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Smart Enough to be Dumb

Vivia Chen

March 22, 2012

Kid©Temych - Fotolia.comSo you just got into law school. Congrats. That should get your parents off your back for the summer.

But before you send in your deposit, repeat after me: Caveat emptor. You probably know what it means: "Buyer beware." You'll hear that term a lot in contracts class. But I'd get a head start on absorbing the meaning now.

Because if you go to law school (especially a low-ranking one, which, in this market, means most schools not in the top 20 list of US. World News & Report), incur a fat student debt, and then find yourself with few viable job options at graduation, you won't have anyone to blame but yourself. I've shouted that warning before

Now I have another reason to sound the alarm: A judge just threw out the lawsuit filed by graduates of New York Law School who claimed they were misled to attend the school by its allegedly inflated jobs data. Reports Karen Sloan of The National Law Journal about New York supreme court judge Melvin Schweitzer's March 21 ruling:

"The court does not view these postgraduate employment statistics to be misleading in a material way for a reasonable consumer acting reasonably," he wrote. "By anyone's definition, reasonable consumers—college graduates—seriously considering law school are a sophisticated subset of education consumers, capable of sifting through data and weighing alternatives before making a decision regarding their postcollege options, such as applying for professional school."

Schweitzer also noted that the market conditions changed from the time the plaintiffs entered law school and the time of their graduation, and that plaintiff were seeking redress for their "disappointment and angst." The NLJ reports that the plaintiffs sought damages of $225 million—"the difference between the amount the students paid in tuition and the true value of their law degrees." Schweitzer wrote that plaintiffs' method of damage calculation was "speculative."

Frankly, I would have fallen off my chair if the ruling came out the other way. I am sympathetic to the plaintiffs (and just about all jobless law grads), but I don't really disagree with the judge.

These grads were not babes in the woods. Before plunking down $150,000 or so for a law degree at a mediocre law school (New York Law School has been a bottom-ranking law school since the dawn of time), did they not realize it was an iffy investment? Even in a good market, the value of a NYLS degree is dubious. It doesn't take a genius to see which grads would be the most vulnerable in a down market.

For now, the plaintiffs in the NYLS case say they will appeal. There are still over a dozen similar suits against law schools around the country, and more are expected to follow. So far, a suit against Thomas Jefferson School of Law in California has survived an earlier motion to dismiss.

It's possible that the judge in California will be more lenient than the New York judge. But I wouldn't hold my breath. In any case, it's not a good career strategy to rely on a legal solution to correct your career bloopers.

So repeat after me again: Caveat emptor.

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"Especially a low-ranking one"? You should be more careful and qualify that by adding a low-ranking "high-priced one." What's becoming evident is that many higher-ranked schools have been able to sustain their fulltime, JD-required jobs stats only by hiring their own grads on a temporary basis. (See http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2012/03/a-stunning-but-largely-unnoticed-anomaly-in-recent-employment-outcomes-data-suggests-that-things-may.html) Less expensive lower-ranked schools often out-place higher ranked schools. Case in point-Cleveland-Marshall Law School (Rank 132) put over 67% of its 2010 grads in full-time, JD-required jobs. That topped both Ohio State and Cincinnati who are ranked in the top 50. Full disclosure-I'm the Dean at C|M|LAW.

Seizing the day...as anyone who continues her education past undergraduate school should know.....takes lots of work...you have to "hit the ground running" and become a savvy networker...important in these changing times...(and adding a quantifiable skill set helps).

Keep going...

I flatly agree with the judge on this, as much as we decry the law schools for their tactics. I spent six months researching schools before deciding where I go. I worked hard, planned ahead, studied for the LSAT and didn't quit.

Now, I am paying only 25% sticker price at the best school in my state, with no GPA stipulations. My debt will not be crippling.

While I agree that some law schools can be greedy and crooked in how they treat students, it is ultimately up to the students to do their research and figure out a program that works for them.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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