As law-school enrollment declines, at least one company plans to invest in legal education. But the private-equity-backed group, called the InfiLaw System, hasn’t yet won over the legal academy.
InfiLaw launched in 2004, with the purchase of the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. Two other for-profit schools followed close behind—the Phoenix School of Law in Arizona in 2004 and the Charlotte School of Law in North Carolina in 2006.
The company says it targets students, including many minorities, whose grades or scores don’t qualify them for admission at top law schools.
The schools emphasize that they provide more feedback than other schools and focus on hands-on learning. One informal goal is to connect students with at least 400 hours of work experience by graduation.
Some in the academy think InfiLaw puts pressure on the already tight job market for law school graduates, and may not properly prepare its students.
Defenders of InfiLaw claim it seeks to democratize law school education, and feel its financial resources could help out law schools seeking an investor or buyout partner.
“InfiLaw is applying a private-equity model to legal education, and so far I’m fairly impressed by what I’ve seen,” said William Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University who studies the legal profession.
For the most part, InfiLaw schools haven’t had trouble filling seats. Florida Coastal enrolls about 1,250 students, making it one of the larger U.S. law schools. Charlotte enrolls about 1,360. Tuition and fees at all three InfiLaw schools are around $40,000 per year.
Unfortunately, while seats have been filled, success for InfiLaw school graduates has been harder to achieve. Bar-passage rates among them have fluctuated in recent years but have often fallen well below state averages. Job-placement rates have suffered as well. In 2012, for instance, only about half of Charlotte’s graduating class got jobs that required passing the bar, at least 10 percentage points below the state’s other private law schools and the national average.
“Placement is a challenge at every law school in the country, and I wouldn’t be satisfied with our bar-passage rates unless they were 100%,” said Peter Goplerud, the president of InfiLaw’s consulting arm. “Continuous improvement is what we’re striving for.”
The company’s approach doesn’t sit well with everyone. In August, at the 10-year-old Charleston School of Law in South Carolina, two of the school’s three owners announced they were selling the institution to InfiLaw, which pledged to upgrade the institution’s technology, add clinical courses and increase diversity.
Although the school was already for-profit, faculty and alumni groups voiced objections to the sale within days. Their main concern was that in a bid to boost enrollment, InfiLaw would reduce the school’s admissions standards. That would in turn hurt bar passage and employment rates and eventually diminish the school’s reputation. Forty-one students ultimately transferred, an increase of about 64% above the prior year. The controversy has put the sale on hold.
Two recent federal lawsuits accuse InfiLaw’s schools of shady tactics. Last year, a group of Florida Coastal graduates sued the school, alleging that it advertised misleading postgraduate employment statistics to lure prospective students and earn high tuition fees. The group is seeking, among other things, $100 million in tuition repayments. In June, two tenured professors at Phoenix School of Law sued the school and InfiLaw, claiming they were fired after objecting to proposals that would make it harder for students to transfer.
A spokeswoman for InfiLaw called the pending lawsuits “baseless” and without merit. In court papers, the defendants have denied the claims. Mr. Goplerud said he was “well aware” of the concerns but they are far overblown.
Source: Law Schools Attract Critics – By Ashby Jones – WSJ.com
This article was written by Staff