Misrepresenting Employment Statistics Gets Law Schools (And Firms) In Trouble

Usually the words “misrepresentation” and “San Diego” are linked in the context of real estate fraud, mortgage scams, and—at worst—bad pick-up lines by marine Staff Sergeants at a seaside bar.

This summer, however, these words have been more frequently coupled in reference to a class-action suit filed against the San Diego-based Thomas Jefferson School of Law (TJSL). Anna Alaburda, a 2008 honors graduate, alleges that the law school commits fraud by producing deliberately misleading post-graduation employment and salary data to attract new students.

“It’s not about winning or losing; it’s about raising awareness of the disingenuous way law schools go about filling up their classes,” writes Elie Mystal for Above The Law.

Because the legal job search has been stymied by an economic recession for a large portion of law school graduates, the TJSL suit has garnered much attention. Without the typical $150,000 annual salary of biglaw, graduates are regretting the $150,000 they’ve amassed in loans.

Although, until recently, most assumed the lawsuit stood on more ethical grounds than legal ones.

The complaint contends, “At the end of the day, TJSL is more concerned with raking in millions of dollars in tuition and fees than educating and training its students. The disservice TJSL is doing to its students and society generally is readily apparent. Many TJSL graduates will never be offered work as attorneys or otherwise be in a position to profit from their law school education. And they will be forced to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars in school loans that are nearly impossible to discharge, even in bankruptcy.”

The complaint cites the following as its second cause of action:

“The False Advertising Act makes it is unlawful to ‘make or disseminate or cause to be made or disseminated before the public [a statement] which is untrue or misleading, and which is known… to be untrue or misleading’ with the intent to ‘induce the public to enter into any obligation relating thereto.’Such statements include statements made through ‘any advertising device,” including “over the Internet.’

TJSL violated Business & Professions Code section 17500 et seq. by making or disseminating or causing to be made or disseminated false and misleading statements in U.S. News & World Report’s ‘Best Graduate Schools’ publication, on its website, and in its marketing brochures.”

No longer the underdog, however, recent literature seems to support Alaburda’s claim that this is a legitimate legal dispute as opposed to a purely moral one. In fact, University of California, Davis School of Law graduate Joel Murray wrote a paper unveiling surprising industry support for the suit.

“Paul Campos, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law who recently wrote an article for The New Republic highly critical of the law school job reporting system, agreed that law schools have opened themselves to litigation.

‘I’m not an expert on consumer fraud, but I have looked at the general question of whether there is some potential for legal liability for law schools, and the answer is yes,’ he said.”

Reading this story, firm administrators or hiring partners may develop sympathy for recent law school graduates (especially those at TJSL), but, more importantly, it should convince them to operate their firm’s own advertising with more prudence and due diligence.

Law schools are not the only institutions on the hook for producing misleading hiring or employment statistics.

Law firms often cite salary statistics or report benefit packages for first-year associates on its website or marketing materials. In addition, firms are now interviewing candidates for 2013 job openings. It’s uncertain whether or not these firms already know that these positions are tenuous, with the possibility of turning from deferral to denial as they did last year.

With the TJSL suit pending, it’s time law firms take a second look at what information they’re promulgating to future candidates and new attorneys.

“‘Another potential source of liability under federal statute is that schools are, essentially, lying to the federal government for the purposes of getting benefits of some sort,’ Campos said. ‘Law schools get federal subsidies, most notably in the form of federally guaranteed loans, and that could open them up to litigation.’”

So, it’s time to check, is there liability in your promotional materials?

-WB

For more information, attend C4CM’s course, “Writing Accurate and Defensible Job Descriptions that Comply with the ADA and FLSA.”

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