Alaburda, who received her JD from TJSL in 2008, sued the law school in a California state court, claiming the school misrepresented the employment statistics of its graduates. Alaburda argues that she enrolled at Thomas Jefferson based partly on the school's representations about its graduates' job prospects, but that the school dispensed misleading information. Since graduating, Alaburda has not found a full-time attorney's job.
As a New York Times story reported, Alaburda is not the first law school graduate to sue her alma mater, but she is the first to get her case to trial. Judges in Illinois, New York and Michigan have dismissed similar suits based on the grounds that the plaintiffs enrolled in law school "at their own peril," and that they were sophisticated enough to realize that they might not find an attorney's job after they graduated.
Thomas M. Cooley Law School was sued under a theory similar to the one put forth by Alaburda, but a Michigan court dismissed the case. Less well known, however, is the fact that Cooley Law School lost a defamation suit against the attorney who brought the misrepresentation suit. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Thomas M. Cooley was a public figure for the purposes of a defamation claim and could not prevail unless the school could show the lawyer had communicated his accusations maliciously, which it had not done.
I hope Ms. Alaburda wins her lawsuit. As Paul Campos and others have written, the market for lawyers has imploded. There is now approximately one law job for every two law graduates. Law school admissions are down by about 20 percent, and many law schools have lowered their admission standards just to get tuition-paying students through the door. Meanwhile, the average newly minted JD graduates with more than $100,000 in student-loan debt.
Many students at the second- and third-tier schools do not pass the bar exam after they graduate and are not able to earn an income that will allow them to pay back their student loans. Some have filed for bankruptcy.
Unfortunately, the bankruptcy courts have not always been sympathetic. A few months ago, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mark Tetzlaff, a graduate of Florida Coastal School of Law, was not eligible for bankruptcy relief, in spite of the fact that Tetzlaff failed the bar exam, had serious health problems, and hadn't found employment as a lawyer. In a 2013 decision, a California bankruptcy judge ruled against Mark Lilly, another law school graduate who never found employment as an attorney.
Job prospects for graduates of second- and third-tier law schools are terrible; and thousands of law graduates are burdened with six-figure debt. In fact, in Don't Go to Law School, Unless, Paul Campos advised students attending down-market law schools to drop out after the first year if they don't excel academically rather than borrow money to continue their studies In Campos' view, it often makes more sense for a law student to drop out rather than double down and acquire more debt to get a JD degree that won't lead to a high-paying job.
In my view, the law schools have acted irresponsibly to the deteriorating job market for attorneys. Many did not cut their enrollments in response to the plummeting demand for lawyers. Instead, they lowered their admissions standards in order to keep generating tuition. And according to some law school graduates, at least a few law schools lured people to enroll by misrepresenting the job statistics of their graduates.
If Alaburda wins her case, Thomas Jefferson will appeal. But if she ultimately prevails and gets a money judgment, law schools all over the United States will quake with fear. The law schools have had a good run. They jacked up tuition prices unreasonably and raked in millions of dollars. And students went heavily into debt on the bet that they would get a good lawyer's job that would justify their investment.
But the party is over. Thousands of unemployed and heavily indebted lawyers deserve some relief. If they are victims of fraud or misrepresentation, I hope they find relief in the state courts. And if they are unable to find remunerative employment as attorneys, I hope they find sympathetic bankruptcy judges who will relieve them of their oppressive student loans and give them an opportunity for a fresh start.
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
Lilly v. Illinois Student Assistance Comm’n, 538 B.R. 45 (Bankr. S.D. Cal. 2013)
Tetzlaff v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 794 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