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Two years ago, Florida had seven law schools and some 70,000 attorneys. The last thing it seemed the state would want is to spend taxpayer money to create yet another law school. But that’s exactly what the Florida Legislature decided to do. In fact, legislators decided to commit more than $60 million to create not one but two new schools, one in Miami at the predominantly Hispanic Florida International University, the other under the auspices of historically black Florida A&M University. With Barry University’s School of Law receiving provisional accreditation, Florida now boasts 10 law schools — four state-funded and six private — stretching from Miami to Tallahassee. FIU’s College of Law, the first public law school in South Florida, opened its doors last week to 107 fresh-faced students. Law school Dean Leonard Strickman, said FIU is an important part of Florida’s legal community. “We’re diverse and for a startup we have students with strong academics,” he said, “and we have a strong faculty.” Minorities make up roughly 30 percent of Florida’s population, but just 8 percent of the Florida Bar. FIU’s mission is to help diversify the Bar by providing a legal education to students unable to move north to the University of Florida or Florida State. By offering night classes and a program for part-time students, FIU is betting on the notion that working people would go to law school if only classes were held at a time other than between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. NOBLE CALLING The FIU law school embarks upon its course at a time when public law schoolsaround the country are grappling with the issue of student diversity and how to bring more minorities into the legal profession. Of the 107 new FIU students, about 43 percent are Hispanic, 8 percent are black and 4 percent are Asian or other minorities. While the students comprise one of the most diverse law school classes in the country, dramatically more representative than the State Bar, it still doesn’t truly reflect the local community. About 80 percent of Miami-Dade residents are minorities, according to the 2000 Census, about 57.3 percent Hispanic and 20.3 percent black. And not everyone is convinced that FIU is the remedy to the State Bar’s diversity issues. The one major law firm in South Florida that has not given money to FIU is Miami-based Steel Hector & Davis. “What’s happening at FIU is a disappointment,” said Joseph P. Klock Jr., the firm’s chairman and managing partner. “We’ve always been very generous to the local law schools, but I am disappointed with the demographic of the first-year class.” Klock, who said he is speaking for himself and not the firm, cited the fact that only 8 percent of the first-year class is black and that the percentage of minority students is not much greater than the percentage at other, private, law schools in South Florida. For example, 8 percent of the students at the University of Miami Law School are black, the same as at FIU. And according to figures compiled by the American Bar Association, about 46 percent of St. Thomas law students and almost 30 percent of UM law students this year are minorities. FIU’s entering class this year, by comparison, is 55 percent minority. Klock thinks FIU can do better and hopes the school’s mission does not get confused. “Its mission should be to facilitate diversity,” he said. “But if its mission is to be another top-rated law school, all we are doing is flooding the market. We have enough top-rated law schools,” he said. Strickman agreed that FIU could do a better job recruiting black students but insisted that the school is still among the most diverse in the nation. “A large percentage of our current class would not be in law school right now, if not for FIU,” said the 60-year-old Yale-educated dean. “They would not be in law school either because of lack of money or they could not fit it in their schedule.” Hired in January 2001 from his post as dean of the University of Arkansas’ school of law, Strickman said he felt good about what FIU achieved in its first year. The school sought a highly diverse class of about 120, with a median LSAT score of between 152 and 153 and a 3.2 median GPA. The initial 107-student class, he said, is 55 percent minority, has an LSAT of 152, and a GPA of 3.15. The numbers put FIU about in the middle of the 10 law schools in Florida. DUBIOUS BEGINNING While identifying the need for diversity has been easy, the remedy to the problem has been elusive. Two years ago, the now-defunct Florida Board of Regents lined up against the idea of two new law schools. Then-Chancellor Adam Herbert argued that money would be better spent on minority scholarships at current schools rather than bricks and mortar, professors and startup costs. He added that Florida already was bursting at the seams with lawyers 321 for every 100,000 citizens. The Florida Bar didn’t take a formal position, but it also argued that diversity could be best achieved by offering more minority scholarships. Gov. Jeb Bush said at the time that he was dubious of a state-funded initiative that would create more lawyers. The St. Petersburg Times editorialized that “it’s difficult to imagine a more blatant waste of taxpayer money.” The future of a public law school in South Florida seemed doubtful. But FIU supporters pressed on. “During the legislative process [two years ago], I was asked, ‘Do we need more lawyers?’” said Cesar L. Alvarez, president and CEO of Greenberg Traurig in Miami. “But it’s not that we need more lawyers, it’s that we need more diversity reflected in the legal profession.” Alvarez chairs a fund-raising committee for the law school. In his view, having more minority lawyers is one of the best ways to improve minority communities. “Lawyers disproportionately influence the communities they live in. They become legislators, run businesses, get into leadership positions, and are part of the business fabric of communities at a much higher level,” he said. “We need lawyers from diverse communities, so those communities can participate in the American adventure.” That argument eventually overcame the opposition, and the new school has taken up temporary digs on the third and fourth floors of the FIU library. The law school has eight professors on the faculty, including some top-flight talent that includes Thomas E. Baker, who left a congressionally endowed chair in constitutional law at Drake University, and Jorge L. Esquirol, who was formerly at Northeastern University School of Law and Harvard Law School. HARD WORK AHEAD Strickman is the first to say that much remains to be done. Fund raising for the new school building is the most immediate concern. The Legislature appropriated the school’s $2.5 million operating budget, but FIU must still raise $1 million in the next year and a total $3.5 million over the next two years. That money, Strickman said, will be added to the $26 million set aside by the Legislature to build a new law school building being. designed by two architectural firms, Robert A.M. Stearn & Associates of New York and Miami-based Harper & Associates. Stearn is dean of the architectural school at Yale University. Plans call for the building to have two courtrooms, a state-of-the-art library and a 300-seat auditorium. Strickman also must hire seven professors over the next year, nearly doubling the current number. But most important of all: Strickman must guide FIU to the all-important American Bar Association accreditation. In large part, Strickman was hired because of his experience in the accreditation process. For six years Strickman served on the ABA committee that accredits law schools. And, while dean at Northern Illinois University College of Law in Dekalb, Strickman moved the school from provisional accreditation to full ABA accreditation and membership in the American Association of Law Schools. Schools can apply for provisional accreditation a year after they open their doors. Provisional accreditation may or may not be granted a year after that. If it is, the law school applies for full accreditation and membership in the AALS. But if a school does not win provisional accreditation, its student are not eligible to take the Bar examination. Just such a predicament was visited upon students at Barry University after the school twice failed to win provisional accreditation. Barry was finally granted provisional status in February, enabling some of its students to take the bar exam. “To be accredited, you need to focus on five areas: faculty, students, budget resources, library and facilities,” said Strickman. “We’re on target in all five.”

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