THE CHARLOTTE SCHOOL OF LAW AND A WHISTLEBLOWER

The latest developments at the Charlotte School of Law are the culmination of regulatory capture. The last significant ABA task force addressing the crisis in legal education kicked the can down the road, as did all of its predecessors. That came as no surprise because the head of the task force was Dennis W. Archer. He also chaired the national policy board of InfiLaw, a consortium of Charlotte and two other marginal for-profit law schools owned by venture capitalists.

The Persistent Problem

Without the ability to exploit vulnerable prospective law students willing to incur six-figure law school debt in return for limited prospects of meaningful JD-required jobs, the InfiLaw schools—Charlotte, Arizona Summit, and Florida Coastal School of Law—probably would have gone out of business long ago. It’s a safe bet that InfiLaw’s owners would not send their kids to any of them.

Only recently did the ABA take steps to revoke Charlotte’s accreditation. The school lost access to student loan money, and now its doors are closed. In March 2017, the ABA put Arizona Summit on probation for reasons that included a 25 percent bar exam passage rate for its July 2016 graduates taking the test for the first time. Florida Coastal’s 2016 graduates are faring so poorly in the job market that its end may be in sight: only 36 percent of graduates obtained full-time long-term JD-required jobs. Meanwhile, Florida Coastal grads have the distinction of obtaining degrees from a school that is among the leaders in law school debt: almost $160,000. Arizona Summit’s grads are right up there with them.

For years, InfiLaw has been a poster child for a persistent problem, but it’s not the only offender. Ten years after the Great Recession decimated the demand for new law school graduates, the ABA has ignored a perverse incentive system arising from a dysfunctional market. Specifically, marginal law schools lack accountability for their graduates’ poor job prospects. Those schools live on student loans—which is to say that they would die without them. But once students make their tuition payments, their schools have no skin in the game.

Even Archer’s task force report acknowledged that 25 percent of law schools derive at least 88 percent of their revenues from tuition. The overriding goal becomes maximizing revenues by filling classroom seats with tuition-paying bodies. At most marginal schools, that has meant lowering admission standards–an action that later reflects itself in declining bar passage rates for graduates. The result: unemployed law school graduates are burdened with enormous non-dischargeable debt for degrees of dubious value.

What Will It Take?

Perhaps a Charlotte whistleblower will bring change to a profession that has shown a consistent unwillingness to police itself. The allegations from former Charlotte School of Law Professor Barbara Bernier, who filed suit in June 2016 under the False Claims Act, prompted a federal investigation. She alleges that the school defrauded taxpayers of more than $285 million over a five-year period. According to the suit, Charlotte used dubious tactics to shore up the school’s performance numbers, protect its accreditation, and keep federal student loan dollars flowing.

Bernier claims that admissions officers had quotas of students they had to accept to keep their jobs. She alleges that over a six-year period beginning in 2010, 1,355 substandard students were enrolled, resulting in improper government payments to the school totaling $285 million. She asserts that the school discouraged some students from taking the bar exam because it thought they were likely to fail. Even so, the school’s pass rate has dropped steadily and its February 2017 results were the worst in the state: 25 percent. For those repeating the exam, the February 2017 news was worse: 18 percent passed.

How could this happen? A better question is, why wouldn’t it? Bernier’s allegations are consistent with revenue-maximizing behavior that the current law school business model incentivizes without regard to graduates’ outcomes.

“At Charlotte, there was constant talk of investors — referring to the school’s owners,” the Charlotte School of Law whistleblower professor told The New York Times, “and the focus was on the number of students. They were bringing them in and setting them up and then failing them out.”

InfiLaw has until Oct. 20 to file a formal answer to the complaint. Perhaps someday its owners and those who run other marginal law schools across the country will answer to their students who leave such institutions with big debt and limited JD-required job prospects. Every year, the ranks of those alumni grow.

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