California, Job Searches, Law Schools, Lawsuit of the Day, Student Loans

Class Action Filed Against Thomas Jefferson School of Law

We mentioned this news last week, but judging from the slew of emails we’ve received about it, many of you want to discuss it at greater length. So let’s talk about it: the class action lawsuit recently filed against Thomas Jefferson School of Law by a 2008 honors graduate of TJSL, Anna Alaburda, alleging that the San Diego-based law school commits fraud, by using misleading post-graduation employment and salary data to attract new students.

The complaint in Alaburda v. TJSL contains counts for fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and violations of various California statutes (including laws against unfair business practices and false advertising). Plaintiff Anna Alaburda claims that she racked up more than $150,000 in student loans and can’t find decent legal employment, even though she graduated with honors from TJSL, passed the California bar exam, and sent more than 150 résumés to law firms. She now does document review on a project-by-project basis.

Alaburda’s lawsuit seeks compensatory damages “believed to be in excess of $50,000,000,” punitive damages, and injunctive relief, to stop TJSL from continuing its allegedly unlawful conduct. Alaburda seeks to represent a class consisting of “[a]ll persons who attended TJSL within the statutory period” — a group estimated to contain more than 2,300 individuals.

Let’s take a closer look at this lawsuit — filed by partner Brian Procel of Miller Barondess LLP, a Boalt Hall grad and former Quinn Emanuel associate, incidentally — and consider its possible implications for legal education….

Here are some quick, off-the-cuff reactions:

1. The complaint (PDF) is an interesting read. It’s a concise, footnoted indictment of the American legal-educational industrial complex. It ties together many sources that have been discussed in Above the Law’s pages over the past few years (and ATL is cited in footnote 23).

2. One of those sources: David Segal’s much-discussed New York Times article, Is Law School A Losing Game?, in which TJSL figures prominently. This year hasn’t been great for Thomas Jefferson Law in terms of media coverage.

3. The complaint is an interesting read, but at the same time, its allegations are not novel. We expect TJSL’s answer to the complaint to be far more interesting. The law school will probably defend itself by claiming that it followed industry-standard practices (i.e., “everyone else is doing it”). Here’s what the school told the National Law Journal:

Beth Kransberger, associate dean for student affairs at Thomas Jefferson, said that the school does not misrepresent its employment statistics.

“The school has always followed the guidelines established by the ABA. We’ve always been accurate in what we report, and we’ve always followed the system given to us by the ABA,” Kransberger said. “This lawsuit is very much about a larger debate. This is part of the debate about whether it’s practical to pursue a graduate degree in these difficult economic times.”

If this lawsuit promotes that debate, or at least causes some prospective law students to think a bit more carefully about whether to attend law school, then perhaps it will have been for the good. (There’s nothing inherently wrong with going to law school, but people should go for the right reasons, with reasonable expectations, after having done thorough research.)

4. We haven’t delved into the underlying law enough to opine extensively on the merits of the case, but it wouldn’t shock us if the case resulted in a settlement. Some of you may recall the lawsuit against the California Culinary Academy, which involved similar allegations: misleading job data, high tuition, and difficulty finding jobs after graduation. The CCA offered to settle that suit for $40 million (a hearing to approve the deal is scheduled for August).

5. Will similar lawsuits be brought against law schools like TJSL? Law schools similar to Thomas Jefferson — private, expensive, not very highly ranked, and with weaker-than-average job placement — would seem to be at greatest risk.

6. If such lawsuits do proliferate, could they actually advance the cause of law school transparency, and promote greater honesty in reporting employment outcomes? Or will they just become a “cost of doing business” for certain schools?

One law school dean — I can’t remember who, or his exact quote — once said something like, “Suicidal candor might be good for the soul, but it’s not good for attracting students to your law school.” That might be true — but, on the flip side, “suicidal candor” might be good for warding off lawsuits. If a law school with a miserable placement record makes that record abundantly clear on its website, then it will be much harder for disgruntled graduates to turn around and sue after they can’t find good jobs.

(And, sadly enough, even a law school that was upfront about its poor job placement might still get flooded with applications. To some (perhaps many) people, going to a law school, any law school, is better than being unemployed and living with your parents.)

In fairness to TJSL, not all of its graduates are disgruntled. Here is what one Thomas Jefferson grad had to say to us about the suit:

[T]his idea of “employers don’t hire TJSL employees” (an actual accusation in the complaint) rings false for me. I worked in law school and did a judicial externship in the summer of ‘07. I graduated [with honors], litigated at a small firm right out of school, and I’m now in-house. I could maybe accept that I’m the rare case if I didn’t know many other grads who have gone into small firms, big firms, DA’s offices and the like. I was sworn in [during the middle of 2008], so I’m right in the plaintiff’s timeframe here.

Happy TJSL grads, or future plaintiffs?

To learn more about the case, check out the detailed write-up over at Law School Transparency (which crunches TJSL’s job placement numbers and includes links to supporting documents). The lawsuit was first covered by Sara Randazzo of the Daily Journal, and it has also been written about by Karen Sloan of the National Law Journal and Ashby Jones of the WSJ Law Blog.

Readers, what are your thoughts on Alaburda v. TJSL? Is Anna Alaburda a principled heroine, a whiny troublemaker, or somewhere in between?

Breaking: Class Action Suit Filed Against Thomas Jefferson School of Law [Law School Transparency]
Alaburda v. Thomas Jefferson School of Law: Complaint [via Law School Transparency]
Jobless in San Diego . . . And Suing Over It [WSJ Law Blog]
Law school sued over ‘false’ employment statistics [National Law Journal (subscription)]
Law School Sued Over Employment Data [Daily Journal (subscription)]
For-profit colleges face lawsuits, U.S. scrutiny [San Francisco Chronicle]

Earlier: Now That the New York Times Acknowledges the Perils of Law School Debt, the Next Question Is How to Recover From the Ruin
So This Is Why People Keep Applying To Law School
Even If You Told Prospective Law Students the Truth, Would They Care?

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