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College students typically get career know-how through internships and summer jobs. Three George Washington (GW) University law students, however, have taken another route to practical experience. Third-year J.D. candidates Stephen Garvin, Rebecca Lennon, and John Paré have filed a class-action suit against their university, charging breach of contract, fraud, and violation of the Consumer Protection Procedures Act. They attend the eighth-most-expensive law school in all the land—1994-95 tuition is more than $20,000 per student—and they don’t think they’re getting their money’s worth.

Garvin, Lennon, and Paré are protesting the GW National Law Center’s policy of pouring more than one-third of its tuition revenue into the university’s general fund. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), law schools should retain sufficient funds to assist scholarship and loan-forgiveness programs, update facilities, fund hands-on legal clinics, and hire and maintain top-notch faculty. Usually, this means that a law school keeps between 75 and 82 percent of its tuition money.

But a 1993-94 ABA site evaluation found that “[e]xcept for an uptick in the current year, the Law Center’s retention-of-revenues percentages over the past five years have declined: 1989-90—64.3; 1990-91—61.4; 1991-92—60.6; 1992-93—59.3; and 1993-94—59.7….Notwithstanding the University’s persistent and perhaps unprecedented diversion of Law Center resources, none of the matters…would require further comment if the resources available to the school nonetheless were adequate to meet all of the law school’s present needs….But that is not the case.”

The ABA standards “are absolutely not recommendations,” says Pauline Schneider, chair of the ABA Accreditation Committee. A school’s renewed accreditation rests on compliance with minimums, although Schneider can think of only “one or two or three occasions where a school has lost accreditation for violation” of the policies. Instead, she explains, schools that “have problems complying with some of our standards…are under various degrees of supervision.”

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Complainants Garvin, Lennon, and Paré don’t think gentle encouragement is enough to mend the GW administration’s ways. “Last year, when we found out about the problem….we tried letter-writing campaigns to the board of trustees, we contacted alumni, we tried university channels, going through the dean,” says Paré. “Obviously, the protest rally [held April 5, 1994] let them know our concern….None of those avenues got us anywhere. This [class-action suit] is the only recourse that we have.”

GW professor Charles Craver supports the trio. “Some disagree with whether it was appropriate for students to file a lawsuit,” he says. “But I think we should be proud that we have trained a group of students to put their legal education into practice….I think they’re acting in a very professional way.”

Other GW power-wielders are less impressed. In a March 28 statement, GW Director of Public Affairs Michael Freedman writes, “It is true that some tuition funds generated by some University programs are used for others. This practice is based on the firm belief that all schools within the University have a responsibility to each other….The University, of course, regrets that these students have chosen to file a suit that will be perceived as self-serving, ill considered, mischievous, without merit and a disservice to their classmates.”

Dean Jack Friedenthal agrees. “As the dean, I’m very interested in increasing our revenues, and I do think the university takes too large a share of our monies,” he allows. “[But] what these students have done with the law school is raise what the site committee raised [in 1993-94].” He calls the students’ behavior “juvenile,” and in his opinion, the site evaluation—which also took into consideration an internal self-study by the law school—is outdated.

“Some of the things that the site committee said were jokes,” Friedenthal says. “….They said that the salary structure was inefficient to [attract new and retain old faculty] but [we’ve made] three new hires so far in ’95—one a chaired professor from Columbia Law School who will be a chaired professor at GW Law Center.”

He also dismisses the case of tenured law school professor Jose Alvarez, who resigned from GW and took a job at the University of Michigan in 1993. In the site evaluation, Friedenthal is quoted as reporting, “One factor was [Alvarez’s] perception that the law school here does not receive the strong financial support that it needs to maintain its dramatic improvement and that…the opportunities for financial improvement on an individual basis are limited.” Now, Friedenthal states that “it was not really a financial issue at all” and that Alvarez left because Michigan offered him the opportunity to develop a new international law program. “He was the only person we have lost to another school in five years, except another who left to be a dean,” Friedenthal adds. Alvarez—who had a friendly dinner with Dean Friedenthal in Ann Arbor earlier this month—could not be reached for comment.

Regardless of one man overboard, Friedenthal is not worried about GW’s national standing. “A school’s accreditation could be taken away, but GW is a premier law school,” the dean concludes. “To say that they would take our accreditation away is absurd.”

The National Law Center’s accreditation, everyone agrees, is not really in jeopardy. As accreditation committee Chair Schneider points out, “There’s a very rigorous process that a school must go through to achieve accreditation—they’ve made an investment, and they usually do whatever’s necessary to maintain that accreditation.” But depending on who you talk to, the ABA ideals could be hard for GW to reach.

In April ’94, after law students rallied against low tuition retention, Legal Times reported that GW’s administration had worked out a plan that “calls for reducing the 38 percent to 25 percent within four years.” Today, that 25 percent—i.e., the limited revenue the law center would give to the general university fund—remains an abstract notion.

“Oh yeah, the university believes it can [get down to 25 percent],” says Public Affairs Director Freedman. “The commitment to that was made more than a year ago by the administration….The amount has been going down.”

Dean Friedenthal has another version of the future. “There is no plan to bring it down to 25 percent,” he says. “….The ultimate plan would bring it down to 31 or so.”

“I have never seen the plan, I have never heard the details of the plan,” says complainant Lennon. “If they came up with such a plan, I would like to see it and have the dean and president sign the plan so it would be a binding agreement.”

Plan or no plan, several other GW sources say that university administrators and ABA representatives recently met to discuss improved tuition retention. And according to law professor Craver, GW has submitted a new proposal to the ABA. Although Craver does not know the proposal’s terms, he believes that “we could easily get down to 75-25 [if ordered to do so by the ABA]….The school would be in serious trouble if the ABA even threatened to put us on probation.”

Garvin, for one, eagerly awaits such a development. “The university might be forced to contract some of its noneducation activities,” he says. “It may be that without the financial foundation laid by the law school, we’ll be forced to focus more on education and less on commercial property acquisitions.”

Meanwhile, he, Lennon, and Paré collect lawsuit-related contributions from their supporters, await GW’s response to their suit, and go to class full-time. All say that after graduation, they’ll move away from D.C. to practice law; all attest to the “value”—if not the quality—of their education at a top-ranked legal institution. “I’m very happy that I came to GW,” says Paré. “The teachers are fine, it’s a great place to study law—but there’s so much more they could be doing with what they’re charging us.”

Lennon concurs. “I’ve gotten an excellent education,” she says, “but I’m concerned for future students of the law school. At least one professor has told me that he’s seriously considering other offers from other law schools because the salaries are not competitive, and because the faculty does not have the resources they need.”

Dean Friedenthal takes the opportunity to rain on their righteous parade. “Any lawsuit that’s filed has to be defended,” he says. “That money’s going to come out of money able to provide other services for the school.” In other words, the students’ own tuition dollars will pay for GW’s counsel. By going up against GW, Garvin et al. are not only biting the hand that feeds, they’re feeding the hand that bites. But isn’t that what being a lawyer is all about?