Chalk Talks - Rethinking Lawsuits against Law Schools: Graduates Must Overcome Significant Hurdles to Prevail against Alma Maters
Eckman, Drew, Journal of Law and Education
Recent law school graduates currently face what could be described as "the worst entry-level legal employment market in more than 30 years."1 According to analysis from the Wall Street Journal-based on figures from the American Bar Association (ABA)-only 55 percent of 201 1 law school graduates were employed full-time as lawyers nine months after graduation.2 Those students fortunate enough to gain employment are finding that they have to accept even lower starting salaries than students received just one year earlier.' Despite the dismal job market, law schools continue to increase their tuition at alarming rates and accept the same number of students for each incoming class. The average student loan debt for law graduates at private schools in 2011 was nearly $125,000, while the average for graduates of public law schools was over $75,000/ The class of 2011 wound up with an average of over $98,000 of debt, which is a 200 percent increase from 1987.5
Consequently, it is not surprising that many law school graduates, left with huge student debts and a dim career outlook,6 have sought damages, allegedly that their alma maters reported misleading employment statistics. This Note explores the legitimacy of class action lawsuits law school graduates have brought against their law schools for publishing fraudulent post-graduate employment and salary data. Part I of this Note briefly describes the current state of the legal labor market and the difficulties law school graduates face in obtaining entry-level employment. Part II examines the specific allegations that graduates have argued entitle them to relief, but that courts have been unwilling to accept. Finally, Part III describes why law schools should consider providing more transparent post-graduate employment data.
II. THE CURRENT LEGAL JOB MARKET: SUPPLY EXCEEDS DEMAND
As noted by The National Association for Law Placement's (NALP) Executive Director James Leipold, "For members of the Class of 201 1, caught as they were in the worst of the recession, entering law school in the fall of 2008 just as Lehman Brothers collapsed, going through [on campus interviews] in the fall of 2009, and summering in 2010 if they were lucky enough to secure a summer associate spot, the entry-level job market can only be described as brutal."7 However, recent data suggests that it is not just the 201 1 graduates that face a burdensome entry-level job market. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts only 73,600 new lawyer jobs from 2010 to 2020." But just three years into that decade, already about 132,757 new lawyers have hit the legal job market.9 When the supply of new lawyers seeking employment exceeds the demand for their services, the salary legal employers are willing to pay them will drop. For example, the national median salary for graduates of the law school class of 201 1 was $60,000, which was 17 percent lower than it had been just two years earlier.1" The national median salary at law firms has dropped even more significantly, falling 35% from two years ago." Moreover, just 21.6% of 2011 law school graduates reported making at least $60,000 within nine months of graduation.12 Indeed, even the most successful law school graduates from the most prestigious universities can no longer expect to receive a $160,000+ salary upon graduation, which was, at one time, commonplace.13
While it is becoming more and more apparent that a law degree could prove to be a poor investment,14 it would have been fairly difficult for law school applicants in 2005 or 2006 to anticipate just how weak the entrylevel job market would be after the strong recession caused by the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Furthermore, the post-graduate employment statistics that were provided by many of the law schools made it even more difficult for prospective law students to anticipate the difficulties they would face in today's job market. For example, New York Law School (NYLS) consistently reported that 90-92 percent of NYLS graduates secured employment within nine months of graduation; yet, NYLS did not report the percentage of graduates that were employed in parttime positions or in positions that did not require or prefer a law degree. …