BY RON BRINSON
Throughout its illustrious history, Charleston — a county seat, lest we forget — has been a center of legal enterprise and home to some world-class lawyers, and some colorful ones, too.
But Charleston has not always had a law school — it just seems that it has.
From its standing start just a decade ago, the Charleston School of Law has sneaked right into the Holy City’s institutional makeup. Its alumni, faculty and its students believe CSOL is something very special — and they have become fierce defenders against any ownership-change plans that might transform the school to something not so special.
CSOL is, in fact, remarkably special, and we should all be paying attention. We’d miss this upstart school if it weren’t here, and we’ll surely notice if its good works are diminished in any way.
The school is a taxpaying mini-engine of economic development and social contributions. With its nook-and-cranny campus spoked to the old Bell South headquarters on Meeting Street, it helped prime the real estate resurgence of King Street, north of Calhoun. Its students and faculty annually provide thousands of hours of public service to individuals and non-profit institutions that need legal assistance, or just a little help, period.
Its faculty seems determined to make CSOL a center of academic and public service excellence operating in one of America’s most historic port cities. One example: the Charleston Maritime Law Institute offers a master’s degree program in admiralty and maritime law and an outstanding maritime law bulletin. The Institute was organized with relevance to the Port of Charleston’s global role, and oversight from an advisory board of admiralty lawyers, maritime professionals, judges, and academicians from all over the country.
Ask Founder-in-Chief Alex Sanders and he’ll tell you the school has evolved about as he boldly promised in 2003 — bright students, acclaimed faculty, rigorous standards and a “doing good” culture, all in lovable downtown Charleston.
What Judge Sanders could not have predicted, though, is that the school has so quickly become an institutional protectorate now fiercely guarded by its alumni and faculty.
And that’s a very good thing for regional Charleston.
“It has succeeded beyond anybody’s expectations, including mine,” says Judge Sanders, “and its future seems even more promising.“
But that future seems at best cloudy for the short term if the Commission on Higher Education approves the school’s pending sale to the for-profit InfiLaw System. And it seems equally uncertain if the commission rejects the sale and remands the school to its current owners who apparently figured their deal with InfiLaw would be a fairly seamless transition.
The state could act to annex CSOL to the College of Charleston or the University of South Carolina Law School. That could be a good deal for the state, given the public’s now clear interest — but would CSOL lose the powers of its presence and focus?
To most alumni and faculty members, selling to InfiLaw seems the worst of all options. Some “super star” professors have declared they will resign immediately if InfiLaw takes over. They seem convinced the firm’s style and standards just don’t fit the Charleston School of Law’s values and image.
But is it fair to brand InfiLaw a “diploma mill” operation? Its graduates actually perform well on bar exams, and according to its website, InfiLaw values public service and pro bono callings for lawyers. The point about InfiLaw’s apparent lower admission thresholds seems more valid and probably the one that most agitates the current CSOL faculty.
Without much of a public relations defense, InfiLaw has allowed itself to be branded as a mere profit-seeking enterprise. And that suggests volumes about how Judge Sanders and his colleagues have nurtured CSOL. The school always has been a “private” enterprise, tethered to the high-risk financial realities of birthing a fully-equipped and faculty dominant law school. CSOL grew into that “institutional protectorate” role and a public impression that it operated above any formulas of having to make a buck. Now it is firmly trapped at the intersection of ownership imperatives, its soaring public role and a faculty determined to defend the school’s high standards.
We could speculate endlessly why the inevitable transfer of school ownership from its aging founders has become such a high-risk drama. But amidst so much anxiety and acrimony, there must be better options for the CSOL founders, InfiLaw — and the public interest.
The challenge question: who’s searching for those better options?
This school was parented by creative leadership and resolve, and that’s exactly what it needs now from the legal community, the maritime community, the economic development community — from the regional Charleston community.
Ron Brinson, a North Charleston city councilman, is a former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at email@example.com.