Last fall, Frank Raimond quit his job and moved his belongings across town to a cluttered office suite on lower Broadway. Almost everyone he knew thought he was crazy. For six years, Raimond had worked in the New York City Law Department, the last three in a senior post handling high-profile litigation. Although his salary was modest, the benefits were good and the work was interesting. “Frank, I just don’t understand,” said his boss one afternoon. “Help me understand. Is this about money? Because if it’s about the money, I can make some inquiries.”
It was not about the money. Instead, Raimond, 31, was answering to more righteous motives. A few months earlier, he had stumbled across the story of David Anziska and Jesse Strauss, a pair of lawyers based in Manhattan. Anziska and Strauss, veterans of big corporate firms, believed that law schools across the country were intentionally manipulating postgraduate employment numbers in order to attract more applicants. While similar allegations had been voiced before, Anziska and Strauss were taking action, and in fitting fashion—by hauling the law schools to court in a series of class-action suits that they believed could win millions of dollars for their plaintiffs and forever alter the landscape of American jurisprudence.
Anziska and Strauss actually talked about the cases like that, and something about their bravado resonated with Raimond. In August, the duo had filed the first of their planned wave of lawsuits, bringing complaints against New York Law School and Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan—both low-ranked schools that nonetheless had consistently reported sky-high job-placement rates—for consumer fraud. In the court documents, they escalated their rhetoric with ripped-from-the-headlines flourishes, comparing NYLS to Enron and alleging that its heady employment figures had a “Madoff-like consistency.” It was part of a broader problem, they argued: The legal-job market was contracting, but law schools were matriculating an unprecedented number of students. The result was a nationwide lawyer glut, a seething army of unemployed law-school graduates carting around their student-loan debts like sacks of rotting fruit.
This fit with what Raimond, who got his degree from Fordham Law School in 2005, had seen among his own acquaintances, some of whom had gone to much better schools than NYLS and Cooley but were stuck searching for work. Tall and unfailingly earnest, the son of a Brooklyn beat cop, Raimond always loved a fight. He arranged a meeting with Anziska, 33, and Strauss, 34, at the Dakota Roadhouse, a dimly lit dive on Park Place.
Strauss showed up in a tie, Anziska in shirtsleeves. They made an interesting pair. Anziska was short, compact, taciturn. When he did speak, it was quietly, in hushed bursts. Strauss, on the other hand, was outgoing and verbose, full of restless energy. Although Anziska had masterminded the suits, Strauss did most of the talking for both of them, punctuating his sentences with gulps of beer. “They had run the angles as well as I had,” Raimond recalls.
Raimond did have some second thoughts, such as the fact “that I wouldn’t have a job” and therefore might have trouble affording rent and food. But in late November, he waved good-bye to his colleagues at the city and settled into the lower-Broadway offices, alongside his new partners. “Honestly, I didn’t see I had a choice,” Raimond says. “How many times in life do you get a chance to work on something that you really see as a profound wrong, with other people who are as passionate about it as you are, with an outside shot of pulling it off?”
Last month, Anziska, Raimond, and Strauss filed class-action lawsuits against twelve additional schools, including Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles; Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Florida; and Brooklyn Law School, where Strauss received his J.D. Meanwhile, one of their original quarries, New York Law School, sits right down the street, at the corner of Leonard and West Broadway. As Raimond, Strauss, and Anziska toil away at their desks, just a few blocks away, NYLS’s students toil away at theirs, each side chasing its own long odds.
The hardest part about becoming a lawyer in a city like New York, if your path runs through a top-tier school such as Columbia or NYU, might be getting your application accepted. After that, it’s mostly a matter of keeping your grades up and waiting for the jobs to come to you: On-campus recruiting interviews lead to summer associateships, which often lead to jobs at the same firm after graduation. Attending a less prestigious law school, though, has always been something of a gamble, and as the recession has squeezed the profession, the math has become dicey indeed. Nationwide, there are two aspiring lawyers with passing bar-exam scores for every one open job; in New York State, the ratio is even more lopsided, with 9,787 passing the bar in 2009, then competing for roughly 2,100 new positions.