The ripple effect of an ill-fated business deal still haunts the Charleston School of Law, but leaders say they are taking steps to improve the school's services and bolster its reputation.

The for-profit school was only 10 years old when its founders attempted to sell it to an outside group, Florida-based InfiLaw System, in 2013. The deal-makers met a formidable foe: a well-organized posse of fresh law school graduates who felt the sale would damage their alma mater's future by lowering its standards.

The alumni rallied, protested and matched wits with their opponents — and they won. The sale was called off, and today the school is in the midst of a shift from for-profit to nonprofit status. 

The school's management agreement with InfiLaw ended in 2015, and a new president and part-owner, attorney Ed Bell, took the helm in October 2015 promising to open a new chapter in the school's history.

Bell's splashiest proposal at the time, making the school a nonprofit, is still in the works as the school files paperwork with multiple regulatory groups. As part of the process, the school has paid off $6 million it owed to InfiLaw after backing out of the deal — partly using the school's funds, partly using Bell's own money, according to the attorney. Bell said he believes the school can complete the transition by early 2020. 

InfiLaw, which was previously a consortium of three for-profit law schools with low acceptance standards, has not fared well. Its Charlotte School of Law closed in August 2017, and another of its schools, Arizona Summit Law School, lost its accreditation in June 2018. A third InfiLaw school, Florida Coastal School of Law, remains open in Jacksonville, Fla.

In Charleston, Bell has some new ideas in the works. The school plans to launch its first "live clinic" this summer, inviting 12 current students to take on real cases involving minor charges in local courts.

Bell is also keen to find a more permanent location for the law school, which currently inhabits a building by the Visitors' Center at 81 Mary St., as well as office space at 385 Meeting St.

The school already owns a parking lot at Meeting and Woolfe streets, which the city of Charleston sold to it at a discounted price in 2005. But after reviewing the site, Bell said the school decided to find a larger property and listed it for sale. If a buyer pays the asking price, the school could get nearly $9 million.

"None of that money will go into anyone’s pocket. We’re going to use that money to find a new location," Bell said.

He also understands what the students love about the school. Students used to jokingly refer to it as a "one-room schoolhouse" and spoke highly of professors who cared deeply about their students' success.

Alissa Lietzow, a 2010 graduate, remembers the heady days of 2013 vividly. Serving on the alumni board, she found herself shoulder to shoulder with her former classmates who packed informational meetings and wrote letters to defend an institution they loved.

Looking back, Lietzow recognizes that the experience bound them together and put their law school training to the test. 

"We went as an alumni board from planning socials and networking gatherings to all of a sudden fighting against this huge venture capital firm with unlimited pocketbooks trying to buy our school," Lietzow said.

When the Charlotte School of Law closed in 2017, the Charleston School of Law invited students to complete their studies in the Holy City. Kerry Shipman was one of the students who made the jump, although he got out of Charlotte early in August 2016.

Raising his younger brother alone in a West Ashley apartment after their mother died of cancer in 2016, he said he worked to make her proud. He graduated in December 2018.

"They wanted you to win here," Shipman said. "One thing I can say is most of the students that went to Charlotte and came here, their grades are amazing ... They didn't have the opportunity to see their full potential (in Charlotte)."

student law sessions.jpg (copy)

Kerry Shipman helps lead a Charleston School of Law National Black Law Student Association event on Saturday, April 21, 2018 in Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

One lingering effect of the InfiLaw deal can be seen in the law school's low bar exam pass rates. Just 43 percent of exam takers from the school passed the South Carolina Bar Examination in July 2018, compared to 76 percent at the public University of South Carolina School of Law.

Charleston School of Law's bar passage rates have lagged for years, a phenomenon that Bell and other college officials have blamed in part on the InfiLaw deal. Some of the school's top-performing students transferred out shortly after the deal was announced in 2015. Bell said the influx of Charlotte transfers might also be a factor.

"Look, these are great kids … but the fact is that they were at a losing school and a bad school, and that’s going to reflect a little bit on their bar," Bell said.

Change is coming, Bell said. With more applicants each year, the cutoff LSAT scores for entry to the Charleston School of Law are on the rise.

"It's becoming harder to get in. Our profile of students has gone up," Bell said.

InfiLaw could not be reached for comment. InfiLaw's website has not been active since September 2017, according to the Internet Archive.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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