The 9-year-old Charleston School of Law never has been highly ranked, but it offered something special: Local roots and connections to the state's legal community.
Law school job placement for graduates hired for full-time jobs requiring bar exam passage:
Charleston School of Law 54%
Phoenix School of Law 44%
Charlotte School of Law 38%
Florida Coastal School of Law 36%
Source: American Bar Association
Now many students and alumni fear that the qualities that made the school unique — and convinced them to invest more than $100,000 in tuition, much of it from student loans — would be lost in a possible sale to the for-profit InfiLaw System.
Lawsuits against InfiLaw schools
Florida Coastal School of Law: Six graduates filed a class-action lawsuit in 2012 against the school over what they said were misleading post-graduation statistics marketed to prospective students. The school is accused of giving inflated job-placement and salary numbers of its graduates. Peter Goplerud, president of InfiLaw Management Solutions, said the firm that is representing the graduates has filed similar suits against about 15 other schools. “We are confident in the accuracy of our data, confident nobody has been misled,” he said.
Phoenix School of Law: Two tenured professors are suing the school and InfiLaw for firing them after they spoke out about questionable practices at the school. The professors, a married couple, were opposed to new policies that they said would make it more difficult for students to transfer out, such as changing curriculum and refusing to write letters of recommendation. The school and InfiLaw claim the professors didn't accept their offer to renew their contract for the upcoming school year. Goplerud said he couldn't comment on the case.
Law school founders announced late last month that they had entered into a management services agreement with InfiLaw, which sometimes is the first step in a sale. They have since refused to answer questions about the deal.
Bar exam pass rate
Median LSAT Bar exam pass rate
Charleston School of Law
Charlotte School of Law*
Florida Coastal School of Law*
Phoenix School of Law*
Source: Law School Admission Council
Students, graduates and supporters in the Charleston legal community worry about InfiLaw's reputation as a company that runs “diploma mills,” a reputation they think could diminish the value of a Charleston School of Law degree.
They cite low LSAT scores, bar-passage rates and job-placement statistics at InfiLaw's three law schools. But their concerns about the impact of a sale on the school's culture run even deeper.
InfiLaw defends its reputation, and says it has assets that could benefit the Charleston School of Law.
Charleston lawyer Peter Wilborn said five prominent lawyers and judges launched the for-profit Charleston school, which has a mission to train lawyers committed to public service. It was set up to be something different, said Wilborn, who represents the school's Alumni Board. “The legal community embraced that vision. Now, that vision isn't being realized.”
Wilborn said “enormously nasty things are written about InfiLaw and its schools in the legal blogosphere.” As a lawyer, he said, he wouldn't pay nearly $40,000 each year in tuition to attend an InfiLaw school. Law schools are supposed to teach students to think like lawyers, he said. They should not simply provide “a glorified bar review course.”
Dan Crooks, a 2011 graduate and a member of the school's Alumni Board, was skeptical when school leaders told students and graduates that entering into the agreement with InfiLaw would bring students more resources when it came to landing jobs. So he did some research.
According to Crooks' analysis, the Charleston school has a higher percentage of graduates landing full-time jobs that require passing the bar exam than any of InfiLaw's three other schools.
For instance, he said, 53.71 percent of Charleston School of Law students who graduated in 2012 landed long-term, full-time jobs. But only 43.65 percent of Phoenix School of Law graduates; 35.88 percent of Florida Coastal School of Law graduates; and 38.46 percent of Charlotte School of Law graduates landed such jobs.
Crooks questioned how representatives from InfiLaw could help Charleston students land jobs when job-placement rates for their schools were lower than those at the Charleston school. “Alumni are what will get people jobs, not InfiLaw,” Crooks said.
Charleston School of Law also fares better, for the most part, on LSAT scores and bar-exam pass rates than InfiLaw schools. The median score on the LSAT, which is a law school admissions test, at all three of InfiLaw schools falls below the 152 median LSAT score for students at the Charleston school. And only the Charlotte School of Law has a bar-exam pass rate higher than that of Charleston School of Law.
U.S. News & World report ranks only the top 100 law schools. Charleston School of Law, and all three of InfiLaw's other schools are unranked.
Peter Goplerud, president of InfiLaw Management Solutions, would not say whether InfiLaw was working toward buying the school. The company has a one-year management-services agreement, which is a consulting agreement, he said, and it has the option for a one-year renewal on that.
Goplerud said he thinks some of the statistics that are being presented on InfiLaw schools don't give the whole picture. He thinks the schools would appear better if people looked at statistics over time.
He acknowledged that the Charleston school's job-placement numbers were higher than those of InfiLaw's schools. His company's schools are part of a consortium, and those schools share information and best practices, he said. On job-placement rates, he said, he “hopes to learn something about that from the folks in Charleston.”
He also said he thinks InfiLaw has assets to bring to the Charleston school. For instance, InfiLaw has more than a dozen “best practices groups,” which meet regularly to allow representatives from different schools to share information.
InfiLaw values the Charleston School of Law and has no plans to make dramatic changes, Goplerud said. “The nature of the school, the location and the culture are key to what brought the founders and InfiLaw to meet.”
More than numbers
Richard Gershon, now the dean of the University of Mississippi School of Law, was the founding dean of the Charleston school. He expressed shock when he heard that the school's founders, who also made up its board, were possibly going to sell to InfiLaw.
He didn't know at the time that the well-known and charismatic Alex Sanders, one of the founders and a former chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, had stepped down as the board's chairman two days earlier and no longer had any connection to the school.
In an email to Sanders, Gershon said, “When we set out on the adventure to create a law school, I thought we were building something of lasting value for the people of Charleston, and South Carolina. I believed that we all wanted something that the city could be proud of long after any of us were gone. Forgive me, Judge, but a sale to InfiLaw would greatly undermine that dream. It would devalue the legacy, even if the monetary rewards are high.”
Sanders has since announced that he will remain chairman emeritus at the Charleston school.
Gershon also said he thought the founders one day would sell the school. But he thought it either would become a non-profit organization or would seek an association with an established private school, such as Furman University.
“Not that InfiLaw is bad, or an evil organization, but it's not the right model for Charleston School of Law,” he said.
“You can own something like property, but it's very hard to own an educational institution. Charleston School of Law has become a special part of the community. The law school belongs to the alumni and the faculty, too.”
Andy Brooks, who graduated in May, just finished taking the bar exam in North Carolina. Unlike many of his fellow students, Brooks always knew he wanted to work in North Carolina, not South Carolina.
He's taking a wait-and-see approach on the possible sale to InfiLaw. He's not surprised Charleston School of Law leaders are considering a sale, because it always has been a for-profit institution, he said.
He's heard many negative things about InfiLaw, but he's trying to keep an open mind. “I hope I don't have to qualify that I went to Charleston School of Law before it was InfiLaw.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.