State panel rejects law school sale

The Charleston School of Law on Meeting Street.

COLUMBIA - The sale of the Charleston School of Law to a private, Florida-based company should be stopped, as the company's lower academic standards and lawsuits against it provide concerns about the company's health and the direction it would take the school, a majority of members on a state higher education panel said Monday.

The Committee on Academic Affairs and Licensing, part of the state's Commission on Higher Education, voted 3-1 to reject recommending a license for InfiLaw to operate the law school. The private, for-profit law school provider has sought to buy Charleston's 10-year-old private law school since last summer over the objection of many alumni and faculty.

The committee's rejection surprised students and alumni who had lobbied against the sale. The company needs an approval for a license from the state's Commission on Higher Education. Monday's vote will act as a guideline for the full, Higher Education Commission when it is expected to decide the issue on June 6.

A majority of the committee agreed with Natasha Hanna, a Myrtle Beach attorney who serves on the commission, that lawsuits against two of the company's schools could pose problems for the entity down the road.

Faculty members at the company's school in Arizona sued InfiLaw for breach of contract and defrauding students. Its school in Florida was sued for misrepresenting claims about its students' success and job placement.

Kevin Hall, InfiLaw's Columbia-based attorney, said those lawsuits were "baseless allegations" and were working their way through the court system. The initial suit in Arizona has been thrown out.

Hall said the commission's criteria asks board members to consider whether lawsuits have been successful. In both cases they have not, he said.

"We have not been successfully sued," Hall said.

Hanna also said that public hearings and news stories were enough to cause "great concerns . about the reputation and character of the applicant," she said.

Charles Munns, a retired Navy admiral who serves on the committee, said that the license for the sale should be approved. The two lawsuits have not been proven and likely would not affect the overall ability of the company to run the Charleston school, he said.

"InfiLaw is qualified under our regulations to receive the license," Munns said.

Charleston School of Law was founded by five local judges and lawyers, four of whom have retired or are retiring. Students and alumni say that the sale would diminish the school's law degree and many called InfiLaw "law-mart," accusing them of being driven by profit over academic excellence.

Prominent Charleston attorneys have also argued against the sale and students worry that internships and career placement in the community would be affected.

"We are pleased that sanity seems to be restored," said Charleston lawyer Peter Wilborn, who represents the CSOL's Alumni Association board, of the decision.

Hall, InfiLaw's lawyer, had said at a community meeting in Columbia earlier in the day that owners had taken around $25 million in profits since 2010 and that InfiLaw had advanced $6 million to some of the school's owners, according to several people who attended the session.

That irked Billy Want, a faculty member. While the school has always been for-profit, it was presented to the state and community that it would essentially be run like a nonprofit, Want said.

"It's a betrayal of the mission they stated when the law school began," he said.

Matt Kelly, a 28-year-old second-year law student, took trips to two of the company's schools at its behest and delivered a report on what he found. Kelly has helped rally the opposition to the sale and was in Columbia on Monday.

"It felt like big business, not a law school," he said of his experience. Kelly said that InfiLaw's statistics are self-reported and he plans to ask the higher education commission to order a third-party audit to ensure post-graduation job rates, among other numbers, are accurate.

John Finan, chairman of the commission, said he is keeping an open mind for the expected June 6 vote. "I don't know how it's going to come out," he said. "I'm not pre-judging. This is about licensing, it's not about emotion, it's about whether they meet the criteria for a license."

Staff writer Diane Knich contributed to this report.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.