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The nation's law schools are facing growing pressure to be more upfront about their graduates' job prospects. Many former students say they were lured by juicy job numbers. But when they got out, all they ended up with was massive debt.
As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the American Bar Association is cracking down, but too late for many.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Chloe Gilgan enrolled at New York Law School in 2005 with one thing in mind: Getting a good paying job. She says the school gave her every assurance that she was in the right place.
CHLOE GILGAN: A high majority of their graduates would find employment at least within nine months of graduating, and that they tended to have three-figure salaries.
ABRAMSON: Three years after graduation, Chloe Gilgan says the only three-figure number she's staring at is her student debt. The only job she found was doing work that did not require a law degree. Gilgan is convinced, New York Law twisted its job numbers.
GILGAN: Nobody can guarantee you'll have a job for sure. But what they can do is give you honest prospects.
ABRAMSON: So, Chloe Gilgan has joined a proposed class-action lawsuit against New York Law School, charging that it has deceived students. Attorney David Anziska is lining up plaintiffs who attended primarily lower tier law schools, paid more than $40,000 a year, and feel they got little in return.
DAVID ANZISKA: When you're taking on such staggering amount of debt, you want to make sure that you have a job at the end of the day, that you'll be able to pay back your loans and pay your bills.
ABRAMSON: New York Law School says it provides all the information required by the American Bar Association and more. Carol Buckler is interim dean. She says the school tries hard to counsel students about their employment prospects.
CAROL BUCKLER: We also break down the information based on the type of employer and the salaries that graduates might expect.
ABRAMSON: But in blogs like the Law School Scam, former students howl about high tuition and lousy job prospects. And there's Kyle McEntee, who started LawSchoolTransparency.com. McEntee says he was outraged to find that the employment data supplied by many lower-tier schools is really part of a recruiting strategy.
KYLE MCENTEE: And so a school might advertise a median salary of $160,000 and not disclose that only 10 percent of the class actually responded to the salary survey.
ABRAMSON: Or, McEntee says, schools don't disclose that some jobs are, in fact, funded by the law school. McEntee himself is a graduate of Vanderbilt Law, where he says he actually got good employment information when he enrolled.
Elizabeth Workman, assistant dean for career services at Vanderbilt, says she keeps a close eye on students' achievement and their debt.
ELIZABETH WORKMAN: And if they will incur six figures in terms of debt, we have a very serious discussion about employment outcomes.
ABRAMSON: Activists say more schools need to follow that path. They blame the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools for letting institutions decide what is accurate.
The ABA's John O'Brian admits this has been a problem.
JOHN O'BRIAN: The definition of accurate has largely been left to the schools.
ABRAMSON: So, recently, the ABA changed the rules. Starting next year, schools will have to report whether graduates are employed full time, whether the positions graduates get require a law degree. That will help applicants in the future decide if they're picking a law school that is turning out employable lawyers. But John O'Brian says it's still up to students to scrutinize that data because the ABA can only demand transparency.
O'BRIAN: The schools are simply required to report. We do not have minimum standards for employment.
ABRAMSON: Kyle McEntee of LawSchoolTransparency.com says the ABA changes are a good first step, but they won't help students already in school. And these measures don't address larger issues. Why is law school enrollment continuing to rise when the job market is shrinking in many areas? The legal sector shed 1,800 jobs in December, according to the Labor Department.
Kyle McEntee says the biggest challenge is battling a perception of invulnerability.
MCENTEE: There's a culturally embedded view about law school that it's this magic ticket to financial security. And as it turns out, this isn't the case and it hasn't been the case for quite some time.
ABRAMSON: When critics attack for-profit colleges for similar problems, the Department of Education tightened regulations on those schools. But the department says it has no authority to do the same to the vast majority of law programs.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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