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.