Class-action suits have been filed against three law schools over recent graduates' employment rates and the data on hiring and salary that the institutions used to market their programs to applicants — and up to 15 more suits may be in the works, in what two attorneys studying the issue say is a dangerous trend for colleges and universities nationwide.
New York Law School, in Manhattan, and two other law schools — one in Michigan and another in California — have been sued by alumni who say they relied, in part, on historical statistics about previous graduates' salaries and hirings to apply to the schools, according to attorney Robert B. Smith, a Boston-based partner with law firm LeClairRyan and the head of its education industry team.
"There's lots of press around the outrageous billing rates and salaries at big law firms and an unrealistic expectation that all (law school) graduates are headed there," Smith said. "It's part of the consumer movement. It's coming to education in general. The law schools are the focus right now."
The pending suits claim there is fraud or some sort of misrepresentation, either by way of omission or misstatement, or some combination of the two, said class-action defense attorney Michael S. Haratz, a Newark-based partner on LeClairRyan's business litigation team.
New Jersey's law schools, though they are not party to any of the ongoing class-action suits, and colleges and universities may face potential litigation if the trend to hold educational institutions responsible for low salaries or underemployment spreads, Haratz said.
"There probably isn't any law school in New Jersey or anywhere else that is immune from a threat, but it depends upon the nature and content of their publication (of employment and salary data) and the success in the job market of their student body," Haratz said.
Haratz said that education institutions other than law schools, such as for-profit colleges and trade schools may face possible litigation as well.
"The threat is probably greater at the graduate school level particularly, since people apply to graduate schools with a view towards those being springboards to particular professions. That's not to say that the threat doesn't also exist for the undergraduate institutions — it does — but it's probably more heightened for the graduate schools," Haratz said.
The attorneys say that some of these efforts, designed as part of a movement to bring more transparency to the legal education system, have emanated from the blogosphere.
In addition to New York Law School, Thomas M. Cooley School of Law, in Lansing, Mich., and Thomas Jefferson School of Law, in San Diego, Calif., are defendants in class-action lawsuits.