A group of fresh, unemployed lawyers have banded together to sue law schools. 73 alumni have filed at least fifteen class-action lawsuits, alleging the schools inflated employment figures and salary data to attract students and increase rankings. The real goal of the lawsuits seems to be to effect systemic change in the education industry and associations that accredit law schools, like the American Bar Association.
Schools are in the business of generating alumni, and to a great extent, use as many marketing tricks that any company uses in order to influence public opinion. It’s true that a 90% graduate employment rate looks better than a 75% rate on paper, and I’d be more inclined to choose a school with a higher employment rate, with all other factors being equal. But a 90% graduate employment rate doesn’t guarantee that I would receive the job I want after graduation, even if I were in the top 10% of the class.
Furthermore, I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that any statistic used for marketing purposes is subject to manipulation in an attempt to further the goals of marketing. Hard numbers give the impression of fact. From an early age, we’re trained to believe that one plus one equals two, in all circumstances, and numbers are truth. Statistics can be misleading in many ways, and are used more often to try to convince others of a point of view rather than quantify facts in reality.
The group of lawyers probably can’t prove that the blame for their unemployment situation rests with the law schools. There are many factors that contribute to unemployment, including the overall economy, local job markets, and the effort, skills, and self-marketability of each alumnus. It doesn’t appear as if the former students are suing to have the schools compensate them for the lack of expected income from working, but they are suing to enlighten the public to the issue of misleading statistics throughout the educational industry.
Mutual funds must advertise that “past performance does not guarantee future results.” Even if a graduate employment rate were perfectly measured and accurately reflected exactly what a potential student understood the number to be, a good rate today is no indication that the rate will continue to be high by the time the school awards a degree or certification. If my index mutual fund returned 12% last year and lost 8% this year, I can’t sue the fund manager or the stock market for not providing the dividends I was hoping for. If fraud was involved, it might be a different situation. Perhaps misleading statistics like graduate employment rates are somewhat fraudulent, but I don’t see a parallel as schools do not typically promise that students will be employed at the level they’d like after graduation — and in the case of lawyers, after passing the bar exam.
There might be better ways of raising the issue of misleading statistics in the marketing endeavors in which institutes of education engage. Using the courts to make a point is only one tool that’s available to increase awareness of an issue. When you’re a hammer, though, everything looks like a nail.
Several years ago, while I was completing my Masters in Business Administration degree, I considered attending law school. Ultimately, I decided not to pursue a law degree and to focus my energy on my business instead. I think I made the right decision.
Published or updated February 7, 2012.