Charleston School of Law optimistic about accreditation

December 15, 2003
By Sarah G. McC. Moïse,
Staff Writer, Charleston Regional Business Journal

The Charleston School of Law has already received 250 applications for fall 2004—for a first year class of 125, says John S. Benfield, assistant dean for admissions. Still early in the admissions process, the school is sprinting for provisional American Bar Association accreditation, including recruitment of new faculty, development of a legal library and funding for financial aid students.


However, should accreditation elude them, the consequences for the students could be serious—and seriously expensive.


Alex Sanders, former president of the College of Charleston and a member of the new law school’s steering committee, believes the school is a potential asset for Charleston and for South Carolina students. Last year the University of South Carolina School of Law accepted only 440 applicants out of 1,715, which Sanders says means students interested in getting a legal education are having to leave the state at a time when “South Carolina needs more lawyers to serve the unrepresented population.”


The school received conditional licensing from the state Commission on Higher Education in September 2003. The next step, according to Sanders, is enrolling students and working toward American Bar Association accreditation.


Timeline for accreditation


The school will have its first classes in the fall of 2004, and then apply for provisional ABA accreditation in spring 2004. By winter of 2006, when the first class will graduate, the ABA committee will decide whether to give the school provisional accreditation. The committee will make their recommendations to the ABA House of Delegates in August 2006, after which the ABA will continue oversight for three to five years before granting final accreditation.


Richard Gershon is the new dean of the law school, and was part of the final accreditation process at Texas Wesleyan Law School in Fort Worth . “What we hope to do, and what we’re going to put all our efforts into doing, is to have provisional approval by the time the first class graduates,” he says.


It took Texas Wesleyan four years to get provisional accreditation and five more years to achieve full approval, according to Gershon. Texas Wesleyan was started as Dallas Fort Worth School of Law, Gershon says, on a wing and a prayer. “We joke that there were three guys who wanted to start a law school in the worst possible way, and that’s what they did. At the beginning they didn’t understand what goes on in an ABA process and it took them a lot longer. The faculty members were practicing law full-time while teaching, which is generally frowned upon.”


However, the founders of the law school in Charleston are starting out on the right foot, Gershon says. “I believe we’re looking at a much shorter time frame. I think the founders in Charleston have a good idea of what ABA standards are about and what to do to meet them. And it helps that the financial support base is here for Charleston School of Law.”


Putting the pieces in place


One of the founders’ first tasks is to develop a strong law library and attract top faculty. Over three years, the school expects to have 20 faculty members and has already selected six professors for the first year. Two slots in criminal and contract law remain to be filled this year. “So far, our teachers are very excited about the potential of being part of building a new school,” Gershon reports.


The school has acquired the former Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce building on Mary Street , which will be adequate for the first-year class of 125. Beyond that, they must consider expansion in nearby facilities once the school is filled to capacity. The ultimate plan is to grow to about 100,000 square feet.


But much like building a bridge while driving on it, the new administration must achieve accreditation, or the end of the road will come to an abrupt drop. “If students graduate from a non-accredited school, they will not be able to sit the Bar exam,” says Benfield. “Students are taking a bit of a risk because we cannot guarantee any entering student that we will have it.”


The American Bar Association prohibits any law school from saying it’s going to be accredited. “We have disclaimers on everything we send out, and we are doing everything that we know of to achieve that in time for the first class to graduate in the fall,” adds Benfield.


However, he has faith in the mission of the school and in the experience of its founders. “If you look at who’s involved and what they’re doing to get accreditation, I think that people will achieve some comfort level. The students are excited about being part of creating a new law school and about being the first class.”


That Benfield himself left a tenured position is a mark of his good faith in the project. “I was at USC for 13 years as dean of admissions. If I didn’t think this place would have the accreditation, I wouldn’t have left. The faculty is taking a risk just like the students.”


Sarah G. McC. Moïse covers law for the Business Journal. E-mail her at smoise@crbj.com.






Charleston School of Law


P.O. Box 535


Charleston , S.C. 29402