Gary Warth. Jury rejects fraud claim against law school. San Diego Union-Tribune, March 24, 2016. Accessible at http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2016/mar/24/thomas-jefferson-law-school-verdict/

Joshua Wright. The Oversaturated Job Market for Lawyers Continues and On-the-Side Legal Work Grows. EMSI blog, January 10, 2014. Accessible at: http://www.economicmodeling.com/2014/01/10/the-oversatured-job-market-for-lawyers-continues/

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