Charlotte School of Law promises higher pass rates after landing on probation

Charlotte School of Law has been hit with two years of probation by the American Bar Association concerns its admission standards and preparation of its students. School leaders say changes have already been made that should bring the school back into compliance.
Charlotte School of Law has been hit with two years of probation by the American Bar Association concerns its admission standards and preparation of its students. School leaders say changes have already been made that should bring the school back into compliance. Michael Gordon

After years of falling test scores, the Charlotte School of Law has been placed on two year’s probation by its accrediting agency.

In taking the action, the American Bar Association has publicly criticized the for-profit school’s admission standards and its plummeting pass rates on the bar exam.

The ABA, which fully accredited the Charlotte school in 2011, has given the school 30 days to deliver a report on how it plans to fix the problems.

The school also is required to tell students how many are passing the bar exam.

The passing rate, 45 percent on the most recent exam this summer, is the lowest in North Carolina, a full 20 percentage points beneath the state average. Faculty turnover has been a growing problem, and as with many law schools, enrollment has fallen.

Failure to meet the bar association’s demands carries a list of penalties, from fines and censure to a loss of accreditation. An unaccredited school means the students can’t qualify for federal loans or take the bar exam in many states.

Charlotte School of Law Dean Jay Conison, says the school already has a comprehensive plan in place to increase the requirements for incoming students while adding programs and academic support to improve student performance on the bar exam.

“We are extremely disappointed over the news we got Monday,” he said, but added. “We have an obligation to make some improvements. And we have a very, very comprehensive plan that we are very confident in.” He predicted the school would be back in ABA compliance well within the two-year window.

The probation took effect this week, according to a notice posted by the bar association. According to that notice, the association held a hearing in late October, then made these demands of the school:

▪ Within five business days, Charlotte School of Law must notify students that it is on probation and “publish (the notice) prominently on its website.” As of Thursday, the school’s site described the school as “fully approved” by the ABA.

▪ The school must notify each student in writing of its graduates’ success rates on the North and South Carolina bar exams.

▪ The school must report on its admission data and practices by Dec. 15, explaining whether and how it uses factors other than grade point averages and LSAT scores.

The school must also present a plan for compliance by the same deadline.

An opportunity

Charlotte School of Law, a part of the InfiLaw for-profit group that also operates a law school in both Arizona and Florida, opened in Charlotte in 2006. It hired a faculty that included Ivy League alums. Prominent lawyers and judges became – and remain – adjunct teachers.

Enrollment increased so quickly that the school quickly outgrew its shiny home on Wilkinson Boulevard for much larger quarters in a high-rise on College Street.

From the start, the school billed itself as atypical – geared toward giving nontraditional law school applicants a doorway to a career. The cost to students was high – an estimated $60,000 a year for tuition, housing and fees.

The school’s expansion, however, collided head-on with the economic crash of 2008, a downturn from which the legal industry has still not fully recovered. With fewer jobs waiting, applications to law schools fell nationwide, increasing the competition for students willing to take on enormous student debt without guaranteed employment.

Enrollment at Charlotte Law dropped. Enrollment fell from a high of 1,400 to about half that number today. The downturn forced it and similar schools to admit students far less prepared for the academic rigors, says a former longtime faculty member of the school.

“I certainly think the faculty and students could see some marked differences in the preparation and ability of the incoming students,” said the former teacher, who asked not to be named because of a professional relationship with the school.

Over the years, he said, faculty frustration grew at the administration’s “failure to recognize that we were admitting students who did not have a realistic chance of success.” He blames the school’s economic model “for a lot of admission decisions that have been driven by the need to put butts in the seats.”

Student test scores bear him out. The school’s first time bar exam passage rate peaked in July 2010 at 87 percent. It hit 79 percent a year later. But the latter marked the first time that the Charlotte scores fell below the state average, and they’ve been been falling steadily ever since, hitting a low of 35 percent passage last winter. The state average for the same test was 51 percent.

Conison says the school is confident that the scores have “bottomed out,” and that improvements now in place – including a return to stricter entrance requirements – will lead to rapid improvement in the years ahead.

Two students, two views

Citing years of admitting unprepared students, the former faculty member says scores could continue to fall. He says he resigned because he saw too many students saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans who had no chance of getting a law license.

“I just couldn’t do that anymore,” he said. “They have students who would do great anywhere, and there are students who shouldn’t be there at all. They have to find a balance. We crossed the Rubicon at some point and lost sight of that.”

Amy Negron, a University of Central Florida grad, entered the Charlotte school in 2011 after borrowing money from her parents to pay $3,000 for two online courses that supposedly would gauge her chances of success as a full-time student. She says the classes were online, met for a couple hours a week, and that all the tests were multiple choice. She says she passed easily.

A month into her formal law school classes, Negron said she was overwhelmed by classes that bore no resemblance to what she had taken during the summer. She left after one semester, saddled with a $30,000 debt that she’s still paying off.

“I definitely felt misled,” said Negron, who lives in Charlotte and works in the mortgage industry. “That program they sold me doesn’t get you ready for anything. It’s taking $3,000 from people for a joke ... I hope the ABA forces them to abolish it.”

Conison, who joined the school in April 2013, said he was surprised by the criticism. He said the courses are used by other law schools and students with whom he’s talked described them as “quite rigorous.”

Nicole Haynes, a 2014 Charlotte School of Law graduate, says she quickly landed a job with a Charlotte firm. Now she’s worried that the probation will damage the brand of her school and her legal training.

Haynes says her education was excellent, led by a faculty with “Ivy League credentials” that continue to mentor her and other students.

But she said the school’s admission policies and bar exam passing rates “go hand in hand, when some of the students you accept lack some of the abilities that would allow them to pass the bar later.”

She says she hopeful the school’s performance will recover. In fact she’s counting on it to protect the value of her own Charlotte School of Law diploma.

“It’s hanging on the wall of my office,” she said. “I worked hard for it.”

Ann Doss Helms contributed.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

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