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School’s out for CSL but students, alumni deal with aftermath


It’s official: The Charlotte School of Law is closed for business. After months of speculation, school officials announced Aug. 24 that it is indeed the end of the road for the 11-year-old law school.

The now-defunct institution that boasted of forging practice-ready attorneys and serving the underserved has long been under fire for questionable admissions standards and failing to prepare its students to become lawyers. The American Bar Association began scrutinizing the school’s practices in early 2014 but many, until recently, never knew of the trouble bubbling behind the school’s shiny, uptown facade.

And even as red flags appeared, beginning last November when the ABA placed the school on probation, Charlotte officials downplayed the situation’s gravity and maintained that the school would soon be back in the agency’s good graces.

That never happened and the situation rapidly deteriorated from a cooperative effort to do right by Charlotte Law students into contentious sparring matches.

First, the ABA refused Charlotte’s proposed teach-out plan that would have allowed all of its enrolled students to graduate with a Charlotte Law degree. Charlotte wanted to remain in operation and the ABA wasn’t sure that was feasible.

Then, the Department of Education entered the fray and snatched life-sustaining federal loans from the school, accusing it of substantially and persistently misrepresenting its academic program.

If that wasn’t a kill shot, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors on Aug. 11 struck a death blow when it revoked the school’s license to operate after Charlotte failed to meet the board’s deadline to show that it was financially stable.

Finally, Attorney General Josh Stein said that if the school wouldn’t voluntarily cease operations, “the attorney general will take action to ensure it complies.”


Before Charlotte’s closing, a thriving student body once comprised of more than 1,000 aspiring attorneys had been reduced to approximately 100 hangers-on. Many of those students are no longer pursuing a law degree. Some are pursuing legal action.

Sidney Fligel, an attorney with The Law Offices of James Scott Farrin in Charlotte, said that his firm has more than 300 clients and that so far, he has filed 21 lawsuits on behalf of 84 plaintiffs, former students seeking to be made whole after taking out thousands upon thousands of dollars in federal student loans that they likely will never be able to repay.

That’s of no concern to the school, Fligel alleges, because it did what it set out to do: make a lot of money off of students who didn’t know what they were getting into.  

“The idea is that not only was there … a game plan from Charlotte School of Law’s inception, but that it also actively concealed information from the students themselves,” Fligel said. “All the information the students had was provided by Charlotte School of Law and Infilaw … and was patently misleading.”  

The former students allege — as did the ABA and the DOE — that the law school hid negative metrics (often buried deep in the digital bowels of its website, Fligel said) while inflating statistics that would make the school seem more attractive to prospective students. Once those students, many of whom had poor indicators of academic success, began enrolling, federal dollars began pouring into the school. But the aftermath, Fligel says, is that many of those students have been left “financially crippled.”

“It is heartbreaking because at the end of the day, Charlotte School of Law, InfiLaw, and Sterling Capital Partners refuse to take responsibility for it but gladly accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition money with no risk on their part,” Fligel said.

This wasn’t supposed to happen

Lee Robertson Jr. of Robertson & Associates in Charlotte remembers fondly Charlotte Law’s heyday, a period after the school’s 2006 inception where admission standards were respectable and graduates passed the bar. Robertson is part of Charlotte’s Class of 2012 and serves as president of the alumni association.

“Back then people were excited about the school and thought it was going to do great things in the community,” Robertson said. “People really had high expectations that this was going to be a great place to go and get a legal education.”

Like others, Robertson heard rumblings of trouble, but said that he didn’t understand the magnitude until the ABA made its probation announcement nine months ago.

“I don’t know what went wrong along the way,” Robertson said. “Something went wrong. I think the problem though is less here in Charlotte and more with InfiLaw down in Florida.”

No cause for alarm…until there is

Despite the actions taken against the school by the regulatory bodies, students claim school officials continued to assure them that everything was going to be OK.

In an Aug. 11 email from interim dean Paul Meggett to the school’s remaining students, Meggett wrote that contrary to what they “might have heard or read, the UNC Board of Governors has not declared that CSL’s license has expired.”

But that same day, the Board of Governors announced that since Charlotte had failed to show UNC it was financially viable, that its license had in fact expired.

It wasn’t until four days later that news of the school’s closing broke. On Aug. 15, a phone call between Robertson and Meggett left Robertson certain that there was “no path forward” for Charlotte Law.

Robertson relayed the news to his fellow alumni via email, expressing his disappointment and providing a heads-up that they would likely soon learn from a news broadcast that the doors of their alma mater would soon close forever.

“Certainly the students who are there are in the short term immediately affected, but long term, the alumni are most affected by this because we have to explain to people what happened to our law school,” he said. “And for a profession that is as concerned with reputation as the legal profession is, that is difficult to do.”

When Robertson’s letter became public, later that day, school officials responded with another email to the student body that neither confirmed nor denied the reported shuttering of the school. Rather, it informed students that according to a letter from UNC, Charlotte could still assist students “in a variety of manners” and undertake “non-degree related activities and various administrative functions.”

‘What in the world are we going to do?’

Recently, Robertson was further affected by the school’s closing when one of the firm’s interns, Spencer native Andrew Howe, left Charlotte — the city and the school — to complete his legal studies at Wake Forest. Before enrolling at Charlotte Law, Howe spent seven years teaching music at the middle school and high school levels. Charlotte Law was a good fit for him, he said, because the manageable commute meant that he didn’t have to uproot his family to attend. And the scholarship he was offered didn’t hurt, either. Before the world learned of the ABA’s sanctions in November, Howe says he never imagined that he would not be able to finish his degree there. He earned 77 of the required 90 credit hours for graduation and believed he would soon be preparing for the bar exam and considering a full-time job offer that Robertson said his firm was prepared to offer.

At the time, Howe said that school officials vowed that probation was not a big deal. It would be handled and things would be fine, they told students — and the media — through prepared press releases.

Then came Dec. 19 and the DOE’s damning decision to pull federal funding.

“I can’t even describe the emotions that we went through … I had friends texting me that the Department of Education had revoked federal funding,” Howe said. “Because my wife was 7½ months pregnant at the time and a stay-at-home mom, because I gave up that teacher pay, I mean, we lived on those federal loans. The conversation was, “What in the world are we going to do?”

Some loss, but life

Initially, Howe thought it might be best to cut his losses and abandon the dream of becoming a lawyer. Just a few credit hours away from graduation, he could apply to have his loans discharged and assume his former life of teaching school, he said.

But what he and his family ultimately decided to do is to stay the course and transfer to another law school. Regent University School of Law had admitted him and was willing to accept 60 of his already-earned credits. He had also been accepted as a transfer student to Wake Forest, a school he wanted to attend from the get-go.

Howe held Charlotte’s hand until the last minute. But when he believed that the DOE and the attorney general had declared it dead, he made a phone call on Aug. 18, a Friday, to Wake officials. If they could somehow enroll him at the 11th hour, he told them, he wanted to be there.

At 10 a.m. the following Monday, Howe was sitting in class, a law student at Wake Forest.

From his home in Spencer, Howe’s commute to Winston-Salem is comparable to his former drive. His family can stay put and he can get back to earning a law degree. Howe won’t enjoy the financial benefits he did at Charlotte and had to forfeit more than half of his credits to attend the top-tier school,  but he is “excited” and “incredibly grateful” to be at Wake.

“I was willing to finish at Charlotte but I consider myself pretty lucky that I’ll graduate with a Wake degree,” Howe said. “It’s going to work out far better for me in the long run.”

Time to move on

Despite Howe’s fortune, the consensus seems to be that there are no winners here; a few success stories sprinkled among a heap of broken dreams. Ever the optimist, Robertson believes that if given the chance to perform under ABA probation, Charlotte Law could have righted the ship. Instead, he says, 2,300 alumni are left to wonder what’s next. He believes their reputations have suffered and now they face the unique challenge of being part of an alumni association whose growth is forever stunted.

“We need to determine what that means for our association going forward, but we intend to still be around, for sure,” he said.

But the city and the community, he added, will be a lesser place without its only law school.

Fligel, whose firm represents the former students suing the school, agrees that alumni will likely and unfairly be viewed differently even though they passed the same bar exam as everyone else.

But he doesn’t share Roberts’ sentiment exactly, calling the “calculated actions” of the school and its owners the epitome of a “for-profit” cash grab.

“The school doesn’t take responsibility,” Fligel said. “All they’re going to do is close. The school gets to wipe their hands of this while thousands of former students are left to pick up the pieces.

“I keep coming back to this, but the best way I can describe this whole thing is heartbreaking.”  


Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher


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