The bleak reality was a rude awakening for students who had relied on school statistics to weigh the risks and benefits of going to law school. Job placement figures didn't differentiate between those who had scored jobs as lawyers and those who were working at Starbucks.
And salary figures were averaged, meaning they didn't reflect what on a chart would look like a double-humped camel: A lot of people earning next to nothing, some earning six figures and almost nobody in the middle.
Students caught on and law school applications started decreasing, a shift that amplified the problem rather than solving it. Some schools, anxious that accepting students with lower scores and grades would undercut their rankings, started to entice top applicants with generous scholarships, which in turn drove up tuition costs for everyone else.
Other schools took a more novel, if not distorted, approach: paying their own graduates to volunteer for a year at nonprofits, government agencies and public-interest firms, thereby inflating their own job-placement rates.
The University of Virginia, a top-ranked law school, hired 17 percent of its 377 graduates in 2011. The school has a 95 percent rate of fulltime employment in positions requiring bar admission. Subtract those graduates whose salaries are being paid by their alma mater, and it drops to 78 percent.
"It's a Ponzi scheme, in almost a literal sense," said Paul Campos, who teaches at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. "You're taking money from current students and paying it to unemployed graduates."
The furor over misleading statistics prompted a number of class-action lawsuits by graduates against their alma maters. It also spurred action by two senators: Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, who both pressured the ABA last year to provide better information about jobs, loan default rates and salaries.
"It's sort of a truth-in-advertising approach," Grassley told The Associated Press. "Not to make a decision that some law needs to be changed, but transparency, and let the consumer be fully acquainted with what the situation is."
The ABA relented on most counts, and for the first time this year broke down the types of jobs that graduates are receiving. But the ABA declined to make school-specific salary information available, citing the difficulty in obtaining reliable data. Schools can report their own figures on their websites — and many do — but there's little accountability.
"It's still kind of the wild, wild West when it comes to salaries," said Kyle McEntree of the group Law School Transparency.
With her freshly printed diploma in hand and no job prospects in sight, Achen hopped a flight last summer from Minnesota to Florida, where she moved back into her childhood home in Pensacola. From that same home she launched a one-woman law firm, where she handles any case that comes across her desk: wills, landlord-tenant disputes and alimony.
She averages about $1,000 per month.
"There are many days when I eat oatmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Achen said. "But oatmeal is cheap and it's healthy, so I'll do it."
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