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Consumer Law

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Advising Contacts

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Discover

Consumer law protects the public from unfair and predatory business practices. It regulates inaccurate information and unethical ways of doing business. Lawyers who practice consumer law work in the private sector, government, and for public interest legal organizations, such as Legal Aid.

Private Sector Practice

Many attorneys represent consumers in their disputes with merchants and financial institutions. Some of these practice in firms—typically smaller firms—or as sole practitioners. They handle issues ranging from credit card collections to complex products liability cases. Many lawyers who represent consumers feel good about their work because they believe they are helping protect consumers from corporations. Put another way, the attorneys feel they are protecting the weak from being ripped off by the powerful. Their clients often have compelling stories to tell, which aids in persuading juries. Because these stories are of interest generally, they sometimes generate press attention.

Many consumer protections are statutory in nature, and so attorneys representing consumers must be knowledgeable about consumer protection statutes. The cases themselves seem to go to trial more than some other types of litigation, and so consumer attorneys also need to be capable trial lawyers. But most civil cases settle, and so the lawyers also require negotiation skills.

Because many statutes providing for consumer protection oblige defendants to pay the attorneys’ fees of successful plaintiffs (e.g., the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Truth in the Lending Act), many of these attorneys are able to make a good living. Some also bring class actions, which can also be quite remunerative, though class actions have become fewer since many large providers of consumer services (e.g., banks, cell phone companies) have begun using mandatory arbitration clauses barring class actions in their consumer contracts. Because attorneys handling such matters get paid only if they win or settle the case, they do take some risk in their practices. Many consumer lawyers specialize in some area of consumer protection, such as automobile litigation (e.g., lemon law claims, deceptive advertising in car sales, bait and switch practices engaged in by dealers), foreclosure litigation, or debt collection.

Private lawyers also represent consumers on matters on which the defendants are not subject to fee-shifting statutes. In such cases, lawyers must enter into arrangements with their clients to pay their fees. Those arrangements may provide that the lawyer will be paid only if the attorney is successful, in which case the money comes from the amount that the attorney recovers, or that the attorney will bill a specified sum or an hourly rate. Because consumes typically do not have substantial resources, such matters may be less remunerative.

The National Association of Consumer Advocates (“NACA”) is an organization for private lawyers who represent consumers and public interest and governmental attorneys engaged in consumer protection. While many lawyers representing consumers practice by themselves, NACA members are able to network and seek advice via the many listservs operated by NACA and the National Consumer Law Center (“NCLC”). Each year NCLC runs a conference that lasts several days for the purpose of educating consumer lawyers on developments in the field; the conference in recent years has drawn thousands of lawyers. NACA and NCLC also offer several conferences throughout the year on more specialized topics. In other words, even consumer lawyers practicing alone can have a support network of other such lawyers.

Many lawyers working with consumer law represent businesses that deal with consumers. These lawyers include the litigators who defend the cases brought by the lawyers discussed above. These litigators—who practice in a variety of settings, including large firm, in-house counsel, midsize firms, etc.—are usually paid by the hour or by flat fees. In addition, many lawyers represent debt collectors.

Lawyers representing businesses that deal with consumers also include many transactional attorneys. For example, many advertisers have their ads vetted by attorneys who specialize in advertising law to make sure they do not violate federal or state deceptive advertising laws. Banks employ lawyers to draft disclosure forms, such as the forms you may have received from a credit card issuer, a bank where you maintain an account, or a student lender. These jobs are often quite remunerative.

Government Practice

Many federal and state governmental entities work with consumer law. Government lawyers work to enforce consumer laws through enforcement proceedings and judicial actions. They investigate consumer complaints and take actions they believe are necessary to protect the public.

At the federal level, are the Federal Trade Commission (dealing with deceptive advertising, privacy issues, spam, among other matters), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (consumer lending, bank accounts, etc.), the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. Other federal agencies may not have consumer protection as their primary mission but have some jurisdiction over consumer matters. For example, the Federal Communications Commission enforces, along with the FTC, telemarketing fraud statutes while the Department of Justice also brings some consumer cases. Most states have at least one agency which brings consumer protection cases. In New York, for example, the Attorney General’s office has jurisdiction over most consumer disputes, but the Department of Motor Vehicles handles automobile matters and the Banking Department enforces state banking laws against state-chartered banks. Many localities also have a consumer protection agency. For example, New York City has a Department of Consumer Affairs. Similarly, Nassau County has such an office, as do some municipalities within Nassau County.

Lawyers working in these offices have varied functions that depend on the mission of the agency and sometimes its politics. Some offices have attorneys who bring cases on behalf of injured consumers. Some, like the Federal Trade Commission and the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs have internal administrative law judges who adjudicate cases brought by agency attorneys. Some also have lawyers who draft regulations and supporting materials, model forms, and the like and so never litigate.

Public Interest Attorneys

Many communities have public interest organizations that represent consumers. Such organizations include Legal Aid, MFY Legal Services, Queens Legal Services and Public Citizen. Consumer lawyers can work for a non-profit consumer rights group representing individuals on specific cases. Or they may work on legislative efforts to change consumer laws. Attorneys for such organizations are rarely well-paid, but they enjoy knowing that they are helping clients who need it. They may, for example, help a homeowner who was the victim of predatory lending keep her home or help a consumer who is being hounded by a debt collector.


Learn

Foundation Courses
All are strongly recommended and should be taken early in the upper-level years.
Advanced Courses
Advanced coursework that will build your substantive knowledge in this pathway.
Writing Courses
Coursework to hone your writing skills and develop a portfolio of practicing writing in your field.
Skills Courses
Courses that will develop your oral advocacy, ADR, and other skills necessary for practice.
  • Consumer Protection
  • Creditors’ Rights
  • Consumer Bankruptcy
  • Poverty Law
  • Administrative Law
  • New York Practice
  • Evidence
  • Antitrust Law
  • Advanced Torts
  • Internet Law
  • Legislation and Statutory Interpretation
  • Products Liability
  • Real Estate Transactions
  • Secured Transactions
  • Banking Law
  • Pretrial Advocacy
  • Drafting Contracts
  • Drafting Contracts and Litigation Documents
  • Negotiation
  • Trial Advocacy
  • Interviewing and Counseling
  • Mediation: Representing Clients

Course Descriptions


Experience

Clinics
Students who participate in a clinic are exposed to a practice area through the representation of actual clients under faculty supervision. The following clinics are relevant to this pathway:
Externships
Externships place students in a wide variety of not-for-profit, government, public interest, and private organizations and firms, where they work directly under the supervision of a practicing attorney. The external placements are bolstered by an in-school seminar in which students analyze their practical experiences and gain skills necessary for the profession. Sample placements in this pathway include:
  • Federal Trade Commission
  • NYC Department of Consumer Affairs
  • New York State Attorney General, Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau
  • New Jersey Office of the Attorney General (Consumer Affairs)


Network

Students should seek out connections with practitioners and other students, both internally and externally. Adjunct professors can be an excellent resource both for guidance and for employment opportunities. The professional bar associations also welcome student participation and offer reduced membership rates for students. Some bar sections and committees look for students to provide research or other assistance on projects. St. John’s faculty are also an essential resource. Students should make an effort to get to know faculty who teach and have experience in their chosen areas. Finally, students should connect with other students who share similar interest through student organizations and attendance at Law School events.

Professional Organizations

American Bar Association

New York City Bar

Queens County Bar Association

Civil Legal Advice Resource Office (CLARO)

National Association of Consumer Advocates


Suggested Path

Part-time students should spread out the suggested path below to account for their expected date of graduation.

Year Fall Spring Summer
1L
  • Required courses
  • Pro bono
  • Required courses
  • Pro bono
  • Internship with an organization doing consumer law
2L
  • Evidence
  • Poverty Law
  • Creditors’ Rights
  • Electives
  • Continue pro bono work
  • Clinic or externship in consumer law
  • Trial Advocacy
  • Consumer Protection
  • Electives
  • Continue pro bono work
  • Clinic or externship in consumer law
  • Internship with an organization doing consumer law
3L
  • Administrative Law
  • Consumer Bankruptcy
  • Complete SWR paper in civil dispute resolution
  • Electives
  • Continue pro bono work
  • Clinic or externship in consumer protection
  • Electives
  • Continue pro bono work
  • Clinic or externship in consumer law
  • Graduation
  • Bar Exam

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