THE BATTLE FOR CHARLESTON

On the heels of my post about two struggling law schools, the New York Times published Professor Steven R. Davidoff’s discussion about one of them. Davidoff argues that critics of InfiLaw’s proposed acquisition of for-profit Charleston Law School are missing a key point: Why is it any worse for the private equity firm that owns InfiLaw to operate Charleston School of Law than, say, the current owners who have already taken millions of dollars out of the school?

In fact, he implies, if the school winds up affiliating with the state-run College of Charleston, why would that be preferable? Profit is profit; what difference does it make who gets it?

Here’s Davidoff’s money quote: “Lost among the dispute is the fact that a lower-tier law school like Charleston — whoever owns it — can not only produce capable graduates but help students start careers they couldn’t have without a law degree.”

Really?

As I’ve reported previously, even the dismal market for new attorneys hasn’t slowed the growth of InfliLaw’s three law schools (Arizona Summit, Charlotte, and Florida Coastal) — from a combined 679 graduates in 2011 to 1,191 in 2013. According to the ABA, only 36 percent of the InfiLaw classes of 2013 (including all three of its law schools) obtained full-time, long term JD-required employment.

Disaggregation doesn’t make things look any better for the company, unless you’re one of its private equity owners. For example, Davidoff cites Florida Coastal’s improvement in the percentage of graduates who pass the bar — from 58.2 percent to 76.4 percent as evidence of InfiLaw’s “track record of improving schools.” He’s responding to a “fear about the acquisition — that a private equity firm will lower standards.”

Davidoff doesn’t cite a source for his 76.4 percent number. According to Florida Coastal’s website, only 67.4 percent of first-time takers passed the bar in July 2013 — down from 75.2 percent for the July 2012 test. For February 2014, 72.9 percent of first-time takers passed — down from 79.3 percent in February 2013.

But that’s a minor issue compared to the overriding problem: only 35 percent of 2013 graduates obtained full-time, long-term jobs requiring that degree. The rest are not starting “careers that they wouldn’t have without a law degree.”

Debt

Maybe most InfiLaw graduates aren’t getting full-time, long-term law jobs, but they’re acquiring a lot of educational debt. Annual tuition and fees at all three InfiLaw schools exceed $40,000. At Arizona Summit, median federal law student debt between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013 was $184,825. At Florida Coastal, it was $162,549. The Charlotte Law School median was $155,697, plus another $20,018 in private loans.

Davidoff’s defense of InfiLaw ignores the combination of big debt and poor employment outcomes that afflict most of its recent graduates.

His concluding thoughts make a valid point: “Instead of arguing about who will profit from them, Charleston’s students may instead want to ask who will give South Carolina’s residents the best opportunity to succeed as lawyers at an acceptable price.”

Based on its track record to date, the answer isn’t InfiLaw. And I would reframe the question: Why should anyone profit at all when non-dischargeable student loans are the source of those profits?

The new ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education has an unprecedented opportunity to straighten out this mess and take the profession to a better place. But with the chairman of InfiLaw’s National Policy Board (Dennis Archer) chairing that committee, don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

 

A TROUBLESOME TASK FORCE

For any lawyer, credibility is everything. A key reason that the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education produced such a worthwhile report and recommendations was the stature and credibility of its participants, especially its chairman, retired Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. Although imperfect, the effort and outcome have received widespread and well-deserved praise.

On a vitally important issue, the Task Force punted. With respect to the cost and financing of legal education, a new ABA task force has now stepped into that breach. Unlike its predecessor, the ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education has a credibility problem at the outset.

The Best Intentions

The chairman of the new task force, Dennis W. Archer, is undoubtedly a decent man trying to the right thing. In fact, he has an impressive history of public service. But as a former associate justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, Archer understands that appearances matter. In fact, the mere appearance of impropriety in a case is enough for a judge to step aside. It’s not a question of personal ethics. Rather, it’s a matter of public perceptions about the integrity of a decision-making process and its outcomes.

Since 2010, Archer has been a member of the National Policy Board of InfiLaw, which owns three private ABA-accredited for-profit law schools: Arizona Summit Law School (formerly the Phoenix Law School), Charlotte School of Law, and the Florida Coastal School of Law. The board on which he sits “provides counsel upon the strategic direction and long-term plans for the InfiLaw system of independent law schools….”

The Business Model

Annual tuition and fees at all three InfiLaw schools exceed $40,000. According to their ABA disclosures, the schools have been big beneficiaries of the current dysfunctional system of financing a legal degree. At Arizona Summit, median federal law student debt between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013 was $184,825. At Florida Coastal, it was $162,549. The Charlotte Law School median was $155,697, plus another $20,018 in private loans.

At all three law schools, students’ “institutional financial plan debt” was zero. The InfiLaw schools have plenty of federal student loan dollars skin in the game, but none of their own.

A Disturbing Trend

Even as the market for lawyers has languished, InfiLaw schools increased enrollment. According to the ABA, the three schools graduated a combined class of 679 students in 2011. Nine months later, only 256 had long-term, full-time jobs requiring a JD. That’s 38 percent.

Last year’s combined graduating class for the three school had soared to 1,191 students. Only 428 found full-time long-term JD-required employment. That’s 36 percent.

All of the schools’ websites follow the format of Arizona Summit’s rosier description of employment outcomes:

“Arizona Summit Law School was able to confirm the employment status of 99% (278 out of 279) of its program completers [sic] who graduated September 1, 2012, through August 31, 2013. The job placement rate for these graduates was 90%. This figure was calculated using the NALP formula for calculating job placement rate. Therefore, the 90% job placement rate was calculated by adding together all the employed graduates (250) and then dividing by the number of graduates whose employment status we were able to confirm (278). In accordance with NALP guidelines, the number of employed graduates includes all employment positions, including legal and non-legal positions, permanent and temporary positions, full-time and part-time positions, and any positions funded by Arizona Summit Law School.”

Clicking to another document on the site reveals that 25 of those jobs were “Law School Funded Positions” — 22 of which were short-term.

The Challenge of Leadership

Perhaps it takes an insider, such as former Justice Archer, to accomplish the kind of monumental change that his InfiLaw constituents may well resist. Perhaps this will be a “Nixon goes to China” moment for him and the profession. Maybe it will be the equivalent of President Lyndon Johnson muscling civil rights legislation through the Senate — a Texan overcoming a resistant South in the 1960s.

On the other hand, if the latest ABA task force produces anything less than revolutionary recommendations that finally make law schools financially accountable for the fate of their graduates, everyone will laugh it off — as they should. Unfortunately, there’s nothing particularly funny about the situation.