Archive for "alumni lawsuits"
- On Wednesday, four Brooklyn Law School alumni joined over 47 other law school graduates across the country in suing their alma maters over misleading employment data. The class action lawsuits were highly anticipated, as the Advocatereported last fall, but now it’s official. The named plaintiffs in the suit against BLS are Adam Bevelacqua, ’11, Leila Lucevic, ’11, Alan Liskov, ’09, and Greg McGreevy, ’09 . Read the complaint, which accuses the school of engaging in a Ponzi scheme to defraud students. “These claims are without merit and we will vigorously defend against them in court,” a BLS spokesperson said last week. MSNBC, ATL
- The New York Law Journal reports that the Brooklyn Law dean search is now down to three candidates: Nicholas Allard, Janet Levit, and Larry Solan.
- Finally, the Brooklyn Eagle reported on the death of Professor Estella Schoen on Jan. 25. Prof. Schoen taught Legal Writing at Brooklyn Law School. She will be sorely missed by the community.
[The following is an editorial co-written by the Cardozo Jurist and The BLS Advocate. The Advocate and the Jurist decided to co-write this editorial because it addresses an issue affecting the law school community as a whole. A version of the editorial is also available on the Jurist's website.]
Our economy is depressed. These are difficult times for all.
While disheartening, we must acknowledge the situation before us. Things have changed in the last few years. Legal jobs are scarce. Law school is hardly a “safe bet” – in fact, it is a perilous one.
In these times, we need an American Bar Association (ABA) that is proactive. An ABA that is present. An ABA that is attentive to the economic climate and what this means for prospective and current law students.
Instead, as Erik Slepak’s story “ABA Drags Feet in Stopping Law Schools’ Reporting of Misleading Post-Grad Job Stats” and Warren Allen’s feature article “The Litigating Classes: Taking Their Schools to Court” illustrate, the ABA has been reactive when the times call for it to be proactive. We find this deeply disappointing.
Understandably, in past years of economic prosperity, prospective law students weren’t as concerned with post-grad employment statistics. But, in these trying times the stakes are higher. Prospective students want to know: How many graduates have jobs that require a JD? How many are employed through the law school’s fellowship program? How many have part-time jobs? They have a right to the answers to these questions.
Until two weeks ago, the ABA did not require law schools to provide such information to prospective students. Some law schools voluntarily offered this information to prospective students. But, many other schools opted only to provide rather basic statistics, like percentage of graduates employed nine months from graduation. This figure gives prospective students no sense of how many graduates have part-time legal or non-legal jobs.
While the schools that offered only basic statistics were technically in compliance with ABA standards, their approach was morally questionable. Prospective students should have access to crucial statistics when deciding where to go to law school. Without commenting on the merits of the lawsuit brought by Jesse Strauss and David Anziska, the suit symbolizes warranted frustration. While the ABA may not have required law schools to provide detailed statistics, that fact is not enough to absolve law schools that provided only basic statistics from blame.
As for the ABA, it is clearly behind the times. Instead of directing law schools to provide such information on its own, the ABA has only done so after enormous public pressure in the form of open letters from Senators Boxer and Grassley and negative media attention. Such conduct demonstrates a lack of initiative, and shows that while the world changes around us, we may be stuck with an ABA that is a few steps behind. That’s unfortunate, and the legal profession deserves better.
We strongly urge the ABA to pick itself up and ready itself for the future. We encourage it to bring in new faces and distance itself from the law school establishment by minimizing the influence of school administrators. The ABA should be a strong, independent organization that recognizes the plight of the prospective and current law student. Unfortunately, that’s not the ABA we’ve seen lately.
A good way for the ABA to start would be to follow up on its promise to examine law schools’ policies regarding merit scholarships. A speedy investigation followed by sweeping reform would be welcomed by prospective and current students alike.
The ABA needs to wake up. A primary cause of this economic disaster was the deceptive practices of the country’s financial institutions. The time to sit back and disinterestedly allow institutions to pursue smoke and mirror tactics has long since passed. We don’t know why the ABA didn’t get this memo, and we don’t much care. All we know is, from here on out, the ABA needs to be ahead of the curve and not behind it.
Ten or twenty years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a law school facing a lawsuit from its own students. Law school has long occupied a hallowed (if bizarre) place in the national imagination. Many think of it as a place where students work too much and sleep too little, lug around overly large books with overly boring titles, and have their egos shattered by sharp-tongued professors… all to get a good job in the end. For all the bizarreness of law school though, it has never before been thought of as a place where students go to be defrauded.
But times have changed. On October 5, lawyers pursuing litigation against New York Law School and Thomas Cooley Law School announced their intent to file new class action lawsuits against fifteen more law schools, alleging fraudulent misrepresentation and violations of consumer protection law. Listed among their intended targets is Brooklyn Law School, as well as other New York area schools such as St. John’s University School of Law, Pace University School of Law, and Hofstra Law School.
The announcement marked the most recent shots in an escalating battle between law schools and their recent graduates. Finding the job market less accommodating than they expected, many law school graduates have turned their frustrations on the legal academy itself, alleging that the employment statistics and salary information that they relied on when enrolling were inaccurate and misleading, even rising to the level of consumer fraud.
Jesse Strauss, formerly of the firm Kurzon Strauss and a BLS graduate, already represents plaintiffs in the actions filed over the summer against NYLS and Thomas Cooley. He is also one of the attorneys who announced the intent to file the fifteen new class action suits. In an interview conducted before that announcement, he spoke candidly about the results he hoped to attain in the lawsuits:
“In terms of what we hope to accomplish, we obviously want to try to get some damages back to the folks who we allege were defrauded. But more importantly, for the legal education community as a whole, we want to restore rationality to the way legal education is marketed.”
In a recent article in Above the Law, Strauss said that he fully expected some lawsuit to be brought against almost every law school in the country by the time 2012 came to a close. And in his September interview with the Advocate, Strauss provided a hint that he fully expected the scale of lawsuits to expand:
“There’s no shortage of plaintiffs—I’ll put it that way,” Strauss said. “There’s certainly a lot of folks who we believe were mislead into taking on 150,000 dollars of debt, only to end up with the same job prospects they would have had with a BA.”
Yet the legal academy has staunchly defended its marketing practices. James Thelen, Associate Dean and General Counsel at Cooley, told the Advocate that his school complies with all ABA standards and government regulation. Moreover, he questions the motives and rationale behind the attorneys and graduates attempting to change that system through litigation.
“I will happily say that there’s room for debate on the future of legal education, the cost, the role of the federal government in the student loan industry,” Thelen said in a September interview with the Advocate. “All of those things are the proper subjects of debate. But the idea that you can twist it all into a lawsuit that doesn’t have any merit is just not a good use of time.”
Perhaps more importantly, he noted that it would be impossible for any school to guarantee that all of its students will find work in their chosen field.
“Nobody, I think, looking at this institution reasonably, would believe that any institution of higher education, or any graduate school, sends its graduates out with a promise of employment,” he said. “Just on that simple idea alone, I don’t believe that these cases have any merit.”
As the economic recession has lingered over the years, the contracting legal job market has led more and more out-of-work law school graduates to question the value of their legal education. Because many of these students have taken out substantial student loans, non-dischargeable even in bankruptcy, they find themselves with few options to pay down that debt and a growing struggle to find full-time legal employment.
As early as 2009, a number of websites and blogs sprouted up to provide forums for a sense of outrage from recent grads unable to find work. Online commentators frequently argue that law schools are perpetrating a scam on their students, relying on disingenuous methods to inflate job numbers and average salary rates. They pointed to statistics reporting 90%+ employment rates and six figure salaries for first year graduates as evidence of an ongoing fraud. Sources such as Above the Law and Law School Transparency have provided some of the harshest criticism, while mainstream media publications including the New York Times have also started to report on the issue.
On May 26, Thomas Jefferson School of Law became the first law school to face a class action lawsuit. In the complaint (pdf), plaintiff Anna Alaburda, a 2008 honors graduate of TJSL, stated that she was unable to find full-time legal employment even after passing the bar and sending out some 150 resumes to various firms. The filing noted that TJSL’s U.S. News and World Report statistics claimed that 80.1% of graduating students were employed 9 months after graduation, and alleged common law fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and violations of various state consumer protection statutes. Some commentators praised the suit as a first step towards increasing transparency in the legal academy.
The Thomas Cooley and New York Law School Suits
After the Thomas Jefferson suit was filed, it seemed like only a matter of time until more lawsuits would follow. When Above the Law reported that advertisements had appeared online claiming to investigate whether Thomas Cooley Law School had been manipulating its statistics, it seemed clear that Cooley would be a potential target down the line.
Cooley had long been a bulls’ eye for law school critics. In addition to being the largest law school in the U.S., with five different campuses across the country, the school has been particularly vocal in promoting the value of a law degree. The school also attracted controversy by promulgating an alternative ranking system, which this year ranked Cooley as the #2 law school in the country (Cooley is unranked in the 2011 U.S. News and World Report rankings). These kinds of actions had provoked suggestions that the school was ripe to be targeted in the next lawsuit.
This time, however, it was the school that sued first, filing a defamation suit on July 14 against the firm of Kurzon Strauss, as well as four anonymous bloggers. Among the misstatements that Thelen pointed to as grounds for the suit against the firm were grossly inaccurate reports about the rate of Cooley graduates’ student loan defaults.
“They also stated in the post that we were under investigation by the Department of Education,” Thelen said. “That was false. They stated in the post that we were falsifying our reporting numbers on defaults to the department of Education, and that was false. Then they made the general claim that we were defrauding our students and would continue to do so if we weren’t stopped. All of those statements are just blatantly false.”
On August 10, Kurzon Strauss filed its own suits against both Cooley and New York Law School, alleging claims similar to those voiced in the Thomas Jefferson suit. The suits are rooted in the same concept that has motivated debate for the past several years: that these schools have been misrepresenting their employment figures to potential students to sway them towards an investment they otherwise might not.
“Thomas Cooley has many, many, many critics, from people who’ve gone through that program, and have just not gotten jobs,” Strauss said. “It’s currently the largest law school in the country. And from my perspective, unlike some other schools, they’re what I call incorrigible. They keep putting out these reports that demonstrate that if you get a law degree, you’ve got a better chance of getting a job. It’s really disingenuous of them in the current market to keep doing that.”
Unsurprisingly, Thelen took issue with Strauss’ statements:
“If anything, maybe one report which Jesse Strauss is referring to, which we released a few weeks ago and is available on our website, analyzed the nature of employment of a lawyer as a professional occupation,” he said. “And what the federal government’s own statistics show is that a lawyer as a professional has one of the lowest unemployment rates of any profession out there, except for just a couple in the healthcare field…
“So is a law degree valuable? Certainly, if you’re looking for a professional job, lawyers as a profession have one of the lowest unemployment rates out there. Does that mean it hasn’t become harder to get a job out there as a lawyer? Well, of course not. In the recession, it has become harder.”
Another issue in the complaints is the less highlighted practice of inflating reporting numbers by offering recent graduates jobs or fellowships. While Strauss argues that this kind of employment is not what anyone goes to law school to do, such jobs frequently enable schools to claim that their students are employed after graduation.
“Look, there’s no doubt that it has been reported in the national media that there have been some bad actors who fudge their employment reporting by hiring a number of their graduates right at the nine month mark when they are supposed to be reported,” Thelen said. “Cooley does not engage in that practice, and I would challenge Mr. Strauss to show any facts that we do.”
The Broader Picture—ABA and Public Policy
While some have applauded the plaintiffs’ efforts in these actions, others question whether they have any reasonable chance of success, or even whether the courthouse is the proper place to effect regulation of the legal academy.
In thinking about the merits of the case in an interview given before the October 5th announcement, Professor Robin Effron said that it seemed unlikely that the suits would actually succeed in the long-term.
“The position of the courts generally has been to give a wide degree of deference to educational institutions in their own decision making,” she said. “Whether or not that will carry over to fraud allegations, I don’t know, because it’s focused less on institutional choices and more on disclosure of certain materials. But even here, the issue has really been, ‘has Congress or a state legislature been requiring more? And should the ABA or U.S. News have stricter standards?’
“My guess is, courts will look at this and say, if we were writing ABA regulations maybe we’d want more stringent data too, but we weren’t. And short of a finding that New York Law School was actually manipulating data… It seems unlikely.”
This suggests one complaint with the strategy of filing individual lawsuits against the many law schools within the United States—that the proper method for effecting change should not be litigation against individual schools but rectifying lax supervision by the ABA or other regulatory bodies.
Recently, the ABA has faced some federal criticism, with Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) writing letters urging that the Association take greater steps to regulate the statements of law schools. In response, the ABA stated that it is committed to ensuring transparency so that future law students can make informed decisions.
“What we’re doing is similar to what law schools all around the country do,” Thelen said, “so if we’re doing it wrong every law school in the country is doing it wrong.”
Strauss might not disagree, given his statements in October. He also noted that “everybody tells us to sue the ABA.” But he still believes that the proper target at this point is the individual schools.
“What we think is that the law schools know better and shouldn’t be putting misleading information into the market in the first place, and that to go after the ABA is not in anyone’s interest when we can go right to the perpetrator—which is the law school.”
Both Cooley and NYLS recently filed motions to dismiss the lawsuits. Each heavily highlights the ABA’s responsibility in the matter.
Recently, Jesse Strauss announced that he would break off from Kurzon Strauss to form a new firm, Strauss Law PLLC. He will continue to work with attorney David Anziska on the litigation, and intends to file suit against each of the other fifteen schools once he has at least three plaintiffs who graduated from each school. According to Above the Law, the fifteen schools appear to have been targeted because they reported employed graduates at around the 90% mark in markets that already boast high levels of lawyers.
With respect to filing suit against his old law school, Strauss released the following statement by email:
“As a Brooklyn alum it’s not an easy thing to do but I can’t ask alum of other schools to step up and sue their school if I don’t have the courage to run a suit against my own. It’s a matter of principle. But I had a great experience at Brooklyn and have almost universal praise for the professors there (even the ones that serve as deans). I think it’s a great school and will be an even better one after we clean up this employment data mess.”
Strauss says that there was nothing inappropriate about the manner in which his firm investigated its claims before filing against Cooley, and fully expects the school’s defamation suit to be dismissed.
By contrast, Dean Thelen expects none of these class action lawsuits to hold up in court, and told the Advocate that he didn’t foresee any point at which a law school should consider outward factors such as the economy and scale back admissions. If someone interested in law school were to come to him today and voice concern about the job market, he says, he would tell them that a law degree is still a good investment.
Nonetheless, there are signs that the negative publicity is taking a toll on people’s desire to attend law school. In late September, the Wall Street Journal reported that law school application numbers for 2011 had fallen by almost 10%, the largest such decline in the past decade. Even still, the total number of applicants to ABA-approved law schools totaled 78,900 potential new law students.
As the Advocate reported on October 5, Brooklyn Law School has chosen not to comment on the possibility of any future litigation, with a spokesperson saying, “It would premature to comment at this time because we haven’t received any papers in the litigation.”
Dean Richard A. Matasar of New York Law School released a single sentence to the media regarding the pending suit, stating “These claims are without merit and we will vigorously defend against them in court.” NYLS officials politely declined to give further comment to the Advocate.
Briefs in Support of Motions to Dismiss:
After major lawsuits filed this summer against Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Thomas Cooley Law School and New York Law School, The National Law Journal and Above the Law reported today that BLS will be among fifteen new law schools facing class action suits alleging that the schools defrauded students into enrolling by advertising misleading job statistics to prospective students.
In an email earlier tonight, Jesse Strauss, a BLS alumnus and one of the primary attorneys behind the lawsuits against major law schools, confirmed that his new firm Strauss Law PLLC had not yet filed suit against BLS, but hoped to later this year. Strauss wrote:
As a Brooklyn alum it’s not an easy thing to do but I can’t ask alum of other schools to step up and sue their school if I don’t have the courage to run a suit against my own. It’s a matter of principle. But I had a great experience at Brooklyn and have almost universal praise for the professors there (even the ones that serve as deans). I think it’s a great school and will be an even better one after we clean up this employment data mess.
While a partner at the firm Kurzon Strauss, Strauss first filed the suits against Thomas Cooley and NYLS. Strauss recently left to form the new firm of Strauss Law PLLC which, along with the law offices of David Anziska, will be looking to file the newest suits. They will also take over most duties with the suits against Thomas Cooley and NYLS, though Jeff Kurzon will remain involved in an adjunct capacity.
The firms announced that they intended to file the new suits with the goal of attracting additional plaintiffs, acknowledging to the National Law Journal that they did not yet have sufficient numbers to make out the class actions.
Last month, before any mention had been made of his firm targeting our school, The BLS Advocate interviewed Jesse Strauss for a forthcoming feature on class actions against law schools. During that interview, Strauss spoke frankly about the problem as he saw it affecting BLS, and the practical effect that he felt the suits might have.
In terms of what we hope to accomplish, we obviously want to try to get some damages back to the folks who we allege were defrauded. But more importantly, for the legal education community as a whole, we want to restore rationality to the way legal education is marketed. And I think that that’s a really important point, especially for a place like Brooklyn. You know, I’m a Brooklyn grad, and Brooklyn very well might do a better job of placing its alums in jobs than other schools—they might, I don’t know. They claim that they have a 97.8% job placement rate, or a 98.7% job placement rate, which just isn’t true—we allege. But they probably do a pretty good job of putting alums into jobs. The problem is, you wouldn’t know. Because for any law school’s standing, there’s no reason for Brooklyn Law School to really compete on their ability to put students in jobs, because their 98.7% is 3 percentage points higher than New York Law School’s 95% rate. There’s no meaningful way for somebody to make a determination about whether a law degree is a good investment based on the information that’s been put out there by the law schools.
The other schools targeted are Albany Law School, California Western School of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law, DePaul University College of Law, Florida Coastal School of Law, Hofstra Law School, John Marshall School of Law, Pace University School of Law, Southwestern Law School, St John’s University School of Law, University of Baltimore School of Law, University of San Francisco School of Law, Villanova University School of Law, and Widener University School of Law.
All but two of the law schools targeted in these suits consistently declare alumni employment figures at or above 90%. The plaintiffs’ attorneys also claim that graduates average more than $108,000 in debt.
The BLS Advocate has been following this story closely, and we will be posting our full special report in the coming weeks.
Update: 10/6/11, 3:36 pm: We reached out to the school for comment. A BLS spokesperson responded: “It would premature to comment at this time because we haven’t received any papers in the litigation.”