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For-profit law school considering Charlotte

Florida Coastal School of Law owners eyeing several cities

Charlotte Observer Staff Writer
January 23, 2004

For months, UNC Charlotte and Queens University of Charlotte have explored opening the city's first law school. Now it appears the for-profit Florida Coastal School of Law could beat them to it.

Sterling Capital Partners, a private firm based in Northbrook, Ill., and Baltimore, bought the private Jacksonville, Fla., law school this week and plans to open similar schools in several other cities -- possibly Charlotte -- as early as spring 2005.

"We're certainly looking at Charlotte," said Sterling spokesman Tom Wippman. "But we're looking at a number of other opportunities. And we're not going to do anything without talking to all of the constituencies -- that's not the way Sterling does things.

"We try to build consensus. We are relationship oriented."

Wippman said the company would make a decision on a Charlotte school within 60 days, after its representatives visit the city and meet with local leaders.

"You have to get a community's blessing -- their ratification of the idea -- for this concept to work," said Donald Lively, founder and chancellor of Florida Coastal.

That could be tough in Charlotte.

"I would say there would be concern on three levels," says George Hanna, president of the Mecklenburg County Bar, which has not taken a position on the issue.

"Frankly, there are some lawyers who think that five law schools in the State of North Carolina is enough and we don't need a law school in Charlotte."

Many of those who want legal education in the Queen City, Hanna says, would like to see an N.C. school provide it.

"I think there are some very influential members of the community and others who are supportive of Queens or UNC Charlotte or N.C. Central (University) opening a school here," Hanna said.

Others want assurance that a Charlotte law school will be a high-quality one, Hanna said.

"For me personally, I would be very, very concerned about a for-profit law school opening up that wasn't affiliated with a major academic institution -- about the quality of the legal education that those lawyers are getting," he said.

Florida Coastal, which has about 700 students now, is accredited by the American Bar Association -- one of only two for-profit law schools to have that approval, the ABA says.

But Lively says he understands the concerns.

"People don't know us," he said. "But I think it's important to realize that models of education are changing, the legal profession is changing. And anybody who looks at our origins, our evolution, our nature, objectively is going to be impressed with what we're about. We don't associate ourselves with junk."

Leaders of UNCC and Queens say Florida Coastal's plans won't affect theirs.

In October, Queens announced it would open a law school between 2007 and 2012 if the university meets certain goals.

"We continue to explore the feasibility of launching a law school as part of our long-range strategic plans," Queens President Pamela Lewis said.

UNCC is considering a law school, too, but has not yet announced plans.

"All this does is reaffirm that there is going to be a law school in Charlotte -- at least one," said UNCC Chancellor Jim Woodward.

The biggest reason Florida Coastal is considering Charlotte is because it's the largest city in the country without a law school, Lively said. Of the country's 50 largest cities, only one other -- El Paso, Texas -- has no law school within commuting distance, according to Lively.

If Sterling were to open a school in Charlotte, it would be similar to Florida Coastal, which opened in 1996 with 60 students, he said.

Tuition and fees there total about $21,500 a year, according to Lively. That compares with $10,430 a year for in-state students and $22,400 for out-of-state students at UNC Chapel Hill.

Of the 62 Florida Coastal graduates who took the bar exam for the first time in Florida in July, the last time it was given, 75.8 percent passed. That's the state average, according to the Florida Board of Bar Examiners.

Lively acknowledges that Jacksonville was skeptical about the school at first, but he says that has changed.

"The quality of teachers is very good and includes sitting judges and current lawyers who are practicing in the courts and who are very well thought of," said Jim Moseley, president of The Jacksonville Bar Association, who praised Florida Coastal for its involvement in Jacksonville's legal community.

North Carolina has five law schools: UNC and Campbell, Duke, N.C. Central and Wake Forest universities. All are at least 90 minutes from Charlotte.

The only S.C. law school is at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. But the for-profit Charleston School of Law plans to open this fall.