Leaders were warned in 2014 that a Jacksonville law school would fail. 7 years later it closed
JACKSONVILLE, Florida. – A 43,000 square foot building on the South Side of Jacksonville now stands empty after the Florida Coastal School of Law – once considered a respected and up-and-coming Jacksonville law school – permanently closed its doors at the end of the semester of spring 2021.
The school had been declining enrollment over the previous decade, and former students who spoke to News4JAX said their law careers had taken a hit.
Kim Lambros experienced this phenomenon while looking for work after graduation.
“They would just deny it,” Lambros said of his potential employers. “No one would give me interviews. In the end, I ended up having to take a job at a local tax firm that didn’t use up my JD, but it was the only job, at that time, I could get.
Jennie Rose Reiter-Smith has said she’s wanted to go to law school since she saw Perry Mason as a child. She moved to Florida after being accepted to the Florida Coastal School of Law and planned her law career to help cover her husband’s medical bills.
“I ended up losing my husband to this,” Reiter-Smith said. “We didn’t have the medical insurance we needed for him to get the heart transplant. So that caused more than a financial problem for me. I lost everything.”
The school closure has also made it all the more difficult for students to repay massive student loans, which are particularly costly for legal education.
According to a 2020 survey by the America Bar Association, more than 75% of law students graduate with at least $100,000 in debt and more than half owed more than $150,000.
In April, the Biden administration announced that the Borrower Defense Program would allow any former student to seek full dismissal if their for-profit college acted in an irresponsible or predatory manner.
“I graduated with about $250,000,” Lambros said of his debt. “I’m at $350,000 and it’s climbing. I make payments, I have continued to make payments throughout my 10 years in postgraduate.
The combined debt of the 20 former FCSL students contacted by News4JAX is over $3.5 million.
The remaining handful of FCSL students complete their programs at other law schools that are accredited in what is called an “educational” plan.
News4JAX reached out to the law school’s former director of institutional advancement, Margeret Dees. She declined to comment on the reason for the school’s closure, but did issue a statement.
“There have been many outstanding graduates and professors of coastal law over the years [they] continue to be great contributors to our legal community,” Dees wrote.
Warning signs identified years before shutdown
In 2021, American Bar Association regulators found the school failed to meet federal standards that are meant to protect student borrowers from debt, for a challenge they might not be ready for.
David Frakt, a veteran lawyer and law professor, noticed problems with FCSL’s admissions in 2014 when he was considered to take over as dean of the institution.
“These standards require that a law school not admit any student who does not appear capable of completing a JD program and passing the bar because, unlike many degrees, you cannot go out and practice law unless pass the bar exam,” Frakt said. “The [FCSL] the reputation was of a school that produced a lot of graduates, that grew very quickly, but had a pretty solid educational program, but as I started to dive into the numbers, in preparation for my discussion as As potential dean, I began to worry, looking over the previous two or three years at the quality of students they were admitting.
In April 2014, Frakt presented his pitch for the position of dean, but did not take up his concerns.
The presentation he gave to the school’s management was entitled: “FCSL: a law faculty in crisis”.
In his presentation, Frakt listed a host of troubling signs, including fewer graduates passing the bar exam, fewer graduates getting jobs, fewer students applying to the school, and students at the top of their class transferring to other schools.
The school was also lowering application standards to allow more students to enter.
For example, the measure of a law student’s success is the Law School Admissions Test or “LSAT.”
Applicants with an LSAT score of 150 or higher are considered to have reasonable to high aptitude and are more likely to succeed in law school.
When scores are 145 or less, these applicants are considered to have lower aptitude and have a much higher risk of dropping out or not completing the program.
In Frakt’s presentation, he showed school leaders that over the previous six years, the school had been accepting increasingly high-risk students.
“It was a big red flag because it starts a vicious circle, these students are going to have a hard time passing the bar, the pass rate at the bar is going to go down,” Frakt told News4JAX. “It makes potential students wary of coming to this school, it becomes more difficult to attract good students, and so you end up where you have fewer students applying.”
Frakt told FCSL leadership that if appointed dean, he would recommend downsizing the school, letting some staff go, and reducing admissions to meet reduced demand.
His presentation was not well received.
“Not only did I not get the job, but I couldn’t even finish my presentation because the president came in and asked me to leave and claimed I was insulting the school. And I asked anyone present who was insulted to raise their hands,” Frakt said. “No one did, but people were really in shock that the president would come and cut off a labor conversation like this.”
In April 2021, what Frakt predicted happened.
The school lost its ability to arrange for its students to obtain federally guaranteed loans, crippling the school financially.
FCSL sued to overturn the decision, but it was confirmed that the school failed to meet the ABA’s Financial Accountability Standards, Fiduciary Conduct Standard, and Participation Standards.
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