Possible Sale To For-Profit Company Calls Law School Identity Into Question

June 4, 2014

Law School 3Charleston, South Carolina, seems like too genteel of a place to nurture much debate.

It has, however, provided the setting for a serious hashing-out of what our philosophy of law schools should be.

Twelve years  ago, The Charleston School of Law was founded by five judges and lawyers. It was not meant to join the ivy-clad ranks of esteemed academic institutions; rather, it served the more utilitarian purpose of giving Charleston a second law school and training graduates to fill local jobs.

Charleston School of Law did well for several years, but applications and enrollment have recently waned to a greater degree than they have at most other schools.

Last year, InfiniLaw, a company that owns three of the six for-profit law schools in the U.S., agreed to buy Charleston School of Law. As the deal has inched toward regulatory approval, ire over the sale has grown audible, and the resulting discourse has revealed some interesting – and different – attitudes toward legal education.

Here are the prominent themes running through discourse over this issue, each coupled with a counter-thought or two.

  • Law schools are not supposed to be “profit centers”: Maybe so, but many have been significant sources of revenue for their parent universities. In the case of Charleston School of Law, the five founding partners have netted something like $25 million since its opening, according to The New York Times DealBook. Imagining that legal education is not or should not be a source of profit is noble, but perhaps not an ideal that is borne out by reality.
  • InfiniLaw is a “diploma mill” that will lower standards: Critics like Above the Law have lambasted InfiniLaw for having low academic standards for applicants and an interest in money, not legal training or scholarship. Even if that is true, an Infinilaw-owned Charleston School of Law would be in good company. Many law school critics believe that the clip at which new law schools have opened has watered down standards across the board; in the same post in which it calls Infinilaw a diploma mill, Above the Law said the American Bar Association “rubber-stamps” new institutions, implying that it does so with no inquiry into their rigor or fitness of instruction and academic integrity.
  • Infinilaw does not do a good job of managing law schools: That is an assertion that is as complex as it gets bold. There are some who say the Infinilaw deal caused Charleston School of Law to bungle its finances. However, when Infinilaw took over Florida Coastal School of Law, its bar passage rate improved and it seems to be doing better than when it was its own institution. So, it sounds like it all depends on what your concept of “good” is.

The possible sale of Charleston School of Law symbolizes a much more complex discussion that cannot and will not be summed up in one transaction (or, indeed, in one blog post). One has to imagine, though, that this is less of an isolated incident and more of a signifier of change in the legal education field.