Attorneys at large
Last year, student loans in the U.S. topped the one-trillion-dollar mark. March's jobless rate fell just one-tenth of one percent (to 7.6%) from the prior month. Commented Bloomberg/Businessweek, "A hot start to the year has faded with a poor March jobs report, as labor force participation fell to its lowest level in 34 years."
Law school graduates seem to be particularly bitter about large loan debts and bad employment prospects. Since what they learned for three years was how to sue, many of them have sued their own alma matters. The theory behind these class actions is that the schools misled them into thinking their grads were more employable than they actually were.
Several such suits have been dismissed. But last month, a federal judge in New Jersey refused to throw out the lawsuit pending against Delaware's Widener Law School, where I once taught. Senior Judge William H. Walls wrote, "Here, an employment rate upwards of 90 percent plausibly gave false assurance to prospective students regarding their legal employment opportunities upon investment in and attainment of a Widener degree…."
Explained His Honor, "Plaintiffs claim that the employment statistics reported on Widener's website were misleading because Widener 'did not disclose that its placement rate included full and part time legal, law-related and non-legal positions' and that 'a graduate could be working in any capacity in any kind of job, no matter how unrelated to law - and would be deemed employed and working in a career 'using' the WLS law degree.'"
Continued Judge Walls, "Specifically, Plaintiffs allege the statistics were misleading because Widener 'did not disclose that when a graduate responded, 'not seeking work,' WLS simply did not count the graduate'; that Widener 'would count as 'employed' a graduate who was only employed for a short period of time before the survey, but was likely unemployed'; that Widener would 'count as 'employed' graduates who, out of desperation, had started their own solo law practice…'; and that Widener 'did not disclose that a sizeable percentage of WLS graduates did not respond to the survey'."
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on April 2nd, "The 'Fast Forward' program, to be announced by Drexel today, was created in an effort to address rising concerns over student debt, school officials said. The program costs the same as the traditional three-year degree program at Drexel's Earle Mack School of Law, but condenses three years of coursework into two."
What am I missing here? The program costs the same amount of money, if this report is accurate, but the graduate gets thrown into the dismal job market one year sooner? How does that help?
I've been a member of the Pennsylvania Bar for more than 30 years. I love the law - practicing it, writing about it, teaching it. And I believe that a law school education provides the most robust analytical tools a businessperson, politician, administrator, or other leader can obtain.
On the other hand, Wikipedia says there are 1,225,000 licensed lawyers in the U.S. That's roughly one of us for every 215 Americans. No wonder many new law school grads are tending bar and suing.
What's next? Perhaps these young, under-employed attorneys will start suing on behalf of their contemporaries: all the unemployed and under-employed college grads who also are struggling with student loans, while working as waiters, bank tellers, shop girls and barmaids.
Perhaps America's 200-plus accredited law schools have unleashed thousands of Frankensuit Monsters.
I'm sure that after reading this column, many people will put the paper down and once again lament the self-entitled attitudes of the younger generations. Kids today think that just because they tried they deserve a first place trophy, am I right?
Well, yes and no. Like anything else, it depends on the person or, in this case, the law suit. Some of these cases are clearly without merit, and are based on nothing more than a graduate's delusional assumption that a degree should be all he or she needs to get hired into a dream job. "Ambition" and "hard work" are most likely novel ideas to the perpetrators of such suits.
On the other hand, the case against Widener seems plain to me: it's a clear example of false advertising, and it needs to be rectified.
Yes, I said false advertising. Despite the fact that customers need to apply to get in, a college is a business nonetheless - it just takes a loftier approach when swindling you out of $40,000. Like any business, colleges advertise and make claims in order to attract potential customers, and when those claims are false or skewed, those customers have the right to complain. They sometimes even have the right to demand compensation. When it comes to a person's education - the gateway to their very livelihood - the stakes are even higher.
So yes, if Widener University claimed that 90% of its graduates were employed fulltime in fields related to the law - or even implied it - then I agree that that advertising needs to be amended, and perhaps the complaining graduates deserve reparations (though I'll gladly leave that to a court to decide).
That doesn't mean, however, that I think all unemployed graduates deserve a free pass. On the contrary, I strongly believe we need to teach new generations of high school graduates to choose their next steps wisely - and cautiously. Most of all, we need to stop peddling the concept that attending a fancy, expensive college is some sort of guarantee for a successful future, because that simply isn't true anymore.
The economy isn't getting better, at least not at a rate that bodes well for future grads. I'd hazard to guess that $100,000 of debt from Princeton is going to hamper an unemployed twenty-something far more than a less prestigious - but less costly - degree. There are no guarantees anymore, and both students and colleges need to get with the times and drop that particular pretense.