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American University’s law school woos its students with a chance at the kind of international law jobs in which they might handle classified documents. In the spring of 2012, however, one graduate says his classmates got some practice being secretive about something decidedly less important to national security: their own job prospects.

In order to avoid offending classmates who faced unemployment after racking up more than $150,000 in student debt—nine months after graduation, just 42 percent of the class had jobs that required passing the bar—students who actually had offers had to engage in their own cover-ups. “Everything was sort of hush-hush,” says the graduate, who asked not to be named to avoid so as not to damage his new, nonlegal career.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

Lately, the prospects for American University’s Washington College of Law have looked just as grim. Since 2013, the school has plummeted down the U.S. News and World Report law-school rankings, dropping 23 positions from 49th in the country to 72nd. Thanks to its graduates’ dubious employment prospects, meanwhile, Washington College of Law has become a target for activists who see it as one of the worst examples of a law school that dupes students with unlikely legal ambitions, only to stick them with a mountain of inescapable debt when they graduate.

All the same, the school has started construction on a new campus in Tenleytown that the university expects will cost $130 million. As the Washington College of Law expands its goals in the face of its ratings collapse and a nationwide drop in law applications, it looks headed for a collision between its aspirations and the realities of what a mid-tier law school can realistically offer its students.

In AU recruitment videos, a juris doctor degree from the Washington College of Law looks like the first step toward a glamorous career like the one enjoyed by law school dean Claudio Grossman, a Chilean polyglot who moonlights as a United Nations human rights official. As students hold up meme-friendly signs in one video—“International Networks,” “Global Education”—Grossman intones about how world institutions based in the District offer his students a jump into international law.

University of Colorado Law School professor Paul Campos has his own, less-exalted idea of what Washington College of Law’s promotional materials should look like. Campos’ dream pamphlet for the school would show what he says even a moderately lucky AU law graduate faces: a career picking up drunk-driving and divorce cases in the suburbs, making a mid-five-figure salary to pay off more than $150,000 in debt.

Of course, Campos’ literature wouldn’t sell anyone on the cost of attending the Washington College of Law, which will run $73,002 a year for incoming students this fall according to a university estimate. Even among the country’s priciest law schools, that’s a lot to swallow, putting Washington College of Law third on U.S. News’ rankings of highest average debt. It’s also only a couple thousand dollars less than a year at Georgetown and George Washington University’s law schools, both of which offer nearly double what Washington College of Law promises for legal-employment prospects.

To critics like Campos and others bloggers who write about the so-called “law school scam”—one of whom illustrates a report on Washington College of Law with a picture of a urinal—AU’s law school has come to epitomize the “trap school” phenomenon. In their telling, Washington College of Law capitalizes on its international focus and the District’s attractiveness to lure in students who can’t get into similarly pricey but more competitive schools. At graduation, they allege, Washington College of Law dumps them into the city’s oversaturated legal market to compete with graduates from both higher-ranked District universities and top national schools.

That means students can’t discharge their federal student loans, and Washington College of Law can induct a new class of students, only around 3 percent of whom will receive half or more of their tuition in scholarships if recent trends hold.

“I really don’t know how the people who work there can keep a sense of sort of personal dignity,” says Campos, who’s covered the law school industry for publications including Salon and The Atlantic.

In an emailed statement, Washington College of Law spokeswoman Franki Fitterer declined to comment on Campos’ dim view of the school on the grounds that he’s not “authoritative.” Fitterer points to the figure of 60.55 percent employment for the class of 2013, including jobs where it’s helpful but not necessary to have a law degree—a mushy category that can include FBI special agents, but also paralegal jobs or legal temping. Even then, though, the Washington College of Law lags behind similarly expensive District schools in employment prospects.

The Washington College of Law’s problems might not be so obvious if it weren’t for the Great Recession. As law firm clients pushed their lawyers to cut back on hours for well-paid but underexperienced new law associates, the legal market for young lawyers spasmed. When even students from the prestigious “Top 14” highest-ranked law schools had trouble finding jobs, U.S. News buckled and started weighting employment prospects more heavily. With abysmal employment figures for its price, the ingredients for Washington College of Law to drop in the rankings were all there.

The U.S. News rankings are hardly perfect, of course. For one thing, the employment figures can be gamed by schools who hire their own graduates so they show up as having jobs when the school reports its employment figures. (American employed 11.8 percent of its 2013 graduating law class in school-funded jobs.)

Washington College of Law academic dean Anthony Varona has his own gripe with the rankings, which he says don’t account for the school’s diverse student body, roughly a third of whom were minorities in last year’s incoming class. By not factoring diversity into their overall rankings, according to Varona, U.S. News undervalues the different worldviews that students bring to Washington College of Law classes.

The rankings’ flaws don’t stop alumni, students, and even professors from panicking as their school plummets. A rankings slide can catch a school in a vicious cycle, with more qualified applicants ditching it for higher-ranked competitors and a corresponding drop in average class statistics. Alumni are more reluctant to give, while law firm recruiters are more skeptical of all but the highest ranked students in a graduating class.

“Students and alumni are almost inconsolable when your school goes in a big drop,” says Indiana University law professor William Henderson.

Between 2010 and 2013, the average Law School Admission Test score for incoming classes dropped by six points from 163 to 157, meaning that AU law’s bar for students fell from the top 12 percent of people taking the test to the top 29 percent.

Current students and alumni seem just as unenthused. After one drop in 2013 left the Washington College of Law at 52nd, students started a change.org petition calling for Grossman’s ouster. The school’s drive to raise $20 million for the new Tenleytown campus and more scholarships has brought in only $7.7 million so far.

Legal industry blog Above the Law had a sardonic take on the rankings collapse for Washington College of Law and Catholic University’s law school, which dropped from 80th to 107th in the latest U.S. News rankings. The lesson, according to the blog’s writer: “If you want to work in D.C., go to Georgetown or GTFO.”

The latest rankings drop last March, from 56th to 72nd, was so bad that Grossman, who made more than $500,000 in compensation in 2012, sent an email to Washington College of Law students explaining why the rankings shouldn’t worry them. In the email, obtained by Above the Law, Grossman says the school will “make no apologies” for its “unique environment of opportunity, diversity, and specialized knowledge.”

“Unique” is one way to describe the opportunity offered to AU law students after they graduate. With its focus on international and human rights positions, the Washington College of Law sets its students up to reach for jobs that are next to impossible to land even for graduates at the top handful of law schools. “It’s not a likely outcome if you go to Yale,” says Kyle McEntee, the co-founder of law school statistics site Law School Transparency.

While Washington College of Law doesn’t keep statistics on how many of its graduates make it into international law jobs, Fitterer says that “hundreds” of the schools graduates have gone into the field.

Campos isn’t optimistic. “It would be an enormous understatement to say that those kinds of positions—positions that involve, say, international human rights—are difficult to acquire,” he says.

Washington College of Law grads with aspirations in the District face only slightly better prospects, according the school’s own figures. Leaving Washington College of Law, students will face off not only against their former classmates, who in 2013 made up the sixth-largest law school enrollment in the country, but against the second- and fourth-largest law-school enrollments at Georgetown and George Washington, respectively. Add to that number students from Catholic, Howard, George Mason, and the University of the District of Columbia, the only D.C.-area law school that Law School Transparency calculates had worse legal employment prospects than Washington College of Law.

Mike Spivey, a former law school admissions dean who now helps prospective students get into schools, sees American grads squeezed out of lower-tier jobs as students at higher-ranked schools downsize their own expectations after the recession. Additionally, while lawyers who went to law school in less attractive locations at least won’t face many drop-ins from Harvard and Yale, AU students have no such luxury.

“Now, if American were in Boise, Idaho, they wouldn’t have local heavy-hitting law schools to do that to them,” Spivey says.

In the end, that’s the worst-case scenario as American puts $130 million more into its law school. The District location that once made Washington College of Law more attractive than similar midlevel schools elsewhere in the country could now be its graduates’ undoing.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery