Does law school owe graduates a job?

A former student is suing  Thomas Jefferson School of Law for allegedly using fraudulent post-graduation employment statistics.

Story highlights

  • Danny Cevallos examines a recent class-action case in which law school graduates sue their school
  • Students say they relied on false statistics in their decision to enroll at the school, says Cevallos
  • Cevallos: Does school bear some responsibility for graduate's job prospects if the school lied about post-graduation employment stats?

Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst and a personal injury and criminal defense attorney practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)In 2011, Anna Alaburda, a 2008 graduate of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, filed a lawsuit against the school alleging fraud in its published postgraduate employment numbers and salary data. She and her co-plaintiffs allege they relied on that data in their decision to enroll at the school and claim they were damaged when they learned the hard way that TJSL graduates are not nearly so successful in obtaining employment.

This is not the first time a case like this has been filed but it might be the first time a case like this gets to trial. Alaburda and her since-acquired co-plaintiffs survived TJSL's most recent motions to dismiss, and the case is listed for trial in March.
    Danny Cevallos
    As a former law school applicant and graduate, this issue hits close to home, as it probably does for any graduate who forked over many thousands of borrowed dollars to any school. Many students -- not just law students -- have been at one time beguiled by a glossy brochure, beautiful campus photos, fancy new workout facilities, or -- as is alleged here -- enticing postgraduate employment statistics.
    The plaintiffs allege essentially that TJSL, responding to financial incentives, knowingly inflated and misreported its employment statistics to prospective students. The plaintiffs argue that they reasonably relied upon those statistics in choosing TJSL, and were unable to find work after graduating.
    TJSL has a few responses: First, it says Alaburda was in fact offered employment after graduating -- she just turned it down, which is not TJSL's fault. TJSL also claims that Alaburda was only admitted to TJSL -- and to no other law schools -- so it's not as if Alaburda passed up a coveted spot at Harvard Law School to attend TJSL. That sounds like TJSL is arguing that because Alaburda's only law school option was TJSL's own inferior degree, she was never going to be a sought-after employee anyway.
    TJSL also denies misreporting statistics and has offered some description of their ostensibly objective survey process. But perhaps most revealing is TJSL's position that Alaburda should bear some responsibility for researching their published statistics more carefully. The argument sounds like it is conceding that 1) The data was misleading and 2) The school is lousy -- but adding that it is a prospective student's responsibility to conduct a CSI-level investigation to uncover the truth.
    Is TJSL really saying: "Yeah, we stink, but you should have researched our school better, because we weren't going to be forthcoming about it"?
    It looks like the judge might have seen it that way, which is part of the reason this case is likely to go to trial.
    Second, if TJSL did manipulate its employment numbers, then did the plaintiffs reasonably rely on those statistics to their detriment? That's a much more complicated question. What's reasonable reliance? How is one harmed by an education? Who caused the plaintiff's unemployment? A subpar school? Or a subpar prospective employee?
    If those answers are yes, then ultimately: Does a school bear some responsibility for a graduate's employment prospects if the school lied (as alleged here) about post-graduation employment statistics?
    If TJSL misled potential applicants, then realistically both sides share some fault. That is, generally everyone is responsible for their own job search, but also, no one should be deceived about their six-figure investment in a graduate school. Why should this be any different in principle than a Bernie Madoff providing assurances to victims that his funds promise great returns?
    This case also points to how society views the job market. To some, the job market is a meritocracy, and each of us is personally responsible for finding a job; we can't blame outside factors for failure, whether it be our parents, the economy, or our graduate school.
    Others say -- "rugged individualism" aside -- consumers, including graduate students, have a right not to be deceived.
    So far, the notion of law school accountability in these cases has been a minority view. No similar suit has reached a trial on the merits. Courts have generally concluded that law graduates chose the legal profession at their own risk, and that a law degree, like any other, comes with no guarantee of employment.
    But this California case is different, according to the judge allowing it to go to trial. In other cases cited by Judge Joel Pressman, there was no allegation that employment figures were inflated. Even if it is found that a reasonable investigation by Alaburda would have revealed the true employment figures, she would still not be barred from suing, according to Pressman.
    So, then, it seems history is about to be made. Critics of the plaintiffs may see it as a sign of the times: Millennials passing off responsibility for personal failure onto innocent institutions. Supporters may see it as a long overdue injection of scrutiny of the higher education industry -- arguably an industry that has enjoyed comparatively little regulation in the often-competitive enterprise of ferreting out tuition dollars.