Earlier this week, Florida released the February 2017 bar exam results for first-time takers from Florida ABA-Accredited Law Schools. Florida Coastal was the lowest by a considerable margin. Twelve of forty-eight first-time takers passed, for a 25% rate. Florida Coastal thus joins both its sister schools with the dubious distinction of having a 25% pass rate on its home state bar exam. Charlotte Law grads also had a 25% pass rate (18 of 72) on the February bar, just edging Arizona Summit’s historically bad performance on the July 2016 bar in Arizona, where 18 of 73 first-time takers passed for a 24.6% rate. (Arizona's February bar results will be released May 12.)
Florida Coastal remains the sole InfiLaw school which has not been placed on probation by the ABA, and according to an e-mail I received on March 27 from Dean Scott DeVito, “Florida Coastal has not received any information from the ABA that would indicate that the ABA is considering placing Florida Coastal on probation. Nor has the ABA provided Florida Coastal with any indication that it is thinking of beginning proceedings whose outcome could be probation.”
Of course, that e-mail was sent before these results came out, so perhaps Dean DeVito spoke too soon. But assuming Dean DeVito’s answer to still be accurate, my question is: why isn’t the ABA considering placing Florida Coastal on probation?
It is true that Florida Coastal’s bar passage woes have not been quite as severe as Arizona Summit and Charlotte School of Law. Despite a downward trend, they were within 15% of the state average in 2013, 2014, and 2015 (-10%, -12% and -7%, respectively). But last year, their bar pass rate took a nose-dive. In 2016, 16 of 49 (32.7%) Florida Coastal first-time takers passed the February 2016 Florida bar, while 83 out of 160 (51.9%) passed the July 2016 Florida bar. The combined total for 2016 was 99 of 209, or 47.4%. The final numbers are not out for 2016, but Florida Coastal will probably be more than 15% below the state average for 2016 or very close.
And there is no reason to believe that results will be any better this summer.
The 2013 class was an extremely weak class with LSATs at 148/144/141 and UGPA at 3.26/2.97/2.69, but the 2014 entering class was weaker across the board: LSAT 147/143/140 and UGPA 3.20/2.93/2.63. In fact, the entrance credentials of Florida Coastal’s admitted students in 2013 and 2014 were not meaningfully different than students at Charlotte Law and Arizona Summit, or Valparaiso or Ave Maria for that matter, the other schools found to be out of compliance with Standard 501 by the ABA. This summer, as the fall entering class of 2014 graduates, the first-time pass rate could very easily drop int0 the 40s or lower. At the very least, that should warrant a censure from the ABA, even if the school has voluntarily begun to take steps to get back into compliance with ABA Standards.
But there may be light at the end of the tunnel for Florida Coastal. Under the leadership of Dean DeVito, Florida Coastal has significantly raised its admission standards this year. According to Dean DeVito, their spring start class of 25 students had LSAT of 150/148/145. Dean DeVito is trying to get the bottom quartile to 147 in the fall, which should significantly improve the bar pass rate. In order to do that, they have set a target size for the fall entering class of between 100-120, which would give them a total 1L class in 2016 of 125-145, down from 424 1ls in 2014 and 441 in 2013. Dean DeVito indicates that the long-term goal is to “right-size” the school at about 600 total students. (Interestingly enough, this is exactly what I recommended as a sustainable size for Florida Coastal back in April 2014 when I was a Dean candidate. )
Florida Coastal has also made some curricular changes. According to Dean DeVito:
we are attempting to improve outcomes for current students as they progress through the semester. First, we have looked very carefully at the way we teach and have taken steps to ensure that we have adequate rigor in the classroom to ensure students are prepared for class and learn what it takes to be a lawyer. This includes reviewing class coverage relative to bar exams and requiring graded midterms with multiple choice and essay assessments. Second, we took steps to ensure that current students received the grades they earned. This has produced an increase in academic attrition, but also has increased student preparation for class and understanding of the law. Third, we modified our curriculum to ensure students are exposed to what they need to be successful. For example, we made expanded Civil Procedure from three to six credits and now required that all students take Business Associations, Trusts and Estates, and Family Law. We also pruned any classes from our electives that the faculty deemed were not squarely on mission.
While we have not yet implemented it, I am working with the faculty to develop a competency based system to ensure that no student progresses or graduates until they establish they have certain core competencies. We will be working over the summer to begin to implement this, if faculty approve, for the fall semester.
Finally, we are working on bar pass directly. The primary ways we are doing this is by requiring that all students take six credits of classes relating to bar tested materials. For example, students taking the bar in Florida must take Florida Law Survey as well as National Law Survey (each 3 credits). Students who are interested in taking the bar in Georgia, Texas, or California take, respectively, Georgia Law Survey, Texas Law Survey, and California Law Survey, as well as National Law Survey. Students going to a UBE jurisdiction take UBE Survey as well as National Law Survey. Once students graduate, they are given BarBri for free. And while studying for the bar we afford them a faculty advisor.
Dean DeVito also confirmed by e-mail that Florida Coastal is in negotiations with one or more potential partners and is planning a conversion to non-profit status. And he expressed cautious optimism that the school will pass the Department of Education’s Gainful Employment test this year due to improvements in job placement outcomes and efforts to reduce student debt.
So it seems that Florida Coastal is taking the necessary steps to try to return to respectability. The question is whether these efforts will prove to be too little, too late. While Florida Coastal is better positioned than Charlotte or Arizona Summit to survive the mismanagement that has brought all three schools to the brink of failure, they are not out of the woods yet.