JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 43,000-square-foot building on Jacksonville’s Southside is now empty after the Florida Coastal School of Law — once considered a respected and up-and-coming Jacksonville law school — closed its doors for good at the end of the spring 2021 semester.
The school had experienced declining enrollment over the past decade, and former students who spoke to News4JAX said their legal careers took a hit because of it.
Kim Lambros experienced that phenomenon while looking for work after graduation.
“They would just flat out deny it,” Lambros said of her potential employers. “No one would give me interviews. Ultimately, I ended up getting a job at a local tax firm that didn’t use my Juris Doctorate, but it was the only job, at that point, that I could get.”
Jennie Rose Reiter-Smith said she had wanted to go to law school since watching Perry Mason as a child. She moved to Florida after being accepted to the Florida Coastal School of Law and planned her legal career to help support her husband’s medical expenses.
“I ended up losing my husband because of it,” Reiter-Smith said. “We didn’t have the medical insurance we needed for him to have the heart transplant. So it caused more than just a financial thing for me. I lost everything.”
The school closure also made it much more difficult for students to pay off massive student loans, which are especially expensive for a legal education.
According to a 2020 study by the American Bar Association, more than 75% of law students graduate with at least $100,000 in debt, and over half owe more than $150,000.
In April, the Biden administration announced that the Borrower Protection Program would allow any former student to apply for full debt discharge if their for-profit college acted irresponsibly or predatorily.
“I graduated with close to $250,000,” Lambros said of his debt. “I’m at $350,000 and growing. I’m making payments, I’ve continued to make payments for 10 years post-graduation.”
The combined debt of 20 former FCSL students contacted by News4JAX is more than $3.5 million.
A small number of FCSL’s remaining students are completing their programs at other law schools that are accredited in what is called a “learn-out” plan.
News4JAX reached out to the law school’s former director of institutional advancement, Margeret Dees. She declined to comment on the reason for the school’s closure, but did offer a statement.
“There have been many outstanding graduates and faculty from Coastal Justice over the years [they] continue to be great contributors to our legal community,” Dees wrote.
Warning signs identified years before closure
In 2021, regulators from the American Bar Association found the school failed to meet federal standards intended to protect student loan borrowers from taking on debt, a challenge they may not have been prepared for.
David Frakt, a veteran attorney and law professor, noticed problems with FCSL’s admissions in 2014, when he was being considered to take over as dean at the institution.
“These standards require that a law school not admit any student who does not appear capable of completing a JD program and passing the bar because, unlike many degrees, you cannot go out and practice law without passing the bar exam. jurisprudence,” Frakt. said. “The [FCSL] the reputation was as a school that was turning out a lot of graduates, that it had grown very quickly, but that they had a pretty solid education program, but as I started digging into the numbers, in preparation for my discussion as a potential dean, I started to worry, looking at the quality of students they were admitting over the previous two or three years.”
In April 2014, Frakt campaigned for the dean’s post, but he didn’t stop his concerns.
The presentation he made to the school’s leadership was titled: “FCSL: A Law School in Crisis”.
In his presentation, Frakt listed a host of troubling signs including fewer graduates passing the bar exam, fewer graduates getting jobs, fewer students applying to schools and students at the top of their class transferring schools. others.
The school is also lowering application standards to allow more students to enter.
For example, the metric of how successful a law student is likely to be is the Law School Admission Test, or “LSAT.”
Applicants with an LSAT score of 150 or higher are considered to have a reasonable to high aptitude and are more likely to be successful in law school.
When scores are 145 or below, those applicants are considered lower skilled and have a much higher risk of dropping out or not completing the program.
In Frakt’s presentation, he told school leaders that for the previous six years, the school had accepted high-risk and higher-risk students.
“It was a huge red flag because that opens up a vicious cycle, those students will struggle to pass the bar, the bar pass rate will drop,” Frakt told News4JAX. “It makes prospective students wary of coming to that school, it becomes harder to attract good students, and so you end up where you have fewer students applying.”
Frakt told FCSL leadership that if he were acting as dean, he would recommend downsizing the school, laying off some staff and reducing admissions to meet reduced demand.
His presentation was not well received.
“Not only did I not get the job, I didn’t even get to finish the presentation because the president came in and asked me to leave and told me I was insulting the school. And I asked every president who was offended to raise his hand,” Frakt said. “No one did, but people were really shocked that the president would come and interrupt a business conversation like that.”
In April 2021, what Frakt predicted happened.
The school lost its ability to get its students federally backed loans, crippling the school financially.
FCSL sued to overturn the decision, but was found to have failed the ABA’s standards of financial responsibility, good faith conduct, and participation standards.
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