Thomas Jefferson Law School has been the poster child of the law school crisis, turning out graduates with high debt and relatively low employment rates. Even at this unranked San Diego school, however, some students have no regrets about spending three years and a lot of tuition for a J.D.
These 2012 grads are not working in huge corporate law firms, and the jobs they got after law school did not come easily; and they may well be exceptions that prove the rule that attending fourth tier law schools may be a mistake; nevertheless, they offer a reminder that not everyone feels cheated by the law school bubble.
“Thomas Jefferson gave me a chance where other law schools didn’t,” David Gibbs, a 2012 grad, told me. “. . . [At other law schools] I didn’t get the same ‘family feeling’ I did at Thomas Jefferson.”
Gibbs, like another 2012 grad I spoke to, started his own law practice right out of law school. While some experts say lawyers should get some experience before setting up their own shop, it’s not unheard of for people to start out on their own.
A 41-year-old with previous at an environmental consulting company, Gibbs saw law school as a way to be an entrepreneur. “I knew I wanted to go into business for myself in some way, and I saw law as a good way to go about that,” Gibbs said.
Unlike many of his classmates, he didn’t even apply to work at law firms. He took the bar in July after graduation, got his results that November, and started a private practice in January 2013 that specialises in transactional business law. His first clients were his personal friends, and he hopes to be making $US100,000 this year. That’s less than the $US160,000 he’d be making as a BigLaw associate but still a decent living.
“For me, it was a matter of personal freedom rather than income,” he said.
For another Thomas Jefferson graduate, Elisabeth Donovan, a solo practice was a way to help people. Donovan entered the school in 2010 knowing she wanted to work with people “one on one” rather work for a huge corporate firm.
Donovan admits to questioning her decision to attend TJLS in her second year. That was the year a 2008 graduate filed a proposed class action against the school for allegedly lying about its employment statistics. The suit set off a wave of fraud suits against law schools. (In 2013, a judge refused to certify the TJLS suit as a class action, which effectively killed it.)
Despite her uncertainty, Donovan continued through graduation and now practices family law through her own firm. She serves lower-income clients who can’t afford free legal services — a practice known as “low bono.” The work is difficult, she acknowledges. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just trying to keep my head above water,” she said.
But, she added, later on in our conversation, “I’ve found what I do is so satisfying — just being able to help other people is so satisfying. I couldn’t imagine myself being in any other career right now.”
A More Traditional Route
Two of the 2012 TJLS grads I spoke to went on to work at law firms. One, 36-year-old Eric Bernsen, now works at Knobbe Martens, a well-respected intellectual property law firm that’s one of the top-200 biggest firms in America. Bernsen has a background in engineering and focused on patent law while getting his JD, which likely made him a more attractive job candidate than law grads who hadn’t focused on a particular kind of law during school.
While he was at TJLS, Bernsen also made sure he was always making connections. He was laser-focused on finding work after school, and not long after graduation found work at a mid-size intellectual property firm called Eastman & McCartney. Then he landed the gig at Knobbe, where he had two connections.
Of course, he had worked hard to make those connections.
“I think you really have to bust your butt” to get a job after school, he said.
Another 2012 law grad at a firm, Samantha Ciriaco, also said job-hunting was “pretty tough.” She works at Hallett, Emerick, & Wells, a small workers’ compensation firm where she’s been since April 2013. She enjoys her job now, but Ciriaco said her job hunt was a “nonstop process” that involved going to networking events and applying to a ton of jobs. Like her, most of the people she was close to in law school “eventually found something,” she said.
But she does see old classmates on Facebook who still don’t have jobs — more than a year after graduation.
The Unlucky Ones
While the majority of TJLS grads do find work, last year the school earned the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of 2012 grads — 31% — who still hadn’t found a job nine months out of law school. In 2013, U.S. News & World Report also found TJLS’s grads had the highest average debt load, topping out at $US168,000.
In the 2011 class action complaint, TJLS was accused of misrepresenting the grim realities of graduating from an unranked law school. For one thing, according to the complaint, TJLS reported the median salary of its graduates was constant from 2006 to 2011 despite salary declines in the industry as a whole.
The school’s promotional materials allegedly led students to think they’d get hired as full-time lawyers after graduation even though “that is frequently not the case,” the complaint said.
The lead plaintiff in that case, Anna Alaburda, says she is one of the many people who couldn’t find satisfactory full-time work after graduation.
A 2002 graduate of prestigious New York University, she allegedly chose TJLS because the school claimed in U.S. News & World Report that 80% of its grads were employed 9 months after graduation. She took this to mean the vast majority of grads got full-time jobs by that time.
Alaburda passed the bar on her first try after graduating in 2008, sent out 150 resumes, and got just one job offer — “one which was less favourable than non-law related jobs that were available to her,” according to the complaint. She still hadn’t been employed as a full-time salaried lawyer when she filed her complaint in 2011.
Alaburda is not alone among TJLS graduates. Indeed, many graduates of even relatively highly ranked law schools can’t find full-time legal work after getting their JDs. But, as some hardworking and lucky law grads have demonstrated, it doesn’t take a fancy degree to be a lawyer these days. It just takes a lot more determination than it probably did 20 years ago.
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