FAMU Law School Awaits
New Building, ABA Accreditation

March 29, 2004

Smack dab in the heart of downtown, Florida A&M University's new law school building is emerging from a parking lot in full view of Interstate 4.

"We want this building to stand out," said Max Brito, who along with Ruffin Rhodes led the architectural design of the four-story, sand-colored building that is scheduled to open in fall 2005. "That's a premier site."

It's more reality in the making for the long-deferred dream of Florida's only public historically black university to restart its law school. Now in its second year of operation, in makeshift quarters a few blocks away, the school awaits its permanent facility. Students and faculty are also waiting to hear whether the school will be granted provisional accreditation by the American Bar Association later this year. The new building in the works should help that effort.

"It's a really positive step they will take in consideration," said Percy Luney, law school dean.

Being easily accessible from the interstate helps fulfill the school's mission to serve the entire Central Florida region with day and evening options in legal education with a focus on public service, he said.

A re-established dream

FAMU first began a law program on its Tallahassee campus in 1949 but had to close down in the late 1960s when the Legislature took its budget away. Four years ago, the Legislature re-established FAMU's law school and gave the university $2.5 million to plan it.

Enter Rhodes and Brito, two Orlando architects who graduated from FAMU's School of Architecture in the 1980s. They knew the school's history and jumped at the chance to design the first FAMU building outside Tallahassee.

"It was kind of nice to have a physical piece of FAMU down here," Rhodes said. The duo involved itself early on in the process, when the city of Orlando was still wooing FAMU's new law school with donated land and a design for renovated temporary space. Ultimately, Rhodes + Brito Architects, partnered with HHCP, made the short list, then won the contract to design the new, $28 million building. It's being built by Turner and PSA construction firms.

Not only are Rhodes and Brito thrilled about what the building means for their alma mater, but they see it as bolstering the Parramore area around it. Much like Tallahassee's Frenchtown neighborhood, Parramore was once a vibrant community that is now seeking revitalization.

The architect team visited at least eight different law schools across the country, used their previous experience in courtroom design and consulted often with Luney in creating the new school. Features of the sand-colored brick building include:

 Tiered, U-shaped seating classrooms to foster dialogue.

 A 200-seat moot federal court that could be used for real federal cases.

 A student-services area that opens up to a patio with a small amphitheater and a wall illustrating the school's history.

 A four-story atrium inside the school's Beggs Street entrance.

 A ground-floor community clinic that will provide student internships and offer pro-bono legal services for the surrounding neighborhood.

 Several floors of library space and reading and study rooms.

"It gives our students an environment in which teaching and learning can occur," said FAMU President Fred Gainous, who was an undergraduate in Tallahassee when the school was closed. "To have an outstanding facility is always encouraging to students when they arrive at the law school."

Awaiting accreditation

FAMU's inaugural full-time law class will graduate before the move, but first-year and part-time students are looking forward to spending their final year in the brand-new facility.

"It looks really nice from the plans," said Michelle Evans, a 30-year-old from Fort Myers who decided to go to law school after working in the insurance business for six years. "The (current) facilities are a little bit rough still."

FAMU has spent more than $700,000 to renovate a county building on the busy intersection of Orange Avenue and Central Boulevard for its 200-plus students and more than 20 faculty and staff members. It's cramped space with slow elevators, students say, but they aren't complaining. Students interviewed have nothing but praise for their experiences so far.

They laud the student body's diversity in race, age and life experiences. They say their professors impress them daily with their legal knowledge. They agree the workload is demanding, but they say their collegial experience defies the widely held perception that law school fosters cutthroat competition.

"It's kind of like everybody's in it together, (rather) than out to get each other," Evans said.

Students say they're getting a high-quality education.

"Having gone to school here the past two years, I would put this school up to any law school," said Carlos Woody, a 41-year-old from Ormond Beach.

FAMU's law school will learn whether it passes muster with national standards later this month when it finds out whether the American Bar Association's accreditation committee will recommend the school receive provisional accreditation. The ABA's legal education council makes the final decision in June. The school was reviewed by a team of ABA visitors late last year.

"Nobody wants to be associated with something not accredited," Gainous said. "The law school is on track to receive the appropriate level of accreditation. We are eagerly awaiting the first class of students to sit for the bar exam."

Without provisional accreditation, graduates can't practice law in Florida. Most students interviewed say they're understandably concerned, but they don't see how FAMU could fail.

"It's always in the back of my mind," said Tiffany Mount, a 23-year-old from Tallahassee.

But many chose FAMU knowing that nearby Barry University School of Law had been rejected twice for provisional accreditation. The school finally landed approval in February 2002.

"It was just a nightmare," FAMU student Tom Murphy said of Barry's situation. "All those issues were very fresh in our mind." Murphy, 32 and an Orlando resident, said he did lots of research on FAMU's plan and especially Luney before deciding to apply.

A former law school dean at North Carolina Central University, Luney has participated in about a dozen inspection committees by the ABA. He came to FAMU in 2001 after serving as president at the National Judicial College, a private school that trains judges, in Reno, Nev.

"I figured if this guy can't get it done, how can it ever happen?" Murphy said.