Business & Practice

Law Student Finally Gets Her Shot at Alma Mater

March 9, 2016, 4:06 PM

It’s been almost eight years since Anna Alaburda graduated from Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and almost five years since she filed a class-action lawsuit against her alma mater demanding $50 million in damages, alleging the school artificially inflated employment statistics.

This week, Alaburda’s case is finally going to trial. But the stakes are much lower than they might have been back in 2011, when she first filed the complaint: In 2013, the San Diego Superior Court judge overseeing the case declined to certify the class action, and Alaburda is now seeking damages of just $125,000.

According to The New York Times, she’s still $170,000 in debt.

Benjamin Barton, who studies the legal profession at the University of Tennessee and has written for Big Law Business, said the case nevertheless has symbolic importance: “I’m glad it’s shining more light on what was really pretty despicable malfeasance — not just by a couple but by many law schools.”

Alaburda’s complaint, like at least 14 others filed in the years after the financial crisis, when the legal jobs market was headed south, alleges that by lumping together part-time and full-time as well as legal and non-legal employment, Thomas Jefferson misled students about the risk of taking on massive amounts of debt.

Of those 15 cases, only Alaburda’s and one other — a suit against Widener University School of Law in Delaware — are still pending. Most cases have been thrown out on the grounds that law students knew what they were getting into, and law schools were in any event reporting exactly what the ABA required.

William Henderson, who studies the legal profession at Indiana University, said many had been worried for years that many schools simply hewing to ABA requirements were giving students a misleading picture. In 2010, the ABA finally began requesting more granular employment statistics.

That’s made it harder for students today to argue they’ve been mislead: “You’d have to be living under a rock to not know that law school offers variable outcomes,” Henderson said. “The numbers don’t look very good, but at least they’re honest.”

That doesn’t mean the market has adjusted, though, Henderson added, explaining that students are continuing to fork over big dollars for risky legal degrees. “If you look at the bad outcomes of 2010 and 2011, I’m not sure we no longer have those bad outcomes. The remuneration, at least early career, is out of whack with the price of law school.”

Indeed, Alaburda’s last amended complaint also takes aim at Thomas Jefferson’s evolved business model: although the school now posts lower employment numbers, it has compensated by admitting lower-qualified students, who also take on massive amounts of debt they’ll likely have trouble repaying, Alaburda argues.

A Thomas Jefferson representative declined to comment on the case, issuing a statement from the school’s Dean, Thomas Guernsey. “We have a strong track record of producing successful graduates, with 7,000 alumni working nationally and internationally,” Guernsey said.

But law schools and advocates continue to fight over what it means to be “working.” When schools report salary information for example, Barton explained, they’re not factoring in the incomes of students working in part-time jobs, or doing gig work. “They only ask people who have relatively high-paying jobs what they were making,” he said. “That’s technically in compliance with ABA rules.”

Although a jury verdict for Alaburda could have some impact on Thomas Jefferson’s reputation, and may embolden a few more lawsuits to go forward, Henderson said, the conversation about student debt and law school statistics has largely moved on to other topics.

“The ABA did the right thing in changing the reporting requirements, they just did it about two years too late,” he said. “If they’d done it earlier, all of this would have been avoided.”

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