Do Law Schools Cook Their Employment Numbers?

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It's often assumed that even in tough times, lawyers can find good jobs. But that proposition is being overturned by a tight legal market, and by a glut of graduates.

The nation's law schools are facing growing pressure to be more upfront about their graduates' job prospects. Many students say they were lured in by juicy job numbers, but when they got out, all they ended up with is massive debt.

Chloe Gilgan enrolled at New York Law School in 2005, with one thing in mind: getting a good paying job. She says the school gave her every assurance that she was in the right place, and that she was told "a high majority of their graduates would find employment at least within 9 months of graduating," and that they tended to have high salaries.

Three years after graduation, Gilgan says, the only large number she's staring at is her student debt. The only job she found was doing work that did not require a law degree. Gilgan is convinced New York Law twisted its job numbers.

"Nobody can guarantee you'll have a job for sure," she says, "but what they can do is give you honest prospects."

So Gilgan has joined a proposed class action suit against New York Law School, charging that it has deceived students. Attorney David Anziska is lining up plaintiffs who attended primarily lower-tier law schools, paid more than $40,000 a year and feel they got little in return.

New York Law School says it provides all the information required by the American Bar Association and more. Interim Dean Carol Buckler says the school tries hard to counsel students about their employment prospects.

"We also break down the information based on the type of employer and the salaries that graduates might expect," Buckler says.

Misrepresenting Salary Statistics?

But in blogs like the LawSchoolScam.blogspot.com, former students howl about high tuition and lousy job prospects. And there's Kyle McEntee, who started LawSchoolTransparency.com. McEntee says he was outraged to find that the employment data supplied by many lower-tier schools is really part of a recruiting strategy.

"A school might advertise a median salary of $160,000," McEntee notes, "and not disclose that only 10 percent of a class actually responded to the salary survey."

Or, McEntee says, schools don't disclose that some jobs are in fact funded by the law school. McEntee himself is a graduate of Vanderbilt Law, where he says he actually got good employment info when he enrolled.

Elizabeth Workman, assistant dean for career services at Vanderbilt, says she keeps a close eye on students' achievement and their debt. "And if they will incur six figures, in terms of debt, we have a very serious discussion about employment outcomes," Workman says.

Activists say more schools need to follow that path. They blame the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, for letting institutions define what is accurate.

A Regulating Challenge

The ABA's John O'Brian admits that up until now, the schools have chosen which information to provide. So recently, the ABA changed the rules. Starting next year, schools will have to report whether graduates are employed full time and whether the positions graduates get required a law degree. That will help applicants in the future decide if they are picking a school that is turning out employable lawyers.

But O'Brian says it's still up to students to scrutinize that data, because the ABA can only demand transparency. "These schools are simply required to report. We do not have minimum standards for employment," he says.

Kyle McEntee says the ABA changes are a good first step, but that they won't help students already in school. And these measures don't address larger issues: Why is law school enrollment continuing to rise, when the job market is shrinking in many areas? The legal sector shed 1,800 jobs in December, according to the Labor Department.

McEntee says the biggest challenge is battling a perception of invulnerability. "There's a culturally embedded view about law school, that it's this magic ticket to financial security," he says. "As it turns out, this isn't the case, and it hasn't been the case for quite some time."

When critics attacked for-profit colleges for similar problems, the Department of Education tightened regulations on those schools. But the Department says it has no authority to do the same to the vast majority of law programs.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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