SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Nikki Nguyen left a $50,000-a-year job at Boeing Co. in 2006 to pursue a law degree at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, her sister's successful career as a corporate attorney providing a glimpse of the possibilities she imagined ahead of her.
Instead, she struggled for more than a year to find a job after she graduated and watched her student loan debt of over $180,000 balloon.
Nguyen, 34, is among 12 former Thomas Jefferson students who are suing the university in a California court, accusing it of inflating its graduates' employment figures and salaries to attract students.
"They weren't transparent," said Nguyen, whose case is scheduled to go to trial in March. "People who have a dream of law school should go into it with their eyes wide open."
An attorney for Thomas Jefferson, Michael Sullivan, denied the allegations and said the school was following procedures set by the American Bar Association that have since changed.
Nguyen's lawsuit is among more than a dozen similar ones filed in recent years against law schools, including Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco and the University of San Francisco School of Law. Though most of the suits have been dismissed, critics say they point to a need for greater regulation and transparency for law schools, so prospective students know their employment prospects, the debt they will incur and even their chances of successfully passing the bar.
"Schools are setting up a lot of people to fail," said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a nonprofit legal education policy group that had no involvement with the lawsuits.
Thomas Jefferson reported post-graduation employment figures that exceeded 70 percent and topped 90 percent in 2010, but did not disclose that those figures included part-time and non-legal work such as a pool cleaner and a sales clerk at Victoria's Secret and were based on a small sample of graduates, according to Nguyen's lawsuit and her attorney, Brian Procel. The lawsuit further alleges that the school routinely reported unemployed students as employed and shredded surveys and other documents that reflected a more accurate employment picture.
Thomas Jefferson responded in court documents that the students ignored additional available employment data. Sullivan said there is "no evidence that demonstrates any effort on the part of the school to misrepresent the post-graduate employment numbers."
"These were students who were encountering a more difficult job market," he said.
The lawsuits against Golden Gate University and the University of San Francisco also alleged the schools were misrepresenting their post-graduate employment figures.
The Golden Gate lawsuit was settled, with each of the five plaintiffs receiving $8,000, according to a May 2015 court filing. The case against the University of San Francisco was dismissed in May.
A spokesman for Golden Gate law school, Erik Christensen, referred comment to an attorney, who did not immediately respond. University of San Francisco law spokeswoman Angie Davis said the university and plaintiffs "amicably resolved the matter," and the school could not comment further.
In court filings, both schools said data were available that showed what percentage of students actually obtained jobs at law firms.
The ABA has since required schools to publish a more detailed breakdown of their employment figures that, among other things, distinguishes full-time from part-time jobs.
But Procel and McEntee say problems still exist. Students know on average the debt they will incur to attend school, but don't have a good sense of how it can mushroom after graduation with interest and fees if they have to defer payment, Procel said.
Nguyen said she now owes more than $200,000. Though she works in a paralegal-type position and lives with her sister, she said she has not been able to touch the principal on her loan.
McEntee said many law schools have begun taking students with lower LSAT scores and no chance of passing the bar in order to keep their enrollment numbers up.
Nguyen's lawsuit also accuses Thomas Jefferson of accepting students with lower grade point averages and LSAT scores. The lawsuit seeks restitution and damages believed to be in excess of $1.5 million.
Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education at the ABA, said the organization isn't done improving the employment data it releases, but warned that more information would not necessarily help prospective students.
He said the LSAT was not a good way of determining whether a student would pass the bar, and said some of the criticism of schools fails to account for changes in the job market for law school graduates.
"We're letting our concerns about employment and the job market, over which law schools have no control, drive too much of this conversation," he said.