InfiLaw Swoops In On Struggling Law School

Inside the Charleston School of Law: if nothing else, the facilities are nice.

Inside the Charleston School of Law: if nothing else, the facilities are nice.

Can a company backed by a private equity fund run a legitimate law school? That’s what Charleston School of Law students, alumni, and faculty members are asking as InfiLaw goes through the motions of buying the school.

In fact, many students aren’t even waiting around to see where the cards fall. The sale was announced in August; 41 students have transferred this year, about 64% more than last year, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

InfiLaw, founded by Sterling Partners in 2004 , already runs the Charlotte School of Law, the Florida Coastal School of Law, and the Phoenix School of Law—none of which are ranked by U.S. News. Charleston is poised to be next: On Tuesday, an InfiLaw spokesperson told the ABA Journal that the company is applying for a license with the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.

Charleston, a for-profit institution founded in 2003, doesn’t exactly have Harvard credentials—or University of South Carolina credentials, for that matter. But locals maintain that it has a certain respectability, especially when compared with InfiLaw. “We don’t want someone with a terrible reputation in our backyard,” alumnus and state representative Stephen Goldfinch said, expressing concern about the next generation of South Carolina lawyers to the Charleston City Paper. “We want the utmost integrity, and we want the best lawyers we can get.”

But InfiLaw doesn’t cater to the strongest applicants. Its website lists three components of its mission: “serving the underserved,” “student-outcome centered” education, and producing “practice-ready” graduates.

While these statements sound harmless, the fine print is that InfiLaw targets students who don’t have the grades or the LSAT scores to get into higher tier schools, schools where employment prospects are generally brighter. Student outcomes at the InfiLaw schools have been less than great: In 2012, former Florida Coastal students sued the school for misrepresenting employment prospects, saying that though it lured candidates by touting 80% to 95% employment rates, it didn’t make the distinction between graduates who were working as lawyers and graduates who were simply working. InfiLaw CEO Rick Inatome dismissed the lawsuit as “without merit” to the Charleston City Paper.

In June, InfiLaw was hit with yet another lawsuit. Two professors at Phoenix sued both the school and the company, saying they had been fired after opposing measures that would make transferring more difficult.

In light of these lawsuits, objections to the sale aren’t surprising. But as things stand, Charleston’s tuition is $37,874—the average tuition for the InfiLaw schools is about $39,000—and 59.6% of the class of 2011 was employed within 9 months of graduation, according to U.S. News’ data.

The school needs help. Whether InfiLaw will provide the right kind is up in the air.

  • csolobserver

    Where do you get the information that the school needs help? It doesn’t. The school was doing fine (economically, at least) before Infilaw swooped in.

    • Oracle

      The investors are the ones who “need help.” They want a return on investment, and they want it now. Follow the money.

      • Native Ink

        And the city of Charleston gave those investors sweetheart deals, especially on prime real estate downtown, in return for the promise of having a top-notch law school. Now those investors are making a small fortune by selling what they acquired to a third-rate outfit. No wonder the city is furious.

  • CharlestonNative

    The school needs help due to low bar pass rates and low placement rates (at least lower in general than Infilaw schools) as mentioned in the article. over 50 law schools, including the Florida Coastal school, were sued under the same grounds and all of them that have gone before a judge have been dismissed because they were without merit.

    • Peter Goplerud

      The school has higher placement rates and better bar passage rates then both Florida Coastal and Charlotte. Although other schools have been sued on similar grounds, few schools have their own faculty members filing suit for practices that prevent transferring and handicap their students.

      • Jason

        According to CharlotteLaw’s website, their SC bar passage rate over the past 4 years is the same as USC’s and ten percentage points higher than Charleston.

  • Clearview

    The negative assessments and bad-mouthing of InfiLaw may be a tribute to rather than negative reflection upon the organization. Change is long overdue in legal education if it is to remain relevant to the legal profession. Change leaders in their initial life cycle invariably are subject to ridicule, fear-mongering, and uninformed judgment. Once people get beyond stereotypes and begin to trade upon informed judgment, the discredited innovator suddenly becomes the respected leader of its field. It happened with Langdell — the architect of contemporary (but increasingly obsolete) legal education. The establishment’s response to his model he introduced to Harvard Law School in the 1870s is precisely what we are hearing about InfiLaw today. Is history repeating itself? Check out these comments in the Wall Street Journal — “InfiLaw is applying a private-equity model to legal education, and so far I’m fairly impressed by what I’ve seen,” said William Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University who studies the legal profession. . . . I think these are people who could make a difference in legal education.”

    • Peter Goplerud

      Henderson works for InfiLaw. If this is the PR firm InfiLaw hired to “combat the negative and false statements on the internet,” I think they should ask for their money back.

    • Oracle

      Can you say “shill”? I can.

  • Chester

    Just because Infilaw gets involved to any degree with the Charleston School of Law doesn’t necessarily mean the outcomes for the students will improve. If the calibre of the student doesn’t improve, then the outcomes won’t improve. Money from a venture capital company can’t buy aptitude.