Budding law school students are still coming in droves, tuition coffers are plentiful, and faculty still receive generous six-figure salaries. And some top-performing graduates continue to land the golden $160,000 first-year law firm job.
But law schools are no longer the pathway to a secure, tony professional future they once were. The legal job market is undergoing shifts that could upend the way law schools do business and even how the public thinks about a legal diploma.
Anger has been building as more law school graduates are facing five or six-figure debt loads from their legal education but are either unable to find a legal job, or any work for that matter, or taking low-paying legal drone jobs.
Fed up, several groups of graduates are going to court to stop law schools from engaging in what they argue is fraudulent advertising. Job placement figures are misleading or are outright wrong, claim some of the newly degreed students who have struggled to latch on to jobs as the traditional legal hiring structure erodes.
Alexandra Gomez-Jimenez, 30, was so frustrated with her job search after earning her law degree in 2007 that she decided this summer to sue her alma mater, New York Law School, for fraudulent advertising. She and other graduates of the Manhattan-based law school filed a lawsuit claiming they were duped by exaggerated job placement stats that law schools publish to attract students.
“When I was applying, New York Law School said employment right out of school was high,” says Gomez-Jimenez, who worked as a paralegal after graduating from college.
New York Law’s school literature, she says, claimed that alumni would find jobs with $70,000 to $80,000 salaries, and that 90% found jobs within six months of graduating. “I looked at it as their having a network of connections that would get me a job. But I never got help, or even an interview.”
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New York Law School’s dean, Richard Matasar, has publicly defended the school’s practices but did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Matasar also happens to be the head of the American Law Deans Association, which was formed to change law school accreditation practices and policies.
Gomez-Jimenez says that she still had no job six months after earning her law degree and was facing her first payment on $190,000 in loans for tuition, books, and living expenses. She found a temporary job reviewing legal documents. Eventually, she hung a shingle as an immigration lawyer but decided to join the class action suit after seeing a Craigslist ad looking for plaintiffs.
Other Frustrated American law school graduates also have filed lawsuits against Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which has four campuses in Michigan and is opening another near Tampa, Fla., and Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.
These schools turn out large numbers of graduates, but it’s not just diploma-mill law schools that are in this particular game, says David Anziska, a lawyer for Kurzon Strauss, the New York law firm that represents the plaintiffs in the New York Law School and Cooley law school cases.
“Law schools all make it a secret, but it’s not just the recession. This has been going on for a long time,” Anziska says, noting that many law schools are portraying the dearth of jobs as a blip due to the poor economy. “Law schools need to adopt rigorous methods that tell you the extent of full-time legal employment.”