The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is a law school lying about employment data? A struggling grad sues, and an unprecedented trial begins.

The silhouette of a student wearing a mortarboard in a May 24, 2012, file photo. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

In 2003, Anna Alaburda, like countless other college graduates, found herself adrift.

She had received a degree from New York University the year before, then took a theater class and worked as a production assistant in California. Alaburda was looking for more lucrative employment prospects — a promise that she saw in law school.

According to court records citing Alaburda’s testimony, she applied to several law schools and was admitted to one, the American Bar Association-accredited Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. After reviewing the U.S. News & World Report’s yearly rankings of the country’s best law schools, she decided to enroll: After all, the 2003 report indicated that 80.1 percent of Thomas Jefferson graduates were employed nine months after receiving their degree (despite bar passage rates that hovered around 50 percent).

When she graduated with honors in 2008, however, Alaburda came upon a far starker reality. After sending her resume to 150 law firms, Alaburda says she received just one full-time job offer, and it paid less than offers in other industries.

Seven years later, the now-37-year-old Alaburda says, she is still struggling to find job security, regularly confronting periods of unemployment while shouldering $150,000 in student loans.

Alaburda’s troubles are familiar to some law school graduates, particularly those who entered the job market following the Great Recession. According to the nonprofit Law School Transparency, which advocates for greater transparency and reform in legal education, just over 56 percent of J.D.-holders graduating from ABA-approved schools in 2010 found full-time legal jobs.

The predicament may sound foreign to the general public, which tends to regard lawyers as universally wealthy, and law school in turn as a surefire path to a deep-pocketed existence. This is the same ideal — the promise of prosperity — that drives many to law school in the first place. And increasingly, aspiring lawyers are accusing law schools of misrepresenting the futures that they’re told to expect.

In the last several years, the New York Times reported, 15 lawsuits have accused law schools of exaggerating alumni employment figures, allegedly misleading students about their job prospects when they were just as likely to end up as waitresses as they were attorneys.

All but two of these complaints have been dismissed, as judges determined that students should have been aware of the unstable job market. One of the remaining cases is Alaburda’s, and on Tuesday, it will become the first of its kind to go to trial.

Alaburda’s suit, initially filed as a class action but now going forward on an individual basis, charges that Thomas Jefferson intentionally used false advertising to lure students to the law school.

The business practices in question include both the numbers that Thomas Jefferson reported to the U.S. News & World Report, and the ones that it cited in its own promotional materials. According to Alaburda, the school inflated its employment statistics by counting those working part-time service industry jobs (a convenience store clerk, for instance) alongside those gainfully employed as lawyers.

The outcome of the trial could provide answers to a couple contentious questions surrounding legal education: Should law schools — and educational institutions in general — be held to the same standards of practice as other businesses?

And should law schools that advertise themselves as pathways to legal employment be held accountable for their graduates’ subsequent challenges or failures?

“It has taken five years,” Alaburda’s lawyer, Brian Procel, told the New York Times. “But this will be the first time a law school will be on trial to defend its public employment figures.”

He said that Thomas Jefferson has trapped students in lifetimes of inescapable debt.

The law school has countered that Alaburda’s claims are invalid because she was allegedly offered a legal job after graduation and decided to turn it down. It further asserts that its representation of post-graduation employment data has complied with ABA reporting guidelines.

The law school claims in court documents that Alaburda did very little research before enrolling at Thomas Jefferson, and is therefore responsible for her own false assumptions. According to the school, Alaburda also made “almost no effort to obtain post-graduate employment.”

Then, when relevant employment was offered to her, Alaburda chose not to take it, Thomas Jefferson alleges:

…Alaburda was offered a full-time lawyer position making $60,000 per year, plus benefits, but a Southern California law firm. She initially accepted the position, and her employment was to begin in February 2009 — within nine months of graduation. Remarkably, however, she rescinded her acceptance because the firm would not pay for her bar dues and required her to travel to San Bernardino for one month of training. 

But, in 2012, a former career services assistant director at Thomas Jefferson testified in a deposition that she had been instructed to falsify employment data.

According to Karen Grant, her supervisor told her to mark in the school’s records that a graduate was “employed” if they had held a job at any point in the last nine months, even if they were in fact unemployed at the time that she conducted the survey.

“I routinely recorded currently unemployed students as ’employed’ if they had been employed at any time since graduation,” Grant said. “As a result, the employment data that I entered into the Excel files included currently unemployed students who were inaccurately categorized as ’employed.'”

Rudy Hasl, the dean of Thomas Jefferson at the time, called the testimony “a crock of crap” and denied to the ABA Journal that Grant was given those directions.

When Alaburda’s suit was filed in 2011, Thomas Jefferson graduates had among the highest rates of debt in the nation, according to the New York Times; at an average of $137,000 back then, its alumni were shouldering more debt than those of Stanford Law School, the Times also reported.

Jury selection and opening arguments are expected to take place in San Diego state court on Tuesday.

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