Meanwhile, law-school tuition rose 317 percent nationwide during the aughts, compared with a 71 percent spike for undergraduate tuition. At New York Law School, it now stands at $46,200 a year—comparable to Harvard Law’s. But neither the cost nor NYLS’s lowly ranking (it’s 135th on the U.S. News & World Report list) has deterred the students who fill classes that, according to the complaint filed against the school, are a fifth larger than in 2000. It may help that NYLS has consistently claimed what the lawsuit refers to as a “sterling” 90 percent placement rate, a rate that Anziska, Raimond, and Strauss argue simply does not compute.
It’s not yet clear whether the lawyers have proof that NYLS and the other defendants are cooking their numbers. What they do have is at least one favorable precedent: Last year, San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy was sued for misleading applicants about their chances of landing gainful employment in the gastronomic arts, leading to a settlement under which the school reportedly issued tuition refunds to as many as 8,000 students. Anziska, Raimond, and Strauss hope to use the discovery process to compel their targets to turn over all their internal data on their graduates’ livelihoods and to see how that data squares with the claims posted on websites and in recruiting literature—or, barring that, to show that the schools aren’t really trying to keep complete, accurate figures to begin with.
“In that case, the schools will have to disclose a lot of potentially embarrassing information,” predicts University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, a prominent skeptic of law schools’ self-reported placement numbers. That is, if the schools don’t cut deals to make their cases go away. As you learn in Intro to Civil Procedure, lawyers can win without going all the way to trial.
Lawyers also learn to love a sympathetic client, and Anziska, Raimond, and Strauss have several. Among their plaintiffs in the lawsuit against New York Law School is Katherine Cooper, a 27-year-old from Eatonville, Washington, a rural town outside Seattle. In the summer of 2006, Cooper applied to about a dozen law schools, using a color-coded spreadsheet to track her progress. Although her LSAT scores were average, her undergraduate GPA was high, and she received a few acceptance letters, including from Pace and NYLS.
Cooper decided on NYLS “because job statistics were huge for me. I wanted reliable work after graduation,” she said recently, neatly parroting the language of the lawsuits. She and her boyfriend, J.J., settled in New Brunswick, New Jersey, near the Rutgers campus, where J.J. was set to pursue a master’s degree in music. During her first year at NYLS, she applied for dozens of summer associate positions but received no replies. The next spring, buoyed by better grades, she tried again—and again was rejected by every firm she applied to (though at the last minute she did land an unpaid, law-related internship at MTV Networks). To enter the third year of law school without stronger prospects of work after graduation was dangerous, she knew. But she was, to use a poker term, “pot invested”—she had borrowed at least $80,000 already, and if she dropped out, her loans would come due almost immediately.
In 2010, Cooper and J.J. were married. That spring, Cooper got her diploma from NYLS. She spent the summer studying for the bar—she passed—and again she made a spreadsheet. She at first applied only to law firms, then widened the net, up to and including a position as a clerk at Sears. After reading about the class-action suit, Cooper got in touch with Anziska. “I was at the lowest of my lows,” she says. “There’s this whole spiral of shame that sets in when you can’t get the job you want.” Other plaintiffs can tell similar stories, or worse. Matthew Crawford, a 2010 NYLS grad, is now living with his parents in St. Louis and working at a Starbucks—certainly not the job he wanted either.
But having your dreams dashed isn’t the same as being legally wronged (they teach this in law school, too). If these cases are about deception, it runs two ways. “Everyone likes to think they’re that special little snowflake,” says Staci Zaretsky, an editor at the popular blog Above the Law. “They applied to a [lower-tier] school, with the expectation that they’ll be one of the ones to get the job. The truth is, they may not.” Getting into a law school—some law school, any law school—does not make a person cut out to be a lawyer. But a lot of law students would not bother seeking the degree without first convincing themselves otherwise.