Greedy law schools taught jobless grads too well
By Reynolds Holding
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Greedy law schools may have taught their jobless graduates a little too well. Some disgruntled lawyers are suing their alma maters for exaggerating employment prospects. That seems fitting for a litigious lot with buyers’ remorse over a $120,000 education. The lousy job market isn’t the schools’ fault, but training these cheeky legal eagles to spread their wings may be.
On the surface, the suits seem a stretch. Scores of graduates from New York Law, Michigan’s Thomas M. Cooley Law and other lower-tier schools want refunds because they didn’t get the legal jobs they were supposedly promised. They cite school statistics touting more than 90 percent employment rates for recent graduates. The schools stress that the figures, while essentially accurate, guarantee nothing, and lawyers should have known the job market was shaky.
The problem is that many schools do play fast and loose. They typically include non-legal, part-time and temporary work in employment numbers while hiring graduates themselves or paying law firms to do so. A whopping 59 of 143 law schools in the 2012 U.S. News and World Report rankings somehow reported more than 90 percent employment for recent graduates.
Even if prospective students don’t rely on those numbers, the rankings are highly influential. And employment rates account for almost one-fifth of a school’s rank. If the rates are unreliable, then so is a widely-used criterion for deciding where to apply.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the schools have committed fraud. But Villanova University and the University of Illinois have acknowledged giving inaccurate information to U.S. News in the past, and other institutions have been accused of gaming the ranking system with false data.
If the accusations are true, the schools might face criminal as well as civil liability. In a recent article, Emory University law professors outline a compelling case for charging deceptive law schools with fraud, conspiracy, racketeering and making false statements.
That may seem far-fetched. But with tuition approaching $50,000 a year, law deans under intense pressure to lure students and members of Congress slamming their dodgy employment data, the schools are a tempting target. If they’re not careful, they may find disappointed graduates to be the least of their worries.