Law School’s Grad Report Flawed, Expert Says

     SAN DIEGO (CN) – The law school graduate who sued her alma mater claiming it puffed up post-graduation employment figures wrapped up her testimony Thursday in the only suit of its kind to go all the way to trial.
     Anna Alaburda was cross-examined by Thomas Jefferson School of Law attorney Michael Sullivan, who focused on why she turned down a job offer from a bankruptcy law firm.
     Alaburda told the jury she had consulted with lawyer friends who cautioned against working for the consumer bankruptcy firm Winterbotham Parham Teeple. The law graduate claims she came to the conclusion the firm was “predatory” and “took advantage of people who were already in a bad situation.”
     Sullivan poked holes in Alaburda’s testimony, pointing out she did not mention her friend’s advice in her 2013 deposition but instead testified that she could not afford to attend a month of training out of town and the firm would not pay her bar dues.
     Alaburda said that while it wasn’t in her deposition “it was still part of my decision-making process.”
     “In my life I’m always taking time to evaluate and reevaluate. I’m sorry all of this stuff wasn’t in black and white. I didn’t mention it in my declaration but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” Alaburda said.
     Piggybacking on his line of questioning regarding the job offer, Sullivan also questioned Alaburda as to why her original complaint in 2011 did not mention the other editions of U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Graduate Schools” she said she consulted before deciding to attend Thomas Jefferson.
     Brian Procel, Alaburda’s attorney, quickly jumped to object to Sullivan’s question.
     “Your honor, I’m not sure she can be cross-examined on a complaint my office filed,” Procel said.
     Superior Court Judge Joel Pressman answered, “We’ll see,” and let Sullivan continue his questioning.
     The original complaint mentioned only one “Best Graduate Schools” edition was used by Alaburda as a reference and did not mention the 2005 and 2006 editions of the guide that Alaburda claims to have consulted as well, Sullivan told the jury.
     On redirect, Procel said the complaint contained a typo which listed the 2003 edition of the guide, but it was in reality the 2004 edition.
     Alaburda testified she received her acceptance letter to the law school in early 2005 and looked at several editions of “Best Graduate Schools” before putting down multiple deposits and eventually committing to attend Thomas Jefferson that fall.
     Procel asked Alaburda about the work she put in while attending Thomas Jefferson.
     “Do you believe you put forth your best effort while in law school,” Procel asked her.
     Alaburda noted a lengthy list of accomplishments and unpaid and volunteer work she did while attending the law school full time including: graduating with honors, getting the highest grade in a legal writing class, volunteering for the Legal Aid society and multiple law organizations and other accomplishments.
     “I even did document review at big firms like other TJSL grads just to make money. I don’t know what more I could do,” Alaburda said.
     Following Alaburda’s testimony, Procel called San Diego State University Professor Michael Belch to the stand as their expert witness retained to evaluate Thomas Jefferson’s methodology in reporting the disputed graduate employment figures at the center of the trial.
     Belch – who also teaches part-time at University of California San Diego, UC Irvine and University of Southern California – studies consumer behavior and has conducted hundreds of surveys on the topic.
     He said he has been retained as an expert about a dozen times.
     A survey conducted by Belch of 2003 graduates of Thomas Jefferson – the class whose employment figures were reported in one of the “Best Graduate Schools” editions Alaburda claims to have referenced – got so few responses by graduates the survey was thrown out.
     Of less than 10 respondents, Belch said there were two graduates whose employment status was reported incorrectly by Thomas Jefferson.
     “My overall opinion is there were errors and flaws in the way Thomas Jefferson carried out their research,” Belch told the jury.
     Cover letters written by Thomas Jefferson employees that were attached to the surveys also could have resulted in biased responses because the information in the letters “may influence their purely objective response,” Belch testified.
     One cover letter noted how important it was for Thomas Jefferson’s reputation for graduates to complete the surveys.
     “A full, accurate response from our recent graduates can only help the school become more prestigious, thus making your own degree more marketable,” the letter stated.
     This type of language could put pressure on graduates to report inaccurate data and “would probably inflate the number of people being reported as employed,” Belch said.
     When cross-examined by Thomas Jefferson attorney Jeffrey Michalowski, Belch was asked about San Diego State’s methodology for gathering graduate information, which Belch is not involved with. Michalowski pointed out some of the disputed language used in Thomas Jefferson’s cover letters was similar to the language used in San Diego State’s communication to their graduates.
     “Whether it is customary, I can’t say. Whether it’s proper, it is not,” Belch said about the university’s methodology.
     Belch told the jury a best practice would be for schools to follow-up with both graduates who report being employed and unemployed so as to get the most accurate snapshot of graduate data.
     “If you’re not following up with people who are already employed, it’s because you want them to be employed. My belief would be you only want to get those numbers up higher,” Belch said.
     Witness testimony will continue Monday.

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