Cooley Law grads blame school for their own naiveté

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Aug 12, 2011 in Unsolicited Commentary | Subscribe

Tonight’s entry was originally going to focus on some of the economic unpleasantness unfolding at NCCU Law courtesy of our state legislature’s emasculation of North Carolina’s university system.

But Twitter is temporarily sending me in a different direction :D

One of the highlights from attending the ABA’s Annual Meeting was finding out who are among the most prolific law Tweeters, most of whom used the #ABAannual hashtag to keep their followers updated on what was going on.

Is reasonable reliance on law school stats even possible in the Google era?

David Pardue of @georgiatriallaw is one of those folks, and he mentioned this story in the Wall Street Journal about a class action lawsuit filed against Cooley Law School (by its own graduates) over the school’s disclosed employment statistics.

I’ve posted our Twitter convo on the right so you’ve got an idea of where this entry is going :)

Now let me preface the rest of my commentary by saying I don’t disagree with anything David has tweeted.1 He’s right about the reasonableness of these students’ reliance on Cooley’s stats being a key issue in the case. I suspect/hope he’s also right about law schools being less inclined to screw with their numbers as a result of this lawsuit. And I agree that the court will be considering the circumstances as they existed at the time these students first enrolled, not as they exist today.2

Let me also say here (just so I don’t have to repeat it later) that the response from Cooley Law’s general counsel Jim Thelen to blame the ABA is also shamelessly disingenuous. There’s nothing at all preventing any law school from collecting and releasing far more granular employment data on its graduates — they simply choose not to do so for fear of looking bad from the results.

But with those two caveats out of the way, this is another case of only focusing on the Big Bad Law Schools. I stand by the implication of my admittedly rhetorical question to David on Twitter: can any law school student who enrolled after the proliferation of Google really claim they reasonably relied on a law school’s employment statistics?

Ignore the fact that you can probably count on one hand the number of law students you know who actually based their decision to go to law school in any part on a given school’s stated employment statistics; even though I’ve never met one, I’m assuming arguendo that they do in fact exist. I’m also assuming, simply because they claimed it in the complaint they filed (h/t to Above the Law for this entry on the lawsuit), that the named plaintiffs in McDonald v. Cooley are among them.

Look at when these folks graduated though: 2 of the 4 graduated in 2010, meaning they began enrollment in either 2007 (if full-time) or 2006 (if part-time); the 3rd graduated in 2008, meaning enrollment in 2005 or 2004; and the 4th graduated in 2006, meaning she enrolled in 2003 or 2002.

Google, by contrast, began in 1996. Its world-famous PageRank search algorithm won patent protection in 2001. It already had 50%+ of the global marketshare for search engines by the time the earliest of the 4 named plaintiffs ever decided to attend Cooley Law, reaching such ubiquity that Merriam-Webster added the verb “to Google” to the dictionary in 2006.

And if through some miracle this well-educated class of plaintiffs3 had never heard of Google, they still could have used search engines on Yahoo!, or MSN, or AOL, or Lycos, or AltaVista, or Ask Jeeves, or…

…you get the point ;)

It’s pretty safe to say the concept of internet search was already a widespread and well-ingrained phenomenon before any of these students enrolled, particularly among the well-educated, and has grown even more widespread and even more well-ingrained the later in time that enrollment choice was made.4

“But TDot!” you exclaim, “Just because search engines were available doesn’t mean these students would have found anything of concern!”

Which brings me to the 2nd prong of this analysis: people have known law schools were juicing their employment statistics for most of the past decade.

With my own search on Google.com, I came across this 2007 piece from the Wall Street Journal on the imploding legal job market. Here’s a snippet, with emphases added by me:

Hard Case: Job Market Wanes for U.S. Lawyers
Growth of Legal Sector Lags Broader Economy; Law Schools Proliferate
SEPTEMBER 24, 2007
By AMIR EFRATI

Evidence of a squeezed market among the majority of private lawyers in the U.S., who work as sole practitioners or at small firms, is growing. A survey of about 650 Chicago lawyers published in the 2005 book “Urban Lawyers” found that between 1975 and 1995 the inflation-adjusted average income of the top 25% of earners, generally big-firm lawyers, grew by 22% — while income for the other 75% actually dropped.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, the inflation-adjusted average income of sole practitioners has been flat since the mid-1980s. A recent survey showed that out of nearly 600 lawyers at firms of 10 lawyers or fewer in Indiana, wages for the majority only kept pace with inflation or dropped in real terms over the past five years.

The news isn’t any better for the 14% of new lawyers who go into government or join public-interest firms. Inflation-adjusted starting salaries for graduates who go to work for public-interest firms or the government rose 4% and 8.6%, respectively, between 1994 and 2006, according to the National Association for Law Placement, which aggregates graduate surveys from law schools. That compares with at least an 11% jump in the median family income during the same period, according to the Census Bureau…

Sure this piece only talks about solos and government/public-interest attorneys. But I also found that in under 30 seconds earlier today. Just 30 seconds, despite 4 years’ worth of new websites and blogs and other data Google has indexed clogging up my 2011 search results.

In other words, had any of these students done a same or similar search in 2007 (or earlier), they could have found the exact same IRS / BLS / NALP data indicating a difficult legal job environment in the exact same amount of time (or less!) with a much better signal:noise ratio than I’m getting now.

And that’s not even getting into the “common sense” factor here: you know there’s a stagnant legal market if for no other reason than living in an economy barely recovering from the September 11th attacks (and ensuing diversion of resources to improve homeland security), and yet you really believe your law school had a 90%+ employment rate? While nearly every other law school in the country claimed 90%+ employment over the exact same time?

Really?

Now I’m not the type to categorically trash all graduates from a law school, so I have to assume this “I really didn’t know! I really did reasonably rely on this data even though contradictory information from more reputable sources was literally right at my fingertips! Really!” mentality is atypical of Cooley Law graduates.

But this particular argument requires the willing suspension of disbelief to be plausible — and like the other works from whence that phrase was derived, this lawsuit should be recognized for the fiction that it is ;)

Have a great Friday night and an amazing weekend everybody! :D

  1. As a random aside, have any of you noticed how double negatives are not only commonplace but widely accepted in law? Once upon a time I was taught that a double negative was bad grammar and now I use them regularly :crack:   []
  2. I tried to convey that last point by the “2004+” reference, but I think my inapt inclusion of the word “now” gave a wrong impression of my meaning :beatup: []
  3. Remember, a baccalaureate degree is now required for law school admission. Meaning anyone enrolling at Cooley Law or any other law school is already among the top 10% of the US population in terms of educational attainment. []
  4. Translation: no sympathy at all for the 2010 Cooley Law grads now crying foul. []

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5 Comments

Dr. Juris
Aug 14, 2011 at 10:45 AM

Agree completely.


 
New Kid on the Hallway
Aug 15, 2011 at 2:46 AM

I do and I don’t agree. On the one hand, I don’t think the lawsuit is going to go anywhere, nor should it. On the other hand, I also don’t think it’s completely ridiculous for someone to have relied on a school’s published employment statistics. For one thing, all the schools inflate their employment statistics, so if your research consists of comparing the schools you’re considering, there’s nothing really to tip you off that a given school is being disingenuous. It’s naive, but it’s not criminally naive – and the thing is, 20-21-year-olds are naive, and many of them don’t actually know how law school/grad school/higher ed works, or how legal employment in the real world works. A LOT of college juniors/seniors wouldn’t have known that the legal market had stagnated or have any clue about the economic impact of 9/11 (since they were 12? 13? maybe 14? when it happened). Sure, they should know these things, but in a pre-recession world not knowing those things wasn’t such a big deal. It’s the economy/profession that’s changed, and made that naivete so much more problematic.

After all, knowing how to use Google doesn’t do a damn thing if you don’t know what information you should be looking for.

(I’m not saying I think the lawsuit has merit, I just don’t judge the students so harshly.)


 
TDot
Aug 16, 2011 at 10:35 AM

Fair points, I concede.

But, even so, I’ve still got a hard time extending my sympathy to a lot of these folks. Surely the lead plaintiff (who enlisted and served 5 years in the military in response to 9/11) or the earliest grad (who likely enrolled at Cooley in 2003 at age 22) had to have known things were in uncharted territory job-wise. And even ignoring everything else, almost any statistic at 90%+ (except for maybe vaccinations) just screams “too good to be accurate” to me.

Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon b/c of the whole dropping-out-of-undergrad/homeless thing, but I expect more of people — and if they fall short of those expectations, I’d hope they acknowledge their own naivete and take personal responsibility for it instead of blaming someone else :beatup:


 
Va.
Aug 16, 2011 at 11:27 AM

I view it more as a consumer fraud issue (and also a false claims act/qui tam-action) rather than a contracts “reasonable reliance” issue. And if you read the complaint, those are the claims made: violations of the Michigan Consumer Protection Act, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation. It’s hard to evaluate the case (or determine what issues will be important) without looking at the complaint and the underlying statute/common law…. I didn’t read the full Michigan act, but most state consumer fraud statutes are concerned ONLY with the actions or intent of the seller/operator and not whether the consumer’s reliance was “reasonable” under some common law standard. (In fact, most are premised upon the argument that consumers should be able to take factual claims at face value, without any burden of further research, and that misrepresenting/lying to consumers about key facts is wrong.) My inclination is that they have a case and would survive summary judgment, particularly if discovery reveals that the law school was engaging in some creative math particularly if accompanied by some juicy e-mails.


 
New Kid on the Hallway
Aug 16, 2011 at 1:48 PM

Ooh, I like the consumer fraud angle – I think it is way more productive to focus on what the schools intended rather than the reasonableness of the students.

And for the record, I agree that blaming the school isn’t productive. While there are a lot of problems with legal education, I don’t consider it a scam in any way. I still just think there are so many people who don’t really understand how higher ed works, who are surrounded by a culture saying that lawyers are influential and make a lot of money, that 90+% employment stats don’t trigger warnings – they just confirm what applicants want to believe. I guess I think there are people who genuinely didn’t realize what they were getting into, and I feel sorry for them, even if specific individuals among them could have and should have known better.


 

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