Unable to find paying work as a lawyer and scrambling to pay off $150,000 in law school debt, Anna Alaburda took her argument that her school deceived her to a jury. And this week, she lost.
This is the first of many such cases around the country to reach a jury. The reputation of law school as a path to riches has taken a beating since the 2008 recession, with a glut of law school graduates and schools both prominent and marginal reducing class sizes, cutting faculty and trimming costs, Forbes reported.
The shift has put disproportionate pressure on marginal schools like Thomas Jefferson Law School in San Diego — Alaburda's alma mater.
No one seems to dispute that Alaburda was offered false numbers when it came to her employment prospects. Thomas Jefferson claimed that 80 percent of its graduates were employed within nine months of finishing school. But some vital details were missing.
"While the report showed the number of graduates working to be about the same as other law schools," the San Diego Tribune reports, "the data included people who were in jobs unrelated to the law profession. Some were working in salons, restaurants, as valets and selling books or tractors, according to evidence during the trial."
At trial, "Thomas Jefferson employees maintained that they did not understand the importance of the employment data, and that the school was a nonprofit institution offering opportunities to students who might not have other options to attend law school," The New York Times reported.
Juries are fickle things, and they are often asked to decide cases based on very narrow questions of law. Alaburda lost her case, but the larger concern of a subpar law school overselling student debt as a path to a dubious degree remains very real.
Jeff Benion, a prominent San Diego trial attorney, notes at the Above the Law blog, Thomas Jefferson Law School grads sport the highest average debt of any law school in the country, just over $172,000.
Benion outlines a series of deceptive claims and practices he says were made by the school to draw students in, including passing off a very small, skewed sample of graduates as a comprehensive.
Other concerns included listing some graduates as both employed and unemployed. One list for the class of 2006 seemed to be altered alphabetically: Those with last names A-N were all employed. S and T names were all studying for the bar, while everyone with a W name was unemployed, according to plaintiff's filings copied and highlighted by Benion.
The overall sense is that for an extended period, Thomas Jefferson combined indifference, sloppiness and self-serving deception in its employment data.
"You have to admit, those are horrible things to do if they are true," Benion wrote.
"That’s what this case is about, according to the plaintiff. It’s about a corporation doing horrible things to people to advance its own interests. It’s about a school with one of the highest rates of graduate indebtedness in the galaxy telling people that most people who graduate get good jobs after, so they should go ahead and enroll," Benion wrote.