The Case(s) Against Law School

Photo-illustration by Jesse Lenz Photo: Alamy (bird); Danny Kim (cage); Jesse Lenz (diploma)

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.

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.

Thomas M. Cooley and New York Law School have pushed back hard against the class-action suits. NYLS recently filed to have its case dismissed, and last summer, after spotting an online ad posted by Anziska to recruit clients, Cooley sued Anziska and Strauss for defaming the school and “tortiously interfer[ing] with our student relationships.” Strauss calls the move “an intimidation tactic. We’re trying to slaughter their cash cow, and no one likes that.”

The American Bar Association, which accredits the bulk of law schools in the U.S., has signaled solidarity with the defendants. In January, William Robinson, the head of the ABA, told Reuters that aspiring lawyers make “a free choice” to pursue a J.D. “It’s inconceivable to me that someone with a college education, or a graduate-level education, would not know before deciding to go to law school that the economy has declined over the last several years and that the job market out there is not as opportune as it might have been five, six, seven, eight years ago,” Robinson said. (An ABA spokesman said Robinson would not comment directly on the ongoing litigation.)

Among alumni, opinions are split, as you might expect, according to which side of the unemployment line the graduate falls on. “Mathematically, it’s a ton of graduates, yes, and no, there aren’t enough jobs for them,” Daniel Gershburg, a 2006 graduate of NYLS and an attorney with a successful practice in Manhattan, says. “At the same time, what are schools supposed to say? ‘No, no, don’t come here! Run for your lives!’ Where does personal responsibility start?” Julia Shapiro, who graduated from NYLS in 2007—and who works as a lawyer in Los Angeles—puts it this way: “Suing the school is not going to help them find a job. I would not put my energy into wallowing in my sorrows.”

Last month, I was invited to meet with Carol Buckler, the interim dean at New York Law School. NYLS opened a 235,000-square-foot facility off Leonard Street in 2009, but Buckler’s airy, sun-soused office sits in an older building overlooking Church Street. During our conversation, Buckler suggested that plenty of students come to NYLS for reasons other than a ticket to a corporate gig. “We teach critical thinking, and writing, and so forth,” Buckler said. “And that’s always been the case, and those skills have always been useful. I guess I would say that it’s never been a good reason to go to law school or any grad school, because you think there’s a guarantee at the end. Whether that was twenty years ago or ten years ago or this year.”

The following day, I visited Anziska, Raimond, and Strauss at their offices on lower Broadway. They looked tired. The three were two weeks away from filing their second, bigger batch of class-action suits, and it was an “all-hands-on-deck situation,” Anziska said. For the cases outside New York, they needed the help of local lawyers. There was plenty of wrangling to do.

“The bottleneck on these lawsuits is not the amount of people who want to sue. The bottleneck is our ability to launch the suits,” Strauss said. “Let’s put it that way. It’s logistics.” He slid his glasses up his nose.

Much of the organizational work had fallen to Anziska, who seems most comfortable behind the scenes, manning the phones. He discussed the cases politely enough, but his mind was clearly elsewhere, and after a few minutes, he retreated to his desk with a wave.

“That guy is like General Patton and the Third Army in Germany,” Raimond said. “He’s a logistical genius.”

Anziska’s aptitude will be tested as the lawyers attempt to sue another “20 to 25” schools “every few months,” a goal Strauss recently outlined in a conference call with reporters. But first they must try to bat down the motion by NYLS to dismiss their lawsuit, which is scheduled to be taken up by a Manhattan judge on March 12. Perhaps because of the intensity with which the school’s attorneys have fought their case, Anziska, Raimond, and Strauss seem to have cultivated a special enmity for NYLS.

“NYLS has to put students in seats,” Strauss said. “That’s the system they set up for themselves. They’ve got a huge new building, gleaming classrooms, but they’re cutting corners on transparency. They’ve created this reality where the only way they can put people in seats is by misleading them.”

Late last year, Strauss noted, Senators Barbara Boxer and Tom Coburn had urged the Department of Education to investigate “the confluence of growing enrollments, steadily increasing tuition rates, and allegedly sluggish job placement” at law schools. The DOE has not yet committed to an investigation, but Strauss was heartened by the fact that the issue was gaining attention in halls of power.

Strauss added that he meets few fellow lawyers in New York these days who are not by now aware of the litigation. I asked him if that meant his colleagues supported the cause.

Strauss smiled. “Well, let’s put it this way. I think everyone is cheering for us, but not necessarily betting on us.”

The Case(s) Against Law School