ANOTHER SHOT AT STUDENT LOAN DEBT

A recent Department of Education initiative has not attracted the public attention that it deserves. But it could have important implications for the federal loans that fuel higher education, including law schools. The Department seeks to create a framework for dealing with the thousands of students who recently filed “defense of repayment” claims.

The Wall Street Journal’s recent summary of the program could strike fear in the hearts of many law school deans and university administrators:

“In the past six months, 7,500 borrowers owing approximately $164 million have applied to have their student debt expunged under an obscure federal law that had been applied in only three instances before last year. The law forgives debt for borrowers who prove their schools used illegal tactics to recruit them, such as lying about their graduates’ earnings.”

But it could get even worse for the schools, as the Journal explains:

“Last week, the department began a months-long negotiation with representatives, schools and lenders to set clear rules, including when the department can go after institutions to claw back tuition money funded by student loans.”

Will the Department’s latest effort to impose meaningful accountability on institutions of higher education fare any better than predecessor techniques that have failed? There have been too many of those.

Lawsuits Haven’t Worked

Law schools have become poster children for the accountability problem and ineffectual efforts to solve it. In 2012 some recent alumni sued their law schools, but they didn’t get very far. The vast majority of courts threw out claims that the schools had misrepresented graduates’ employment opportunities. The winners on motions to dismiss or summary judgment included Thomas M. Cooley (now Western Michigan University Cooley School of Law), Florida Coastal, New York Law School (not to be confused with NYU), DePaul, IIT Chicago-Kent, and John Marshall (Chicago), among others.

Judge Melvin Schweitzer’s March 21, 2012 ruling in favor or New York Law School set a tone that other courts followed: Prospective students “seriously considering law school are a sophisticated subset of education consumers…” In other words, they should have known better. That might be true today, but at the time Judge Schweitzer wrote his opinion, he was wrong. So were the courts who followed his rationale to reach similar results. At a minimum, there were serious factual disputes concerning his conclusory assessment of an entire cohort of prelaw students.

In particular, the plaintiffs in the New York Law School case graduated between 2005 and 2010. Back in 2002 through 2007 — when those undergraduates were contemplating law school — NYLS claimed a 90 to 92 percent employment rate for its most recent graduating classes. But that stratospheric number resulted only because all law schools counted any job for purposes of classifying a graduate as “employed.” A part-time worker in a temporary non-JD-required position counted the same as an assistant U.S. attorney or a first-year associate in a big firm. Only after 2011 did the ABA finally require schools to provide meaningful data about their recent graduates’ actual employment results.

A notable exception to the dismissal of the cases against the law schools was one of the first-filed actions, Alaburda v. Thomas Jefferson School of Law, which is set for trial in March 2016. In that case, Judge Joel Pressman correctly found that a jury should decide the clearly disputed issues of fact. He got it right, but he’s an outlier.

The ABA and the AALS Haven’t Helped

Anyone expecting the profession to put its own house in order continues to wait. The changes requiring greater law school transparency in employment outcomes came about only because the public outcry became overwhelming and Congress threatened to involve itself. When political opposites such as Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) agree to gang up on you, it’s time to wake up.

Since then, the organization has returned to form as a model of regulatory capture. Twice in the last four years, it has punted on the problem of marginal law schools that survive on student loan debt. School that would have closed long ago if forced to operate in a real market continue to exist only because the legal education market is dysfunctional. That is, the suppliers — law schools — have no accountability for their product — far too many graduates who are unable to obtain full-time long-term JD-required employment after incurring the six-figure debt for their degrees.

And while we’re on the subject of regulatory capture, the current president of the AALS has now declared that there is no crisis in legal education. Her interview produced an article titled, “As Law Professors Convene, New Leader Looks to Unite the Profession.” Why all law schools should unite to protect marginal bottom-feeders exploiting the next generation of students remains a question that no one in the academic world is willing to ask, much less answer.

Now Comes the Fun Part

Ignoring problems does not make them go away. As the profession refuses to acknowledge a bad situation, it loses the opportunity to influence the discussion. Which takes us to the recent Department of Education activity relating to criteria for applying the burgeoning volume of “defense of repayment” applications.

Special interests are likely to resist meaningful change. From institutions of higher education to debt collectors who have made student loan debt collection a multi-billion dollar business, lobbyists will swamp the process. Still, attention seems assured for marginal schools exploiting a dysfunctional market. That’s a good thing.

As the disinfecting qualities of sunlight intensify, someday the ABA and the AALS may realize that an old adage is apt: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Perhaps another round of bipartisan congressional interest will help them see the light.

LAW SCHOOL NON-LEADERSHIP

Disenchanted alumni have filed two more class actions against their law schools. In addition to Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Thomas M. Cooley Law School and New York Law School are now defending their former students’ fraud claims. NYLS said the claims were without merit and would defend against them in court. Cooley, the largest law school in the country, is pursuing a more aggressive strategy that earns it this closer look.

Cooley was founded in 1972 by now-retired Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas E. Brennan. In 1996, dissatisfied with the subjectivity of U.S. News rankings methodology that, coincidentally, placed Cooley in its unranked lower tiers, Brennan began publishing his own recompilation of the ABA’s data. The latest edition appears on the school’s website. In it, Cooley’s overall ranking is #2. Harvard is #1; Yale is #10; Stanford is #30; and the University of Chicago is #41. (Exploring the different subjective judgments that underlie Brennan’s alternative system must await another day.)

Cooley’s 2010 graduate employment rate was 78.8% — 181st out of 193 accredited law schools on Justice Brennan’s latest list. The question that has morphed into litigation is what that rate means.

Kurzon Strauss LLP represents the plaintiffs in both of the latest suits. According to the Wall Street JournalCooley recently sued that firm “for propagating purportedly defamatory ads on the websites Cragislist and Facebook about the school. The postings were part of the law firm’s investigation into how law schools report employment statistics, according to firm partner Jesse Strauss.” Cooley also filed a separate defamation suit against four anonymous bloggers.

But escalation can amplify unwanted publicity; publicity creates the potential for visible missteps. Based on the Journal‘s report, I think Cooley made one:

“Jim Thelen, Cooley’s general counsel, said that if any of the plaintiffs or their attorneys has issue with how law schools report employment numbers, then they ought to take it up with the American Bar Association, which helps set criteria for collecting data, or even the Department of Education — but not with individual law schools. ‘These are nothing other than attempts to bring public attention to this issue,’ Mr. Thelen said.”

Actually, this is a double misstep, proving that sometimes the best comment is none at all. First, using the answers that Cooley and every other school provide to the ABA’s annual law school questionnaire may be today’s catchy sound bite, but it’s tomorrow’s dubious long-term strategy. The ABA doesn’t cash students’ tuition checks; their law schools do. Telling the world that unemployed graduates should take their concerns about the quality of post-graduation employment data elsewhere should send an unsettling message to any pre-law student who is listening.

Second, many litigants seek publicity; calling them out isn’t a defense — or particularly attractive. Attorneys tend to forget that lay audiences quickly develop a “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” reaction to lawyers’ public relations efforts. In fact, a non-lawyer who hears Thelen’s remarks could well wonder, “Well, why are they trying to bring public attention to the issue? Is there a problem?”

The underlying concern — assessing the quality of graduate employment rate data  — isn’t unique to Cooley. Deans who understand the serious flaws in the ABA-required reporting methodology should have exposed them long ago, just as the NY Times finally did earlier this year. That most awaited the ABA’s recent directive on this topic evidences a pervasive failure of leadership. The ABA’s annual questionnaire has never prevented any school from doing more to inform prospective students, such as telling them who among their reportedly employed graduates have full-time jobs or positions requiring a legal degree.

Then again, lawyers and former judges run law schools. Sure, disgruntled students who incur enormous educational debt to get their degrees may claim to have been misled. But the defenses will always be many and the odds against certifying consumer fraud claims will forever be daunting. Beat the class and the case usually goes away.

On the other hand, if Dr. King was right that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” some law schools may discover that their public comments ring hollow and their short-term victories are pyrrhic.