Un­em­ployed lawyers sue schools over jobs prom­ises

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Pass­ing the bar isn’t the meal ticket it used to be.

Once the surest path to a six­fig­ure salary and a life of lux­ury, a law de­gree in the af­ter­math of the Great Re­ces­sion comes with far fewer guar­an­tees, leav­ing many grad­u­ates with moun­tains of debt while con­fronted by a rapidly chang­ing le­gal land­scape.

“It was a won­der­ful life. And now it’s gone,” said An­drew Mor­riss, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Alabama’s School of Law and re­search fel­low at New York Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for La­bor and Em­ploy­ment Law.

“The fi­nan­cial cri­sis re­shaped the le­gal in­dus­try. [. . .] Big firms stopped hir­ing more peo­ple,” he said. “It’s a per­ma­nent change. Clients have dis­cov­ered they can pay less for le­gal ser­vices, and firms have dis­cov­ered they don’t need to have scores of as­so­ci­ates work­ing there.”

About 85.6 per­cent of 2011 law school grad­u­ates have jobs, the low­est per­cent­age in nearly 20 years. That num­ber has dropped 2 per­cent­age points since 2010 and more than 6 points since 2007, ac­cord­ing to data from the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for Law Place­ment Inc.

Less than 65 per­cent of law school grad­u­ates hold po­si­tions re­quir­ing a le­gal de­gree, down from nearly 75 per­cent four years ago. Less than half of the 2011 class have jobs in the pri­vate sec­tor, the as­so­ci­a­tion re­ported.

Cash-strapped po­ten­tial clients, Mr. Mor­riss said, now shop around for lower prices among com­pet­ing lawyers, or opt for in­ex­pen­sive on­line law ser­vices such as those of­fered by legal­zoom.com. That de­vel­op­ment has left some mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar firms on shaky fi­nan­cial foot­ing.

The le­gal world was rocked last month when Dewey and LeBoeuf LLP, one of the world’s rich­est and most well-known law of­fices with op­er­a­tions in a dozen coun­tries, filed for bank­ruptcy. Many an­a­lysts at­tribute the big­gest law firm col­lapse in U.S. his­tory to Dewey’s mas­sive debt — es­ti­mated at more than $300 mil­lion — to a va­ri­ety of cred­i­tors, in­clud­ing more than $200 mil­lion owed to banks.

Part­ners be­gan leav­ing the firm as Dewey’s fi­nan­cial con­di­tion wors­ened, tak­ing wealthy clients with them and stick­ing the com­pany with tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in guar­an­teed salaries and ben­e­fits pack­ages with­out the work to pay for it all.

While Dewey and LeBoeuf filed for bank­ruptcy, most law schools con­tin­ued to re­cruit by boast­ing of their pris­tine place­ment rates, all but guar­an­tee­ing stu­dents that they will find work af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

For some grad­u­ates, re­al­ity has dis­proved those prom­ises.

New York City lawyer David Anziska is now lead­ing a class- ac­tion law­suit against nearly two dozen law schools, claim­ing they mis­led re­cruits about their em­ploy­ment prospects. As the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for Law Place­ment data demon­strate, it’s harder than ever for law school grad­u­ates to find jobs, and Mr. Anziska and oth­ers ar­gue that in­sti­tu­tions sim­ply haven’t told stu­dents the truth.

New York City lawyer David Anziska is now lead­ing a class-ac­tion law­suit against nearly two dozen law schools, claim­ing they mis­led re­cruits about their em­ploy­ment prospects. As the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for Law Place­ment data demon­strate, it’s harder than ever for law school grad­u­ates to find jobs, and Mr. Anziska and oth­ers ar­gue that in­sti­tu­tions sim­ply haven’t told stu­dents the truth. “We want to sue as many schools as pos­si­ble,” he told the Amer­i­can Bar As­so­ci­a­tion Jour­nal in a re­cent in­ter view. “It’s very im­por­tant for us for this to go global, to scale up. We feel that this prac­tice [of guar­an­tee­ing grad­u­ates they’ll find work] has been a dirty se­cret for a very long time.”

“We want to sue as many schools as pos­si­ble,” he told the Amer­i­can Bar As­so­ci­a­tion Jour­nal in a re­cent in­ter­view. “It’s very im­por­tant for us for this to go global, to scale up. We feel that this prac­tice [of guar­an­tee­ing grad­u­ates they’ll find work] has been a dirty se­cret for a very long time.”

Mr. Anziska filed the law­suit last summer, which co­in­cides with a sig­nif­i­cant drop in law school ap­pli­ca­tions. The num­ber of stu­dents seek­ing en­try into the na­tion’s nearly 200 law schools dropped by about 11 per­cent in the 2011-12 aca­demic year, ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion from the Law School Ad­mis­sions Coun­cil. Pre­lim­i­nary data for the 2012-13 term show that the down­ward trend is con­tin­u­ing, the pos­si­ble re­sult of more prospec­tive stu­dents tak­ing a more-thought­ful look at their post­grad­u­a­tion job op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The chang­ing le­gal world doesn’t re­flect a ma­jor drop in clients need­ing ser­vices — quite the op­po­site, an­a­lysts say, as the eco­nomic cri­sis has gen­er­ated, for ex­am­ple, many more bank­ruptcy fil­ings.

“There’s still a huge un­met need for le­gal ser­vices in Amer­ica,” Mr. Mor­riss said. “Lots of mod­est, mid­dle-in­come peo­ple still need lawyers to do things, from set­ting up a small busi­ness to han­dling a di­vorce or do­ing a will. But they just can’t af­ford to pay the price lawyers have to charge if they come out of law school with $150,000 of debt.”

Most U.S. law schools, he added, have done a poor job of adapt­ing to the chang­ing mar­ket­place.

Oth­ers have taken note of the trends and have be­gun gear­ing their cur­ric­ula to­ward help­ing grad­u­ates open solo prac­tices, or find work in high-de­mand, grow­ing fields such as pa­tent law.

One such in­sti­tu­tion is Cleve­land-Mar­shall Col­lege of Law, which has used small class sizes and a re­vamped course struc­ture to achieve higher-than-av­er­age place­ment rates in jobs re­quir­ing a law de­gree.

“What the Dewey bank­ruptcy il­lus­trates is that there used to be a sense of security in a big firm, but when the whole big-firm model is com­ing unglued, you just don’t have that security any­more,” said Cleve­land-Mar­shall Dean Craig Boise. “We’re fo­cus­ing on the ways in which stu­dents can find niche op­por­tu­ni­ties to uti­lize their skills.”

About 15 per­cent of the school’s grad­u­ates, Mr. Boise said, go on to start pri­vate prac­tices. Start­ing a small solo prac­tice is a daunt­ing chal­lenge, one that of­ten de­pends on re­fer­rals from higher-pro­file, more ex­pe­ri­enced lawyers.

In the fu­ture, Mr. Boise said, he ex­pects more and more young lawyers to forgo large firms such as Dewey in fa­vor of hit­ting the street and find­ing their own clients. That likely means no cor­ner of­fice at a pres­ti­gious ad­dress, the tra­di­tional dream of aspir­ing lawyers.

In­stead, he said, they will run mo­bile of­fices out of their cars with lit­tle more than cell­phones and lap­tops, driv­ing from meet­ing to meet­ing with clients who of­ten need less-than-ex­cit­ing ser­vices such as help with wills.

Law school stu­dents also shouldn’t expect ma­jor firms to come call­ing with cash in hand, an­a­lysts say. In today’s mar­ket­place, the re­spon­si­bil­ity is on them.

“In the new world, you’re go­ing to have to go out there and hus­tle,” Mr. Mor­riss said.

ASTRID RIECKEN / THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

No golden ticket: Law school is no guar­an­tee of a wealthy ca­reer, as many debt-rid­den grad­u­ates have found to their re­gret.

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