Politics & Government

Charlotte School of Law crisis resurrects talks of a law school at UNCC

Phil Dubois, chancellor of UNC Charlotte, says the deepening problems at Charlotte School of Law will resurrect discussions on whether his school should open its own legal training facility
Phil Dubois, chancellor of UNC Charlotte, says the deepening problems at Charlotte School of Law will resurrect discussions on whether his school should open its own legal training facility Observer staff

Long-running problems that may close the Charlotte School of Law have resurrected talks of a public law school at UNC Charlotte.

Chancellor Phil Dubois told the Observer Thursday that “given the developments” at the law school, he will reopen discussions of a UNCC law program next month during the school’s board of trustees meeting.

The 29,000-student university in north Charlotte was investigating the addition of a law school in 2008 when the recession savaged university budgets and shrunk law firms. The profession has not fully recovered, and law school applications remain down across the country.

For years, Charlotte billed itself as the largest city in the country without a law school. The for-profit Charlotte School of Law opened in 2006, but did not derail discussions for a legal facility at UNCC.

“I think there was a plausible case then to justify the need for an additional public law school in North Carolina. But the Great Recession laid waste to the idea,” Dubois said.

“Even if we could justify the need and get past the perception in some quarters that the world does not need more lawyers, it is far from clear that the funding case could be made either with the UNC Board of Governors or the General Assembly.”

The University of North Carolina System has two law schools: at UNC-Chapel Hill and at N.C. Central University in Durham. Four other universities – Duke, Wake Forest, Elon and Campbell – also operate law schools.

Charlotte School of Law is the state’s only for-profit facility. Its future is in doubt. In November, the school was placed on two-year probation by the American Bar Association, which cited systemic problems with admissions, curriculum, bar examination test scores and job placement. The accrediting group also said school leaders hid the shortcomings from students.

Citing the same problems and coverup, the U.S. Department of Education cut off student access to taxpayer-backed tuition loans in December. Last year, the school’s students received almost $50 million in DOE loans.

Nonetheless, the school announced late last week that it will reopen for the spring semester on Monday, a week later than scheduled. However, leaders continue to evade questions on whether the College Street school will remain open beyond that point.

In a statement to students Wednesday night, school leaders say they are trying to renew the government loans for eligible students while arranging alternative financing for those who need it. CSL also has confirmed that it is negotiating with the government and bar association over the terms of a “teach out” plan, a procedure in which a closing facility partners with another accredited law school so students can complete their educations.

In CSL’s case, dean Jay Conison says the teach-out discussions involve Florida Coastal School of Law. Both institutions are part of the InfiLaw for-profit chain. If approved, the plan would enable the Charlotte School of Law students to complete their degrees in Charlotte under the direction of the Florida school.

However, Florida Coastal has problems of its own.

On Wednesday, the Jacksonville school was among two institutions singled out for failing the Department of Education’s “gainful employment list.” That means Florida Coastal grads carry extremely high student-loan debt compared to their earnings. If the school lands on the list for a second year in a row, it, like CSL, would lose access to student loans.

According to the National Law Journal, Charlotte School of Law was one of three schools on the next tier of the gainful-employment list who are close the failing the standard and must improve to remain in good standing with the federal government. The DOE added the rule in 2010 to increase accountability of higher education and better watchdog for-profit schools, which critics say collect tuition from students who have little chance of doing the course work or passing the bar. Those students often end up with six-figure debts that they can’t repay.

Rob Barchiesi, a third-year law student who has already sued CSL on grounds of fraud, said the apparent partnership with Florida Coastal leaves the Charlotte student body without a good choice.

“Students who graduate this semester graduate from a school that is (probably) closing its doors. But if the student waits for the teach-out, they graduate from a school that is likely to be shut down by the bar association and the DOE,” Barchiesi said. “InfiLaw is able to keep the profits. It’s essentially the old cup and ball trick used by hustlers on the street.”

In the past, Charlotte School of Law and UNC Charlotte offered a joint MBA and other academic programs, but the affiliation ended as student interest ebbed and the law school’s problems surfaced.

Dubois says UNCC must now determine that in an era of limited higher-education resources. “Is there any evidence that Charlotte needs additional lawyers?”

Asked if UNCC might be interested in buying Charlotte School of Law, he replied, “The first question I’d have is how smart would it be to acquire a damaged asset.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS