Probationary Actions: Charlotte-an School of Law

This morning came with the news from Andrew Dunn on breaking out the news that Charlotte School of Law , much like Delta Tau Chi, has found itself placed on probation by the American Bar Association. In a statement released by the American Bar Association, it’s clear that the probation is not “super secret double probation” that can be resolved with a rousing party and the crashing of the homecoming parade. Instead, the school’s probation follows a decision letter from the accreditation committee regarding Charlotte Law’s allegedly low standards and the appeal therefrom, and essentially upholds the determination letter by stating:

[T]he Council affirmed the Committee’s conclusions that the Law School is not in compliance with Standards 301(a), 501(a), and 501(b).

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise the Charlotte School of Law community, though, as for the last four administrations of the bar exam the first-time passage rate has been less than 50%, dipping as low as 34.7% this past February. Of course, even the bar passage rate shouldn’t be a surprise, considering in 2015 their LSAT score range was from a 25% percentile score of 140 all the way to the blistering high LSAT score in the 75% percentile of 145, and GPA’s ranging from a low of 2.51 to a sky-high average of 3.17. Notably, these statements are from Charlotte School of Law’s own 509 Disclosure.

Well, isn’t that just comforting.

Here are the pertinent facts: the Charlotte School of Law was founded in 2006. It was provisionally accredited by the ABA in 2008, and fully accredited in 2011. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of ABA accreditation, here’s what you need to know: A law school is sort of like a lawyer. If you’re unaccredited, then essentially you aren’t a lawyer unless your state says otherwise. If you’re provisionally accredited, you have a limited practice certificate that lets you act like a lawyer, but not yet be a lawyer although you might start looking into jobs for law school graduates to help you get on your way. If you’re fully accredited, you’ve passed the bar. Considering that only Alabama, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, West Virginia, and Tennessee allow you to sit for the bar exam without attending an ABA accredited law school (although Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming, plus New York, allow you to “read the law”), this is a Big Deal. All in all, out of the 50 states, 39 require that you attend an ABA accredited school to be a lawyer. Notably, North Carolina is not one of those states that made exceptions for state, but not ABA, accredited schools.

Provisional accreditation occurs after a year or so, and allows a school to graduate students as if they were fully accredited. After three years, a school can apply to be fully accredited. Here, the ABA has a decent guide for this process. What’s important to know, though, is that accreditation is a big fucking deal. Schools that are denied provisional accreditation often shut down because their students flee elsewhere. Schools that are denied full accreditation do the same, and for the same reason. Law school costs a lot of money, and there’s no sense in going if afterwards you can’t practice law.

Much like attorneys, even after the school is accredited, it still has to abide by certain standards in order to be able to graduate students. With Charlotte, three standards apply that the school has, according to the ABA, failed to maintain: 301(a), 501(a), and 501(b).

301(a) requires:

A law school shall maintain a rigorous program of legal education that prepares its students, upon graduation, for admission to the bar and for effective, ethical, and responsible participation as members of the legal profession.

501(a) requires:

A law school shall maintain sound admission policies and practices consistent with the Standards, its mission, and the objectives of its program of legal education.

501(b) requires:

A law school shall not admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar

Read altogether, these three requirements say one thing: an ABA accredited law school must admit applicants that are likely to be admitted to the bar, must structure its admissions policies around that, and must prepare students to not only pass law school, but enter into the practice of law. For the past four administrations of the North Carolina Bar Exam, Charlotte has failed to do that, from its own disclosures accepting students with low LSAT scores and then acting surprised when those same students fail to pass the bar.

Further, in addition to the normal compliance stuff, Charlotte is also required to now tell law students, at the end of each semester, how likely they are (based on their class rank) to pass or fail the bar exam based on the last six administrations of the exam for students that have attended Charlotte. Why does this matter? Because Charlotte’s 3-year cost of attendance and median student loan debt per student is $161,910.00. Divided amongst three years, that means students are incurring $53,970.00 of non-dischargeable student loan debt per year.

Let me ask you a question: If someone walked up to you after an exam and said “by the way, based on your performance, you only have a 10% chance of ever actually practicing law,” would you go further in debt? Maybe you start rethinking that MBA. Given the bar pass rates, Charlotte is likely to lose students as a result of this, and lose them fast. Being high-spirited is one thing, being high-spirited when the odds are stuck in your face and the gamble is a long one, not so much.

And, to some extent, Charlotte and schools like it that are facing the current crackdown have nobody but themselves to blame. For the past 16 years, since 2000, there have been new law schools opening at an average rate of 1.3 schools per year. At last count, there were 204 ABA accredited law schools in the United States, or about four schools for each state (although some states host only one accredited law school). Meanwhile, law school enrollment is dropping like a brick from the halcyon days of 2010, and most of those schools out there are “for profit” private law schools, not associated with a state-funded public university, meaning, in part, they aren’t charities that have the almighty tax dollar to fall back on.

When faced with the prospect of keeping standards for admission high, or dropping those standards to keep enrollment, and profits, high, it appears law schools have chosen the latter. And that’s because legal education, like law practice itself, is a business. Still, when a student racks up $161,910.00 in debt that will haunt them for the rest of their days, and still likely be unable to pass the bar, we gotta take a step back and ask “what the fuck is going on here?” It looks like with Charlotte, and also with Valparaiso University School of Law, they’re finally starting to do that.

Three years after the bar passage rates began dropping like a rock.

Still, better only three years worth of people who may not have had any business being in law school in the first place lug around six figure student loan debts than to allow it to continue.

But, at the same time, at no point did the ABA, which is the accrediting association, step in and completely close the door on the formation of new schools and the protection of not just the legal education marker, but in fact the protection of the profession itself. At least until recently, when it became exceedingly clear law schools have been admitting students who have no hope of ever appending “Esquire” after their name when they want to sound like a pretentious asshole.

Hopefully, these students who were misled into believing their acceptance to a law school, any law school, would lead them to be attorneys will be able to find one of those plentiful and profitable “J.D. Preferred” jobs the schools keep talking about.