In an e-mail from the Charlotte administration to its students sent on January 3, the Dean and President of Charlotte informed students:
We are actively pursuing an arrangement with Florida Coastal School of Law to ensure that regardless of our dispute with ED our students can complete their program of study and receive an ABA-accredited degree. We have been actively working with our regulators respecting this arrangement.
We hope to have in place by the end of the week a specific process for transferring to Coastal, including for students with fewer or more than 30 credits.
This e-mail, along with an earlier e-mail, suggested that Coastal students would be guaranteed a place at Florida Coastal.
Not so fast, says Florida Coastal Dean Scott Devito. In an e-mail sent to all Florida Coastal students on January 5th, he stated:
At present, there exists a misconception that Coastal Law is going to effectively allow any Charlotte Law student to transfer to Coastal.
Let me be clear. That is not true.
. . .we will only allow students to transfer to Coastal if the student’s academic credentials (including LSAT, undergraduate GPA, and law school GPA) demonstrate that the student has a high probability of passing the bar.
. . . A concern that has been raised by faculty, students, and staff is that too many Charlotte students will apply to transfer here. I do not believe this will be the case.
. . .we will only accept students who meet our criteria for admission to the law school—a central feature of such criteria is that the student’s academic credentials demonstrate that they are highly likely to succeed in law school and pass the bar. This will limit the students who will be able to transfer to Coastal Law.
So it seems that Florida Coastal has suddenly developed a superiority complex vis-à-vis its neighbor to the north. Students and faculty don’t want to be overrun with inferior students from Charlotte Law School who will imperil their already precarious position with the ABA, but they are willing to cherry pick the best students from Charlotte who are likely bar passers. For the rest of the legal profession, that views Infilaw schools as essentially interchangeable, it is interesting to see this sudden sibling rivalry. (It should be noted that Coastal President Dennis Stone was previously Dean and President at Charlotte, and Charlotte President Chidi Ogene was previously Dean at Florida Coastal.)
In truth, I can’t blame Florida Coastal for taking this position. ABA Standards require that law schools only admit students who are reasonably likely to succeed, so it may be that all they are doing is complying with this rule. And with the new 75% bar pass standard looming, Florida Coastal can ill-afford to admit any students who are likely bar failers.
But Dean Devito is not being completely forthright with Florida Coastal students. In his e-mail he stated:
We at Coastal Law have worked very hard to improve our bar pass and career placement rates. To do so, we have steadily raised our admission credentials over the last three years and will continue to do so.
. . .we will not undermine the work that President Stone began three years ago.
TFL readers will recall that I was a finalist to be the Dean at Florida Coastal in the spring of 2014. As part of my preparations for the visit, I was provided with the projected incoming class credentials for the fall of 2014. The night prior to my Dean candidate talk, I had dinner with President Stone, and expressed concern that students of the caliber that they were admitting would have difficulty passing the bar. I pressed him specifically to provide evidence that students with LSATs of 144 and below were likely to pass the bar. He dismissed my concerns and informed me that he expected the bar pass rate to soon exceed 80%. When I challenged these assumptions at my job talk the next day, President Stone threw me out. So, what exactly was the “work that President Stone began three years ago”? If he set out to destroy the reputation of the school, he has succeeded. If it was to improve the school, as Dean Devito’s e-mail suggests, it is not clear that his efforts have borne fruit.
Let’s take a look at the data:
Has Florida Coastal steadily raised its admission credentials over the last three years? As the chart below demonstrates, no. Florida Coastal lowered its standards across the board from 2013 to 2014 and improved them slightly in 2015 and 2016. The 2016 numbers are lower than the 2013 numbers at 50% and 25% UGPA, a tiny bit higher and GPA 75 (.01) and LSAT 75 (1 point) and the same at the 50th and 25th percentile LSAT. In other words, the 2016 class is statistically virtually identical to the 2013 class, which was unconscionably weak.
Year GPA75 50 25 LSAT75 50 25
2013 3.26 2.97 2.69 148 144 141
2014 3.20 2.93 2.63 147 143 140
2015 3.29 2.88 2.54 148 144 141
2016 3.27 2.87 2.57 149 144 141
Now it is true that Dean Devito announced a plan to raise admission credentials for the next admissions cycle, but there is no evidence that the announced goal has been realized.
So, how about the claim that they have worked very hard to improve their bar pass rate? Well, if they have worked hard, it has not yielded any results, as the following chart demonstrates:
Year Bar Pass Rate
* For these years, Florida Coastal reported between 70 and 75% of its students who took the bar in Florida and Georgia only (as permitted by ABA Standards). Based on reporting from California, the actual bar pass rate, if all students were included, would be lower. For example, Coastal students were 0 for 4 on the July 2015 California bar, 1 for 3 on the Feb 2015 bar, 1 for 12 on the July 2014 bar, 0 for 2 on the February 2014 bar, 1 for 10 on the July 2013 bar, and 1 for 2 on the Feb 2013 bar.
** This figure is for Florida Coastal grads who took the Florida bar in February and July 2016 (99 of 209 passed). Other state results are not yet available.
So, what is really going on here? There are some hints in Dean Devito’s email that Florida Coastal is itself under scrutiny by regulators right now, as suggested by this cryptic language:
“Current circumstances indicate that we must stay this course and possibly accelerate it.”
What “current circumstances” is Dean Devito referring to? Is he referring to the bar passage rule change, or something else? Inquiring minds want to know. My best guess is that Florida Coastal has received some kind of additional scrutiny from the ABA with respect to their admissions practices, as schools with similar admissions practices (Valparaiso, Charlotte and Ave Maria) have all been subjected to sanctions by the ABA in recent months. This scrutiny by the ABA likely was the cause of Dean Devito’s announced plan to raise admissions standards.
If Florida Coastal has been informed by the ABA about concerns of non-compliance with ABA standards, then Florida Coastal should make this information known to current and prospective students. Even if ABA rules may allow such communications to remain confidential, the Department of Education has stated that law schools have a fiduciary duty to inform current and prospective students of any relevant information that may affect the accreditation status of the school. Any communication that suggest a school is or may be out of compliance with standards and needs to take corrective action would seem to fall into that category.
A lack of transparency at Charlotte may have doomed the school to go out of business. All ABA-accredited law schools, but especially Infilaw schools, should heed this warning, and start erring on the side of full disclosure.