In ten years we’re gonna have one million lawyers.
How much can a poor nation stand?”
–Tom Paxton (“One Million Lawyers” -1985)
In the past year, more than a dozen class action lawsuits have been filed against law schools on behalf of their graduates, accusing the schools of having fraudulently misrepresented their graduates historical success in finding high-paying legal employment after graduation. For instance, the schools are alleged to have used temporary job placements at large high-paying law firms when counting the number of graduates who had obtained full time high-paying employment. The schools did so, the graduates allege, in order to persuade them to attend (and pay tuition to) those schools. The schools claim that their statistical representations complied with guidelines issued by the American Bar Association and the National Association for Legal Career Professionals. Unfazed by this defense, one of the plaintiffs lawyers reportedly countered, that, “You can’t have a trade association pass regulations that immunizes schools from fraud.” The average debt load of law school graduates exceeds $100,000–a virtual education mortgage (or second mortgage, considering undergraduate school loans) that the graduates are finding difficult–if not practically impossible–to pay off in their less-lucrative-than-anticipated jobs (many of which are not even in the legal field).
The claimants will be viewed either as victims of predators or of their own naïveté. Did the law students do the necessary math, including determining how much money they would need to service their education debt, before deciding whether law school would be a good investment? Did they make unrealistic assumptions about their job prospects or job security? Did the prospective law students bother to consider how the existing glut of lawyers might affect their earning potential? This information is not secret. Tom Paxton wrote his song based on what he read in a newspaper article. Although the projections turned out to be wrong (lawyers held about 759,200 jobs in 2008, according to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report), at least he was thinking (and singing) about the general problem long before the current plaintiffs had even heard of law school. Did the schools gloss over–or worse, affirmatively hide–unfavorable information necessary for an informed decision? Did they misrepresent critical employment statistics that prospective students would not have been able to easily determine? Only a handful of law schools are defendants right now, but we should expect more to be added to the list, unless courts start dismissing the cases. Although the current suits might not capture the attention of much of the public at this moment (lawyers still comprise only a small fraction of the adult US population), the general public will surely take notice if and when similar lawsuits are filed against four-year colleges, as unemployed or underemployed college graduates–saddled with their first education mortgage–come to doubt the value of their undergraduate education. // Michael Racette