Legal community holds judgment on new law school

By Sarah G. McC. Moïse
Charleston Business Staff Writer
April 4, 2004

The deadline for applications for the first year, full-time program at Charleston School of Law has passed.


“We’ve had over 840 applicants for 125 seats in the first year class,” reports John Benfield, assistant dean for admissions. “I’m really pleased.” Benfield says that 50% of the applicant pool was from South Carolina, followed by Georgia, North Carolina and other predominately southeastern states.


Currently the school is interviewing for two unfilled faculty positions in criminal and constitutional law. It has already hired six full-time faculty members: Richard Gershon, dean and professor of law; Randall Bridwell, admiralty, legal history and conflicts; Stephen Spitz, property law; Lorri Unumb, director of academic support and legal writing; and Nancy Zisk, torts. Gordon Russell, the associate dean and director of the law library and information services, officially started March 1.


At about the same time, the school took ownership of the former Metro Chamber of Commerce building on Mary Street. Currently contractors are doing renovations and adding network wiring. The faculty and staff plan to move from temporary office space on King Street into the finished building in late June or early July.


Right now the school is in good financial standing and has turned its focus to accepting students and gaining accreditation from the American Bar Association. The earliest the new Charles­ton School of Law can receive provisional accreditation is at the end of their second year of existence.


“We’re careful to tell everyone we’re not [accredited], but that we want to be. Those students who enter the first two years are taking the biggest risk,” Benfield says. “The good news is that 75 percent of schools get accredited the first time they apply.”


South Carolina Chief Justice Jean Toal reflects the opinions of many in the legal community who are cautious about either supporting or criticizing the new law school. “I’ve tried to be very neutral. I’m waiting to see if it gets off the ground and how it goes with the American Bar Association accreditation, which is the key to being allowed to take the South Carolina bar exam. I’m adopting a wait-and-see attitude.”


Benfield says that although there have been a few naysayers, the question Dean Gershon hears most often is not, “Why are you starting a new school?” but, “What took you so long?”


“We think the market will bear another law school,” he says. “We’re one of only a few states with a population this size with only one law school.”


North Carolina has five law schools, Georgia has four. “When you’re looking at statistics, South Carolina has fewer lawyers per capita than other states,” Benfield notes. “There is a remarkably under-represented population here.”


However, Toal’s support for the school seems to hinge on its success in creating more diversity within South Carolina’s legal profession. “I don’t know if the number of law schools speaks to the diversity of lawyers in any given state,” she says, adding that the small number of women and African Americans who are judges and lawyers in South Carolina do not reflect the state’s population of women and African Americans. “For states that have several law schools—for instance, Georgia—their population base is similar to ours, but their percentage of African American lawyers is a little lower than ours. The number of law schools has not produced a huge increase in the percentage of African American lawyers. But again, I think time will effect a lot of things.”


Gershon has stated that one of the school’s primary missions is to be a law school dedicated to public service. “If graduates go into public service jobs, we want to find a way to create a loan forgiveness program to make those jobs more attractive. We will have a mandatory pro-bono requirement for graduation to instill in our law graduates the duty to give back to the community.”


“It’s a laudable goal,” says Toal, “but a private law school will cost considerably more than it does to go to USC’s law school. Whether that cost will impact the kind of diversity that is reflected in the population pool, only time will tell.”


Robert Rosen of the Rosen Law Firm sees it as an opportunity for students who might not otherwise get a chance. He says there are plenty of people who don’t have great grades or perfect scores who make perfectly good lawyers. “Nowadays, in order to go to law or medical school, you have to be a great academic student. But law is a very practical field, and it takes a lot of hard work and common sense. Sometimes the people with the top scores and top grades don’t make the best lawyers. This school will give people with these other qualifications a chance to go to law school.”


Rosen also believes that having a law school in Charleston will prove helpful to the bar. “One of the advantages in Columbia is that law firms use law students to do legal research. From a practical everyday perspective, having law students will help us with legal research at a reasonable cost.”


On another issue that has been plaguing some members of the legal community, Rosen says, “I don’t think it hurts [USC]. They’re a state school, and they get four times as many applicants than they can take. They’re not going to suffer.”


While Toal is in complete agreement that there is pent-up demand for a second law school, she is less sanguine about its potential effect on USC. “We are in a time of very scarce resources for public education. I think everyone is concerned about the restricted public funding for higher education in South Carolina, including the South Carolina Law School. No institute such as the South Carolina Law School is supported completely on public funding. It is as dependent on private funding as on public funding.”


“There is a demand for people who want to go to law school, and those who aren’t able to go to USC are going out of state,” adds Benfield. Last year, USC had around 1,700 applicants for 240 seats. “We’re losing talented individuals, who would add economic value to the community.”