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Sipping sodas and stale coffee in a ballroom at the Biscayne Bay, Fla., Sheraton, nearly 100 graduating college students and mid-career adults — working-class people of diverse races and ethnicity, dressed in their best interview outfits — were mulling the advantages and risks of applying to law school. They were there last Thursday night to attend Florida International University’s informational open house for its nascent law school, scheduled to start classes next fall. A young Caribbean-American woman, whose head was shaved because she just finished chemotherapy, scribbled notes on a legal pad in a corner. A Puerto Rican security guard, who had completed his bachelor’s degree last year, asked questions from the back of the room. A 40-ish U.S. Customs Service agent popped in on his way to working the night shift at Miami International Airport. Many of these potential applicants were well aware of the political cloud hanging over the new school, which was created by the Florida Legislature last year to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession. Some budget cutters are eyeing FIU’s new school, along with the new law school at Florida A&M University in Orlando, as they desperately look for ways to eliminate the state’s $1.3 billion budget shortfall. Some people at the open house also were thinking about the problems at Barry University’s law school in Orlando. Graduates of that school have not been able to take the Florida bar examination because the school has repeatedly failed to win American Bar Association accreditation. These factors made FIU law school dean Leonard P. Strickman’s presentation to the prospective students last week considerably more complicated. Strickman, who was selected as dean in January at least partly due to his strong background in ABA accreditation, assured the prospective students that state law schools around the country have a good track record in gaining ABA accreditation. To give the prospective enrollees’ confidence that the FIU school would be accredited by the time the first class graduates in 2005, he outlined his own experience in successfully working with new law schools to obtain accreditation. But FIU undergraduate Aileen Rodriguez, who plans to attend law school, was skeptical after hearing Strickman’s optimistic pitch. She said she would only consider attending FIU law school as a “last resort” — if she weren’t admitted to law school at University of Florida or Florida State University. “[Accreditation] is the worry everybody has,” Rodriguez says. “You might get stuck with a degree but you can’t practice law.” ‘FEELING GOOD’ Strickman tried to overcome such doubts with his friendly, avuncular style. He previously served as law school dean at Northern Illinois University and the University of Arkansas. He also taught at Hastings Law School at the University of California in San Francisco, and at Boston University law school. For six years, he was a member of the ABA’s accreditation committee, where he led examinations of 15 law schools. In an interview in his office last week at the law school’s temporary home on the fourth floor of FIU’s Green Library, the dean said that more than 3,200 applications have been requested by prospective students, and that he’s currently recruiting and interviewing faculty candidates. “We can’t guarantee that we will have accreditation by the time we graduate our first class,” Strickman says. “But we’re feeling very good about our prospects.” If the law school does not win ABA accreditation by the time the first class graduates, the grads would not be able to take the bar exam immediately and practice law. For the people gathered at the Sheraton, the prospect of spending three years in law school and then being denied the chance to promptly take the bar and start practicing law was a source of anxiety. So they repeatedly asked Strickman questions, pressing him for greater assurances. SCARY BARRY EXAMPLE Enrolling in the inaugural class at a law school can be a risky proposition, as graduates and students at Barry’s law school have discovered. Graduates there have not been able to take the bar exam so far. The school was denied ABA accreditation for the second time last February. Several Barry grads and law students have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Orlando claiming that the ABA violated federal antitrust law and Illinois state law in its evaluation of Barry. The plaintiffs asked Judge Gregory Presnell to grant the law school provisional accreditation while the suit goes forward; they also wanted the court to order changes in the accreditation process. Presnell recently denied the motions. Still, Strickman assured the prospective students at the Sheraton that the school would be ready for its first class of 120 students by next fall. The school will be housed in the third and fourth floors of the library until its building is constructed; the building is slated for completion by fall 2005. He expects to have eight full-time faculty members hired by next summer, and said that the school will have a library consisting of 150,000 reference materials by then. Supporters say establishing the new schools at FIU and FAMU will create affordable access to law school for minority students. Tuition is expected to cost between $5,000 and $6,000 a year, a fraction of the $20,000 fee at private law schools like the University of Miami. The affordability and location is expected to attract a racially and ethnically diverse study body, Strickman says. Critics, however, have argued that a better and more cost-effective way of increasing diversity in law school admissions would be for the state to fund minority scholarships at the eight existing public and private law schools in Florida, including three in South Florida. But even some critics say now that the state has come this far in launching the new schools, it had better go ahead and do it right. “The notion of coming back now and saying, ‘Sorry, no schools,’ is not a politically viable option,” says Orlando attorney Harley Scott Herman, who chaired the Florida Bar’s student education and bar admission committee and was an early critic of the proposal to create two more law schools. ‘WON’T LET US DOWN’ So far the Legislature has committed $4.85 million for the FIU school’s operating budget and $4.3 million for construction; $22 million for construction of the school’s building will come from a utility tax. But state lawmakers are scheduled to meet in special session on Nov. 27 to try to resolve the $1.3 billion budget shortfall. During that special session, legislators will be arguing over $386 million worth of proposed cuts in education. Included in that number is an $84 million cut in state university funding. At the previous special budget session in October, House Republicans from North and Central Florida proposed eliminating the two law schools. That move was defeated in committee. But the proposal could resurface. “It makes you blink twice, but I have been reassured,” Strickman says. “[The legislators] are not going to hang us to dry. Having come this far, we don’t think they will let us down.” Indeed, most lawmakers don’t question the establishment of the two new law schools. But there is considerable debate about whether the Legislature will appropriate as much as previously planned for their infrastructure and operations. It’s expected that future appropriations likely will fall short of these projections. “I do not see us stopping the law schools,” says Rep. Dwight Stansel, D-Wellborn, vice chair of the Legislature’s education appropriation committee. “We just don’t have as much money as was projected we were going to have.” He says his committee would likely recommend reductions in the new law schools’ annual budgets. Strickman says he’s anticipating this, and already is busy raising money from private donors to make up for any state funding shortfalls. The potential budget shortfall for the law schools worries Herman. “The danger is, they can’t do it halfway,” he says, pointing to the danger that inadequate funding will imperil the chances for accreditation. “Limiting funding will kill the schools.” POLITICAL CHAMPIONS But FIU’s new law school has robust support in the Cuban-American community, along with a powerful contingent of champions among elected officials and lobbyists. Most prominent are Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Miami, and Rep. Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, chair of the House fiscal responsibility council. “We are committed to having the law school fully funded,” says Diaz-Balart. “There is a great awareness that the state has to do its part to guarantee that these schools are successful.” Diaz-Balart says he’s working toward a $5 million annual appropriation for the FIU and FAMU law schools. One of the prospective applicants at the open house last week was Juan A. Lopez of Miami, who is finishing his undergraduate degree at Barry University. Lopez, 32, a single father wearing a three-piece suit, said he plans to apply to FIU and attend the law school if accepted. He didn’t seem overly concerned about the accreditation issue. “Nothing is ever guaranteed,” Lopez said. “Life as a whole is a crap shoot. If it’s still not accredited, I will cross that bridge when I get there.” FIU law dean Leonard P. Strickman has experience in guiding schools to accreditation, a prerequisite for graduates being allowed to take the bar exam.

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