For-Profit Law Schools: Impacting the Future of Legal Education

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The InfiLaw System, a for-profit company that owns several law schools and professional development firms, is challenging the status quo in legal education in a way similar to for-profit education companies such as University of Phoenix, Strayer, and DeVry. However, recent features in the Wall Street Journal, the ABA Journal, and the Charleston Post and Courier suggest that this new approach has not been wholly well-received.

InfiLaw applies its profit-oriented approach to legal education. According to its website, InfiLaw creates curricula based on “emerging market realities,” job demand, job competition, and return on investment. Founded in 2004 by Sterling Partners, a private-equity group, InfiLaw quickly purchased two for-profit independent schools, Florida Coastal School of Law (Jacksonville, FL) and Phoenix School of Law (Phoenix, AZ). The latter was renamed Arizona Summit Law School in November 2013.  In 2006, North Carolina’s Charlotte School of Law was added to the roster, and this year Charleston School of Law in South Carolina is in the process of transitioning to the InfiLaw group.

Proponents of for-profit education argue that it responds to market forces, providing educational opportunities to traditionally underserved students who in turn become more valuable to employers.  Critics claim that for-profit institutions are simply numbers-oriented “diploma mills” that push students through programs of questionable quality with the goal of increasing the revenues of the equity firms that own these institutions. For instance, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee found that “actual instruction [at for-profit institutions] made up a paltry 17.2 percent of expenses.” The magazine Diverse Education explains: “according to the U.S. Department of Education, students at for-profit institutions represent 12 percent of all higher education students, 26 percent of all student loans and 46 percent of all student loan dollars in default. […]  On average, students at four-year public and private institutions earn higher wages upon graduation than those at for-profit institutions.” However, accreditation standards for for-profit schools have slowed the “diploma mill endemic,” say researchers from the Center of College Affordability and Productivity

William Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University, told the Wall Street Journal, “InfiLaw is applying a private-equity model to legal education…I think these are people who could make a difference in legal education.”  InfiLaw supporters argue that the consortium provides opportunities to a number of students who otherwise might not be able to study law. The Wall Street Journal’s Ashby Jones explained that these for-profit models are not “designed to compete with the Harvards and Stanfords[…] the approach […] has mostly been to target students, including many minorities, whose grade point averages or LSAT scores don’t qualify them for admission at the top schools” (link; subscribers only.) InfiLaw has committed to provide students with more feedback and hands-on learning than traditional law schools do, plus they’re offering 400 hours of work experience by the time students graduate.  The InfiLaw website states that their schools aim to uphold three main principles:

  • Serve the underserved
  • Provide education that is “student-outcome centered”
  • Graduate students who are “practice-ready”

With tuition at about $40,000 per year, this legal education alternative does not come cheap, but then neither does a law degree from a traditional school.  The New York Times reported the average tuition for a private law school in 2012 was $40,500 and for public law schools the tuition was $23,600.  The median debt for students graduating from either a public university or private, nonprofit law school is now well over $100,000.  This year, the U.S. News and World Report ranked Phoenix School of Law third in the nation in average indebtedness of law school graduates, after private, nonprofit Thomas Jefferson School of Law and private, nonprofit California Western School of Law. 97% of Phoenix’s graduates had debt, which averaged $162,627 per graduate.  Florida Coastal and Charleston students were also in the top 25 indebted, with $143,111 (92%) and $141,457 (88%). Charlotte graduates ranked much lower with $115,747 (90%), beating Harvard Law graduates, 80% of whom average $124,312 in debt.

WSJ’s Jones wrote that critics believe InfiLaw is “compounding problems in the legal education by graduating far more students than there are entry-level jobs for lawyers.” The WSJ goes on to state that former InfiLaw students have accused the firm of predatory enterprise practices (false assurances in exchange for high tuition), peddling certificates and degrees to the masses.

In recent results from state bar exams, Florida Coastal School of Law had a 67.4% passing rate; Charleston School of Law posted 68.9%, up from the previous exam’s 59.2%; and Charlotte School of Law reported 58%. On the other hand, one of the top-scoring individuals for the Arizona bar exam was a 2013 graduate of the Phoenix School of Law.  By comparison, private, nonprofit law schools such as University of Miami School of Law had a 79.3% passing rate and North Carolina’s Duke University School of Law posted a 96.1%.  While public, non-profits such as University of South Carolina School of Law had an 82.5% passing rate and University of Arizona School of Law posted an 89% passing rate.

What are your thoughts on for-profit education?  Do you think it is negatively or positively impacting the future of legal education?  Let us know on our Discussion Forum

 

Sources:

InfiLaw: “Our Schools

Wall Street Journal: “Private-Equity Group’s for-Profit Law School Plan Draws Critics” (subscribers only)

U.S. News & World Report“Which law school graduates have the most debt?”

FloridaBarExam.org

FITSNews:  2013:  SC Bar Exam Results Released

North Carolina Board of Law Examiners

Supreme Court of Arizona

University of Arizona School of Law

Time.com:  “Just how bad off are law school graduates?”

New York Times:  “Law schools’ applications fall as costs rise and jobs are cut”

Charleston Post and Courier: “Charleston School of Law Founders Proceeding with Plans to Sell to InfiLaw System

ABA Journal: “Are InfiLaw’s for-profit law schools succeeding?  Plan to buy fourth school spurs concerns

Hayes, Dianne.  “The for-profit conundrum.”  Diverse Education (August 16, 2012),

http://diverseeducation.com/article/17311/.

Bennett, D.L, Lucchesi, A.R., Vedder, R.K..  “For-Profit Higher Education – growth, innovation and regulation.” Center for College Affordability and Productivity (July 2010).