Part I: Taking Your Law School To Court
As is the case with many, if not most, law students, my list of woes about law school seems unending. First, we complained loudly about writing the LSAT. (Way to take the fun out of “games” in the logic games section of the test.) For those who passed all the hurdles and gained a seat at a top law school, celebrations followed; they did not last long though. We face the daunting task of paying exorbitant tuition fees. Then there are those nights (or early mornings) studying for finals in the library. And who can shake off the mounting pressure of finding meaningful employment as a lawyer upon graduation?
From frustrating to soul sucking, grinding to simply defeating, we have used colourful adjectives to describe the experience of being a law student. A term that we have not yet used to describe law school is fraud. However, that term has been slapped on to a growing list of law schools in the United States recently. Faced with grim employment prospects, some law students and recent graduates have turned against their law schools, charging them with fraudulently reporting employment statistics in order to lure prospective students and fill seats. Two cases involving Thomas M. Cooley School of Law and New York Law School (not to be confused with New York University) were recently dismissed. Nevertheless, one can only expect these cases to keep coming.
In my two-part series on the state of legal education in the United States and Canada, I will first examine the cases that have come to court in the United States. Next week, I will turn to broader social and economic realities on both sides of the border, and offer ways in which the legal profession, starting with law schools, can better prepare students and soon-to-be lawyers to overcome these realities.
Two Cases Thus Far
On July 20, 2012, a federal judge in Michigan dismissed a suit against Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Twelve graduates had banded together to sue their former school, claiming that the school “deceived, defrauded and misled them regarding Cooley graduates’ employment prospects” (John T. MacDonald Jr., et al. v. Thomas M. Cooley Law School, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100785, pp. 2). Lawyers for the former students claim that, as a result of skewing employment statistics, these law schools had “caused the Plaintiffs to pay more to attend law school than they would have paid if Plaintiffs had known the true prospects of their employment” (ibid). Similarly, a New York trial judge dismissed a lawsuit against New York Law School in March of this year (Alexandra Gomez-Jimenez, et al. v. New York Law School (36 Misc. 3d 230; 2012 NY Slip Op 22071). Those students have promised to appeal the decision.
Cooley: Consumer Protection?
In the case against Cooley, the complaints charge Cooley with violating Michigan’s Consumer Protection Act (“MCPA”), M.C.L. § 445.901, fraud and, lastly, negligent misrepresentation. The plaintiffs seek $300 million dollars in damages. The fraud and negligent misrepresentation charges stem from the school purportedly offering incomplete and misleading job and salary figures. The school refutes the first charge by arguing that the MCPA does not apply to educational purchases at all.
Judge Gordon Quist, who pens the decision, agreed with the school on three charges. He found that the MCPA does not protect education purchases, as they do not fit in the category of “goods, property, or service primarily for personal, family, or household purposes” (pp. 6). He explains: “plaintiffs did not purchase a Cooley legal education so that they could leisurely read and understand Supreme Court Reports, or to provide legal services for themselves or family members” (pp. 6-7). Rather, he agreed with Cooley general counsel, James Thelen, who argued that, “a law degree is used to establish a career in law, which falls under the definition of a purchase made for business or commercial purposes.” Judge Gordon Quist therefore concluded that: “Plaintiffs purchased a legal education in order to make money as lawyers so that they could live a lifestyle that they believed (perhaps naively) would be more pleasing to them. This is a business purpose” (pp. 7).
Albeit a victory, the victory handed to Thomas M. Cooley Law School by Judge Quist is a reluctant victory at best. The Judge considers the practice of reporting employment statistics – percentage of graduates employed and their starting salaries – at Cooley to be “inconsistent, confusing and inherently untrustworthy” (pp. 12). Yet, it does not amount to fraud.
Judge Quist does not fault the law school entirely. He also targets the American Bar Association (“ABA”). In his conclusion, he condemns the ABA for implementing such vague and incomplete reporting formats for law schools around the country to use and, in this case, abuse.
It seems like no one can escape unharmed in this decision. Lastly, Judge Quist turns to law students, who brought this case forward. Couched in the middle of his judgment, he writes: “Plaintiffs and prospective students should have approached their decision to enter law school with extreme caution given the size of the investment” (pp. 12). He ends with a chilling warning to disgruntled law students and prospective law students: “… As put in the phrase we lawyers learn early in law school — caveat emptor.” Buyer beware, indeed!
It is pretty clear that no one really comes out of this lawsuit victorious. Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s reputation is tarnished, having been dragged through the mud by this highly public litigation. (There is really no denying that Judge Quist gave the law school a slap on the wrist.) The law school needs to figure out whether its questionable, (but not fraudulent) practices are really worth it – whether they are attracting the kinds of students who add to academic life at the school, for instance.
The ABA needs to figure out a way to make law schools more accountable and their reporting practices more transparent. If the current reporting form for employment statistics is prone to manipulation by law schools, then the ABA ought to consider more stringent requirements for the forms.
Law students seem to have learned the hardest lesson in this case. They should have read the data provided more scrupulously (like a lawyer would). More importantly, law students need to figure out why they would enter the legal profession in the first place. Is it only for the purpose of attaining a lucrative job? If that is the only reason, then is the decision to attend one law school over another based on a few indicators about employability after graduation? As Judge Quist reminds us, law school is a huge investment; but, in terms of return on investment, is there more than dollars and cents?