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Judge Tosses Lawsuit against Law School over Employment Stats

Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2012


By Joe Palazzolo


A New York judge on Wednesday threw out one of the first of more than a dozen lawsuits around the country that accuse law schools of advertising misleading post-graduate employment statistics.

The plaintiffs, a group of nine New York Law School graduates, claimed they overpaid for their degrees, because they were led to believe, as a reasonable consumer would be, that between 90% and 92% of the school’s graduates secured full-time jobs as lawyers. But that percentage also included students in part-time jobs, as well as jobs that don’t require a law degree.

The 2011 lawsuit, which sought $225 million in damages, alleged that New York Law School engaged in deceptive practices by omitting those details from its website and marketing materials. Fourteen other lawsuits, 12 or which were filed in February, accuse law schools in New York, California, Illinois, Delaware and Florida of similar transgressions.

New York Supreme Court Justice Melvin Schweitzer said prospective law school students should know better.

“By anyone’s definition, reasonable consumers — college graduates — seriously considering law schools are a sophisticated subset of education consumers, capable of sifting through data and weighing alternatives before making a decision regarding their post-college options,” Justice Schweitzer wrote.

“Obviously we thoroughly disagree with the judge’s decision and fully expect to appeal,” said attorney David Anziska, who represented the plaintiffs.

“New York Law School works hard to communicate the realities of the legal job market to current and prospective students,” the school said in a statement praising Justice Schweitzer’s “clear, thoughtful and comprehensive decision.”

Michael Volpe, a partner with Venable LLP who represented the school, said Schweitzer’s analysis could be applied to other lawsuits. He said he was confident that the decision would be upheld on appeal.

The lawsuit also alleged that NYLS statistics were based on a small and “deliberately selected” sample of graduates. But the school’s marketing material disclosed that the statistics weren’t representative of the whole class and cautioned that the highest salary reported was not “typical” for most law graduates, Justice Schweitzer said.

NYLS ranked near the bottom of U.S. News & World Report’s annual listing of the nation’s best law schools. Tuition is $47,800 a year.

The plaintiffs acknowledged the law school’s “lackluster ranking and reputation” in their complaint, which also quoted a NYLS professor as saying that it had long been difficult for NYLS graduates to find high-paying jobs.

Justice Schweitzer said the statements were evidence that prospective a NYLS student was more likely to appreciate the connection between higher law-school rankings and “commensurate employment and earning expectations.”

Justice Schweitzer went on,

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…in drudgery or have less than hugely successful careers. NYLS applicants, as reasonable consumers of a legal education, would have to be wearing blinders not to be aware of these well-established facts of life in the world of legal employment.

Justice Schweitzer struck a more sympathetic tone at the end of his 35-page ruling.

Law school students in recent years, he said, have endured “the most severe contraction in demand for legal services this court can recall since the early 1970s.”

Layoffs abound, hiring at some firms has come to a standstill, and the days of “mega firms hiring summer classes of 100 or more students to plan for enough young lawyers to meet their need for ever more billable hours” have come to an end, Justice Schweitzer wrote. Clients, he added, are refusing to pay full freight for young lawyers who previously could learn on the job. (We reported on that phenomenon here.)

The plaintiffs, he said, turned their “disappointment and angst” on their law school for failing to anticipate the crisis.

Justice Schweitzer said the lawsuits served to highlight problems hitting the legal profession, and he made a plea for the “most transparent data of the state of our profession that we can possibly assemble” so that prospective law students can make more informed decisions about their future.