UPDATE ON THE BATTLE FOR CHARLESTON

Call it an eleventh-hour reprieve. Or maybe it’s just a break before the executioner arrives. On Thursday, June 5, the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education was going to decide on InfiLaw’s application for a license to own and operate the for-profit Charleston School of Law. But a day before the scheduled vote, InfiLaw suspended its application.

As I wrote last week, InfiLaw owns and operates three for-profit law schools (Arizona Summit, Charlotte, and Florida Coastal). Its owner is Sterling Partners, a Chicago-based private equity firm that lists InfiLaw as a holding in its “education portfolio.” In July 2013, InfiLaw agreed to buy the Charleston School of Law. On May 19, the Committee on Academic Affairs and Licensing voted 3-to-1 against recommending InfiLaw’s license request. Then things got interesting.

On May 23 — four days after the Committee’s rejection and just before the Memorial Day weekend — state representative John Richard C. King wrote to the South Carolina Attorney General’s office. He sought an advisory opinion that, if provided, would essentially require the Commission on Higher Education to approve InfiLaw’s application, notwithstanding the earlier Committee rejection. Representative King is also a first-year student at the InfiLaw school in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Only a week after King’s request, the AG’s office issued a detailed 10-page single-spaced legal opinion that gave InfiLaw what it wanted. The final sentence warns: “Any licensing decision based upon criteria outside the law would, of course, be subject to judicial review and possible reversal.”

State senator John Courson immediately suggested that InfiLaw suspend its request temporarily because the AG’s opinion “needs to be vetted” and Governor Nikki Haley needs to fill vacant seats on the Commission before it discusses the issue.

Senator Courson hasn’t revealed publicly where he stands on the merits of InfiLaw’s proposed acquisition. But when legislators want a governor to fill vacant committee seats before taking a final vote on a matter of interest to them, there’s usually a reason. As InfliLaw’s statement accompanying the suspension of its application declares: “We are committed to this acquisition and intend to renew our application in due course.” Close observers might get the uneasy feeling that they’re watching sausage being made.

Meanwhile, no one is discussing the more important point that transcends the Charleston situation. Typically, private equity investors seek opportunities that will provide them with above average returns. That’s not a criticism; it’s their business. However, if for-profit legal education generates returns that are appealing to private equity investors, non-dischargeable federal student loans are the reason. In a glutted market for lawyers, that’s a remarkably unfortunate outcome.

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