Feeling ripped off, law school grad gets her day in court

There's no shortage of law school graduates who can't find jobs in the legal profession. Just ask Anna Alaburda, who, 10 years after she graduated in the top tier of her class, still can't find a job as a lawyer.

The blame for that failure isn't hers, she maintains -- rather, the fault lies with her alma mater.

The 37-year-old is to appear in a San Diego courtroom, where Alaburda will tell the court that Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego sold her a bill of damaged goods by misrepresenting the employment statistics of its graduates, suggesting that many more of them have legal jobs than actually do.

She owes $170,000 in student loans, paying interest of about 8 percent, according to The New York Times. The average cost of a law degree at Thomas Jefferson at the time of Alaburda's enrollment was about $137,000 -- then among the highest in the nation.

Alaburda isn't the first law-school graduate to sue her former law school over an inability to get a job in the legal profession, but her case is the first to go to trial. Others filed by students with similar grievances toward their schools have been dismissed before going to trial.

Alaburda, who hasn't spoken publicly about her ordeal, has yet to secure the steady, high-paying career that many attend law school to pursue. She's held a series of part-time positions, mostly temporary jobs reviewing documents for law firms. In her 2011 lawsuit, Alaburda said she would never have enrolled at Thomas Jefferson had she known the law school's data on graduate employment and graduation rates were misleading.

Five years after beginning her legal fight, Thomas Jefferson School of Law will be the first law school in legal history to go trial to defend its public employment figures, according to Alaburda's attorney Brian A. Procel.

The judge in the case has allowed Alaburda's claim to proceed, despite efforts by the law school to derail her. Still, as in other similar cases, Alaburda was denied class-action status, which would have led to a higher award, should she prevail.

For its part, Thomas Jefferson said Alaburda's claims are "meritless," and noted that it has "a strong track record of producing successful graduates, with 7,000 alumni working nationally and internationally."

Despite the cost, a law degree can more than make up for its cost, increasing earnings $30,000 to $60,000 annually over a bachelor's degree alone. But in recent years fewer students are willing to take on the debt that comes with attending law school.

Enrollment at law schools has dropped dramatically since 2010, falling nearly 30 percent, largely because questions among students about the value of a law degree. In other words, more people are waiting for the job market to improve before embarking on a law degree.

That could be a mistake, according to researchers Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre, who argue it's impossible, given current information, to "time" getting a degree to coincide with a better job market.

Delaying law school won't improve the likelihood of graduating into a booming economy, said Simkovic and McIntyre. But it will shorten the number of years of higher post-law school earnings, and increase the number of years of lower earnings with just a bachelor's degree.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs for lawyers will grow 6 percent in the 10-year period ending 2024, about average for all professions, with an additional 43,800 jobs added. Median pay in 2014 was $115,000 a year, or about $55 an hour.

University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos has studied the legal job market and found that it's been shrinking partly because of outsourcing and computer automation. In 2011, he estimated that of the 45,000 law school grads each year, almost 45 percent can't get jobs that require a law degree.

At the time, Campos said that almost all law schools report employment rates of 80 percent or more by including non-legal, part-time and temporary jobs. On average, the real rate is about half that. The harsh reality is that many students now in law school are never going to work as lawyers, he said.

Alaburda is pursing her legal claim in California, which has strong consumer protection laws. Should she prevail in her suit, law schools may finally have to provide more transparency into employment statistics and just how many graduates are actually using their hard-earned -- and expensive -- law degrees.