SCHOOL’S DEAN STILL PUSHING … GETTING PUSHBACK
Last summer this website broke our second big Charleston School of Law (CSOL) story … the one about the modestly credible law school being sold to “diploma mill” provider InfiLaw, which runs several less credible law schools.
Ho-hum. We don’t really care what happens to CSOL. We cover the school because it is like kicking an ant hill. And we like kicking ant hills.
Oh, and every time we write about it (most recently HERE) we get tons of traffic from the Holy City of Charleston, S.C.
Anyway, pushing the CSOL-InfiLaw deal from the very beginning has been the ethically challenged dean of the institution, Andy Abrams.
To that end, Abrams recently penned a mass email in a last ditch effort to rally support for the proposal.
Go ahead, set your snooze buttons …
At the outset let me apologize for the length of this letter, but given the importance of the subject matter, I felt that in this case the need for thoroughness trumped the desire for brevity.
Like many, if not all of you, I was surprised last July by the news that two of the original founders of the Charleston School of Law had retired from the Board and that a major change in ownership/operation was underway. Rationally, I knew that a change in the five-founders structure was inevitable, but nevertheless the announcement struck not just a rational but an emotional chord as well. Having been a part of the law school since its founding, like you, I love the Charleston School of Law—its people, its values, and its mission to have a positive impact on the lives of individuals and communities, no one wants to see people or institutions you care deeply about harmed.
Through trial and error (and after twenty-seven years in higher education, thirty-one years of parenthood, and thirty-seven years of marriage, I have had my share of both), I have concluded that while everyone has their own way of handling major changes, issues, and challenges in their professional and personal lives, a “listen, learn, then act” approach works best for me. So I appreciate your patience and support in enabling me to employ that same approach in dealing with the proposed change in ownership of our law school.
I have listened over the past six and a half months as many individuals whom I deeply respect have expressed, often strongly and sometimes persuasively, their views and preferences regarding the future ownership, structure, and operation of the school. I have heard the dire predictions made with absolute certainty of the fate that awaits us if the proposed alignment with InfiLaw and its consortium of law schools is approved. But I also remember a time, just ten years ago, when I listened as similar forecasts of doom about the future of the Charleston School of Law were offered with equal certainty, sincerity, and conviction. It was said that the state, and most particularly the legal community, could not and would not support a second law school. No decent faculty will want to teach at a fledgling proprietary school. Only weak students with no other options will attend the school. Should they get through law school, these students will never be able to pass the bar and, even if they do, they will never get jobs. And, finally, the law school will never get ABA accreditation. Each of these predictions proved to be absolutely wrong, not because the concerns were not legitimate, but because the efforts of so many of you made the skeptics and the critics wrong.
So what have I learned since July of last year? First, I have come to realize that there is a significant difference between preferences and viable options. As much as each of us may want to freeze the law school in its halcyon days, if indeed we may claim halcyon days being only a decade old, the status quo simply is not an option. Internally, with a small, aging board and externally, with seismic shifts in legal education underway, our world was changing dramatically whether we fully recognized it or not.
Additionally, I learned that the same opposition to a second state-supported law school in South Carolina, the very concerns that led to the establishment of the Charleston School of Law as a private institution, has not subsided. And I have also discovered that despite all that we have done to build what most of us consider to be an exceptional law school, the number of individuals or entities who have and are willing to deploy the financial resources and expertise to acquire and operate our law school, is quite limited.
After listening to all of the arguments and after extensive inquiry, dialogue, and observation, I have concluded that we have before us what is not only an acceptable but an exciting option and that is the proposed alignment with InfiLaw and its consortium of law schools. This is what has led me to this conclusion.
Over the past several months I have met with the senior leadership of InfiLaw on four different occasions to discuss their goals, values, and priorities. In each instance, I was struck by the consistent, strong, and compelling commitment that they have to employ their resources and collective energies to make a difference in the lives of students and communities that they serve.
In order to cross-check these impressions, I sent a group of our senior leadership team to Naples, Florida, to meet with some of their InfiLaw counterparts. The feedback from our senior leadership group upon their return was not only highly positive, but often enthusiastic. Shortly thereafter, we invited a group of their senior staff to come to Charleston to meet with an expanded group of our CSOL senior leadership team for a day and a half. Again, the discussions were enlightening and reaffirming. As one of our senior staff said after the group had departed, “They are so like us, it’s eerie.” I would definitely agree.
A few weeks ago, at my initiation, I flew to Florida to meet with InfiLaw’s CEO to discuss the Charleston School of Law and the proposed relationship between our law school and his organization and consortium schools. The conversation was, as it had to be, candid, frank, and, at times, brutally honest. And I came away from that meeting firmly convinced of his passion and commitment to do all within his power to ensure a bright future for our law school.
As a final piece of my learning process, I wanted to hear what the people on the ground had to say about life as a member of the InfiLaw consortium, so I have just spent our spring break taking a different kind of road trip. First, I drove down to Jacksonville and did an informal site visit at Florida Coastal Law School and then later in the week I drove up to Charlotte to conduct a similar visit at the Charlotte School of Law.
On these visits, I toured the facilities, attended classes, went into classes as they ended to watch the availability and interaction of students and faculty, and discussed formally with faculty and students their impressions of the various aspects of their respective institutions. In some ways, however, perhaps what I found most enlightening of all was what I learned from the significant number of informal discussions I initiated with a broad array of students whom I approached at random in the halls, in classrooms before and after class, at their lockers, in the quiet talk areas of the library, and in the student lounge. In fact, by now I imagine that there is an alert on both campuses for a stalker in a pinstripe suit.
And from all of these trips, meetings, discussions, and dialogues, here is what I have learned. First, and in my mind most importantly, the fundamental values of InfiLaw and its member institutions are not only compatible with, but in most instances actually mirror, those of the Charleston School of Law. Above all else, they are clearly student-centric and share the same passionate commitment to students, which has always been the hallmark of the Charleston School of Law. Like us, they are focused on the success of their students and regard this as their highest priority. The positive, open relationship between their students and the faculty and staff is readily apparent in the classroom and out and is immediately identified by everyone as the best part of their respective institutions. Importantly, I found that this is occurs not by happenstance, but rather it is a value actively encouraged and consistently supported by the leadership of InfiLaw.
Second, I found that while there were common values at the InfiLaw schools, the institutions are definitely not cookie-cutter replicas of one another. Each has its own distinctive feel, and their curriculum and programs have been developed by the schools themselves, playing to their own particular strengths, opportunities, and interests, rather than being imposed from on high. The role of the central office in Naples in this regard is to support and serve as a resource for these institutional efforts. Further, taking advantage of the fact that they are part of a consortium of law schools, the schools regularly discuss their common issues and challenges and share their best practices and ideas, but ultimately the running of the school is the responsibility of each individual institution. Third, I found that the students, faculty, and staff were excited about the future of their schools.
I believe that InfilLaw recognizes that the personal-touch, student-centered, collegial culture that has been the centerpiece of the Charleston School of Law must remain at the core of our institution, because it is in many ways both our most important as well as our most distinctive asset. I believe that InfiLaw appreciates that, similar to the USC or UNC system, while common policies and economies of scale supported by a central staff can significantly benefit an institution within that system, it is essential that each school within the consortium be empowered and encouraged to develop and deploy their own unique strengths.
I believe that InfiLaw shares our enthusiasm for the tremendous potential that our unique strengths present both now and in the future. And I believe that, building upon our distinctive core, InfiLaw has and is prepared to commit the resources necessary to make that potential a reality. For all of these reasons, I am convinced that InfiLaw presents us with the best opportunity to secure a bright and vibrant future for the school we care so deeply about.
Having listened and learned and, consistent with the third prong of the “Listen, Learn, then Act” approach, I am now taking several actions. The first, obviously, is to communicate publicly with each of you my conclusions about the proposed transaction. I have also come to realize that much of the discourse to date has involved speculation about the future of our school, as if that future is something that befalls us rather than being something we can and must consciously and collaboratively craft.
Accordingly, the second action, which I will discuss with you in greater detail within the next few weeks, is the initiation of a series of internal and external dialogues with key constituents like you to discuss how collectively we can best shape the future of the Charleston School of Law. I invite and encourage you to join me in this endeavor as working together we ensure that the second decade of the Charleston School of Law is even more than successful than its first.
I want to thank you once again for all that you have done and continue to do to make the Charleston School of Law such a special place.
Andrew L. Abrams
President and Dean
Charleston School of Law
385 Meeting St.
Charleston, SC 29403
Anybody still awake? Didn’t think so …
Anyway, here’s one interrogative-laced response to Abrams’ missive we found illuminating.
I have always appreciated your willingness to respond to questions and as you can imagine your email this morning certainly brought a few questions to mind.
1. Did the “Listen, learn, then act” approach consist of listening to and/or learning about any potential option other than the Infilaw approach?
I don’t see any notation of a meeting with Ed Westbrook. Without having given him the same opportunity to discuss potential options for the law schools future that was given to Infilaw how can this be taken as anything but a shameless plug for the hedge fund that is currently signing your paycheck (not that I blame you, everyone needs a job). But it certainly seems to me that you have some skin in the game with Infilaw given they are for all intents and purpose your current employer. If not, how could any unbiased approach not involve a sit down meeting with Ed Westbrook?
2. Who comprised the CSOL senior leadership delegation that went to Florida? Who comprised CSOL senior leadership delegation that met the Infilaw delegation when they made the return trip to charleston? Where Professor Bridwell or Professor Finkel on either delegation?
3. Also, a question I haven’t seen posed elsewhere. Has anyone considered how difficult it is going to be to get volunteers for moot court competitions, legal writing adjuncts, etc. when the school is officially owned by a hedge firm? I currently donate time every time I am asked to an institution that placed me over $100,000 in student loan debt but they don’t even validate my parking when I volunteer to judge moot court or legal writing oral arguments. I cannot imagine donating my time to a hedge fund that is bound to its stakeholders to maximize profits when I am donating time for free. I’m all for capitalism, but these jokers certainly are not going to get richer off of my free labor.
I mean no disrespect by any of these questions, but if you are throwing your lot in with the jokers that I feel are going to burn the school I loved to the ground in the name of maximizing profits then I have some frank questions.
Brian P. McElreath
Luzuriaga Mims, LLP
Whoa! “Shameless plug for the hedge fund that is currently signing your paycheck?”
“Burn the school to the ground … in the name of maximizing profits?”
Gotta love that guy!
For those of you keeping score at home, Ed Westbrook is a founder of CSOL who has proposed several alternatives to the InfiLaw sale.
And here’s one more …
Due to your update today, I felt the need to respond by forwarding you the following email exchange. While I appreciate your effort to keep us informed and respect your opinion and candor, I do not feel enough attention has been paid to theresults that accompany an InfiLaw education, specifically with regard to employment and debt load.
The CSOL Alumni Association has compiled information, which I am sure you have seen, that demonstrates the three InfiLaw schools currently have full-time, permanent employment rates (as lawyers) much lower than CSOL (for example, in 2012: 53.71% for CSOL, 43.65% for Phoenix, 37.61% for Charlotte, and 35.88% for Florida Coastal, respectively). Your email states that one individual believes InfiLaw is “so like [CSOL] already, it’s eerie,” but these employment data show otherwise. The email chain below, which was forwarded to me this afternoon by someone I met doing document review here in Washington, DC, is an excellent example of the current state of the legal market. I, and many others who are opposed to CSOL’s sale to InfiLaw, fear CSOL will become a “diploma mill.” The attitude among legal employers is that we lawyers are expendable and will scramble for low-paid, temporary positions, and that the blame for this lies solely with law schools for “pumping out” lawyers (see the bolded and italicized phrase below). Turning CSOL into another diploma mill will only damage the school’s reputation. I graduated in December 2009 and have yet to find full-time, paid employment. I did spend one year earning an LL.M., and I graduated in August 2012. However, the only employment I have been able to find since that time is as an unpaid intern for an NGO, and temporary document review work. A CSOL alumna from my class who also lives in Washington, DC has only been able to find document review work. One alumni from my class (also living in DC) has gone through periods of unemployment, and a second alumna from my entering class (in DC as well) has taken a job entirely outside law. I often receive rejection letters/emails for jobs I applied to stating they received over 150, 200, or even 250 applications for the position. A class-size increase – which many of us believe is inevitable with an InfiLaw takeover – will only compound these problems.
Furthermore, alumni opposed to the InfiLaw sale are concerned about the potential increase in tuition InfiLaw will implement. When compared to the three InfiLaw schools, CSOL currently has the lowest tuition rate. However, my debt burden from attending CSOL has proven to be unmanageable. The three aforementioned alumni and I carry close to $1 million in student loan debt from attending CSOL. A $24/hour job that will neither lead to permanent employment nor further our job search in any way (because it is not considered “the practice of law”) will hardly make a dent in that debt, especially in the New York City market. I do not believe InfiLaw does enough to make incoming students aware of the reality of the current legal market or the effects the debt load will have on their personal bottom line. Indeed, Florida Coastal, for example, touts its legal clinics as helping students gain practical legal experience, which employers cite as the most marketable attribute on a graduate’s resume (source: https://fcsl.edu/Experiential-Learning). No mention is made, other than the total cost of tuition (found here: https://fcsl.edu/jd-program-glance), of how hard it is to find a job that will pay enough to cover monthly living expenses and student loan payments with that amount of debt. I know of many CSOL graduates with full-time, permanent employment who struggle to make their student loan payments every month. Higher tuition is not an InfiLaw practice that would benefit CSOL.
How will partnering with InfiLaw fix these problems, Dean Abrams? I feel attending CSOL was a terrible mistake, and CSOL’s founders and InfiLaw representatives have intimated they do not care about opposing alumni opinions. Their attitude that this sale will go through come hell or high water is a slap in the face to the hundreds of alumni who mortgaged their futures to attend an institution they actively selected over an InfiLaw one. I, and many others, feel abandoned and used by CSOL.
CSOL Graduate, December 2009
As we’ve said from the beginning of this drama, (to the extent we care) we’re with the students, alumni, faculty and staff at CSOL – all of whom overwhelmingly view this as a bad deal.
Still, that doesn’t mean state government should interfere with a private sector transaction … and it certainly doesn’t mean this mediocre institution should be assimilated into South Carolina’s bloated network of government-run institutions.