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As Florida’s two new state-funded law schools prepare to admit their second class of incoming students, officials at many of the state’s other law schools claim their fledgling — and lower-priced — competitors have not hurt their ability to recruit the best and brightest candidates. Instead, they insist, they’re getting too many applicants. “We’ve had more admissions requests than we’ve ever had — 3,400 applicants for 200 seats,” marveled Jon L. Mills, dean of the University of Florida’s law school. “It’s nuts.” Thanks to the continued weak economy, more people are choosing to ride out the tough time by going to law school, the deans say. This includes college seniors just graduating into one of the worst job markets in decades, laid-off workers hoping to change fields or boost their qualifications, and still-employed but nervous professionals hoping a law degree can help them avoid future downsizing. Despite the current glut of applicants, private law schools around the state — particularly those with less financial resources and weaker reputations — soon could have good reason to fear the new competition from cheaper, publicly funded state schools. “This year, it’s kind of a honeymoon, but the year coming up is where the problems are really going to arise,” said Harley Scott Herman, former chairman of the Florida Bar’s student education and admission to Bar committee, and an associate at De Beaubian Knight Simmons Mantzaris & Neal in Orlando. Herman argues that several factors combined could kill at least one of Florida’s 10 law schools in the next few years. The new state law schools at Florida International University in southwestern Miami-Dade County and Florida A&M University in Orlando enrolled their first classes last fall. According to their deans, the new schools already are making progress on the mission for which they were created by the Florida Legislature in 2000 — to increase the number of minority lawyers practicing in Florida. The leaders of the three private law schools in South Florida — University of Miami, Nova Southeastern University and St. Thomas — express confidence publicly that the entry of FIU isn’t hurting them. Nevertheless, all are striving to sharpen their identities, increase awareness of their unique programs and emphases, and boost their reputations for quality. That’s particularly true for St. Thomas. Last year, only 49.4 percent of its graduates passed the Florida Bar exam on their first try, compared with 84.7 percent at UM, 71.3 percent at Nova and 90.2 percent at Florida State University — whose students boasted the state’s highest passing rate. Under new dean Robert A. Butterworth, the former Florida attorney general, St. Thomas is taking steps to toughen its admissions standards to improve the closely watched performance of its students on the bar exam. Over the last two years, law schools in Florida and around the country have reported a surge in applications — more than 60 percent at some schools. As a result, the state’s established public and private law schools say, last fall’s debut of the FIU and FAMU law schools hasn’t hurt them. The sour economy also means that a higher percentage of applicants who are accepted by the schools will respond yes when that good-news envelope arrives in the mail. In an unusual twist, law school admissions officers are fretting about too high a rate of acceptances, which could lead to the awkward and expensive problem of over-enrollment. While minorities make up about 30 percent of the state’s population, they account for only 8 percent of Florida Bar membership. It was thought that a law school at heavily Hispanic FIU would attract more Latino students, while a law school at historically black FAMU would boost enrollment of blacks. Opponents, including the now-defunct Florida Board of Regents and some Bar leaders and law school officials around the state, argued unsuccessfully that a better way to achieve greater diversity would be to strengthen scholarship programs for minority law students at the eight existing law schools. Nevertheless, last fall, the FIU law school opened its doors to 107 students, while the FAMU law school admitted an inaugural class of 89. Of the entering class at FIU, Hispanic students make up 43 percent of students, blacks 8 percent, and other minorities are 3 percent. That means that non-Hispanic whites are the largest single group at the school. At FAMU, African-American students constitute 42 percent of the first class, Hispanics 7 percent, and white students 45 percent. The deans at FIU and FAMU say their schools are not siphoning qualified minority applicants from the other two state law schools, Florida State University and University of Florida. Instead, they say, they are drawing local applicants who are not free to move to Tallahassee or Gainesville and who otherwise would not be able to attend law school. That includes working, part-time students and older, career-changing students who are being supported by a working spouse. FSU and UF agree, saying that they haven’t seen a drop in minority applicants to their schools. Some had predicted the two new state schools would face tough recruiting challenges, given that they were housed in temporary quarters, had no track record, and lacked accreditation by the American Bar Association, which is required in order for graduates of a law school to be able to take the state bar exam. But FIU law dean Leonard Strickman, former dean of the University of Arkansas’ law school, said his fledgling school has attracted plenty of candidates. For the first class, FIU received 772 applications for 110 seats and accepted 170 students to fill those spots. For the fall 2003 class, the school has received nearly 1,000 applications. “We’re going to get even more selective,” Strickman said. A significant part of FIU’s allure is financial. Many applicants are drawn to the lower tuition — about $6,000 a year compared with about $22,000 at Nova, $24,000 at St. Thomas, and $26,000 at University of Miami. Another aspect of that is FIU’s location right off Florida’s Turnpike. That allows students as far north as Palm Beach County to save money by living at home and commuting. Of the current students at FIU law school, 78 percent of students come from the tri-county area, Strickman said. “As a public urban law school, we’re providing access to people who theoretically would not have financial access to law school in the market,” he said. “A large percentage of them, if we did not exist, would not be in law school.” Playing on its location in the international crossroads of South Florida, FIU is stressing its course offerings in international and comparative law. Students are required to take at least three of their 42 credit hours in those areas. Strickman said FIU is the only law school in the country that has a required first-year course in comparative and international law. South Florida’s private law schools are taking steps to address the new competition from FIU. “I think FIU already has raised the level of concern for the other schools in this area,” said St. Thomas University’s John Makdisi, who just stepped down as law dean and was succeeded on May 19 by Butterworth. “But we’ve approached it by focusing on scholarships and by ensuring that when students apply, they know what kind of school this is.” St. Thomas hopes to counter FIU’s lower tuition by boosting its scholarship program from $2.75 million annually to $3.75 million. The school also has chosen to be more selective in the students it admits, Makdisi said, and is working hard on preparing its students better for the Bar exam. As a Roman Catholic-affiliated school, St. Thomas stresses its commitment to social justice law, including an international program in human rights, which attracts experts in human rights from around the world to teach for one week. “The student who thinks that the law is just another alternative to make money is frankly not our type of student,” Makdisi said. “We want people who have a fire in their bellies to do something and keep their idealism going.” St. Thomas also offers several master of law programs aimed at practicing lawyers, including international taxation and human rights. In addition, it just launched a one-year internship program that enables recent law school graduates from St. Thomas and other schools to work with clients under the supervision of an experienced attorney. To lessen its direct competition with FIU and other South Florida law schools, St. Thomas wants to attract more out-of-state students. Most of its students currently are from Florida. “As we become better as a school, that will draw more students from out of state,” Makdisi predicted. At Nova Southeastern, officials say the entry of FIU into the market hasn’t been a factor so far. “We haven’t really felt it yet,” said Pat Jason, associate dean of student and administrative affairs. But given the general surge in law school applications, she acknowledged, it’s too early to tell whether FIU will pinch applications at the school. Applications to Nova Southeastern are up 62 percent in the past two years, Jason said; about 80 percent of the students hail from Florida. Of the 320 students the school expects to admit this fall, about 60 will be part time. But Jason said the huge tuition difference between Nova and FIU will pose a recruiting challenge. “There’s no way you can fight that kind of tuition differential except by marketing your particular areas of expertise,” she said. The special strengths touted by Nova include its legal skills and values program. That program gives students the opportunity to gain practical experience working in the school’s 11 legal clinics, covering such areas as criminal law, international law, environmental law and personal injury. In addition, Nova offers a joint degree program with the University of Barcelona’s law school that enables graduates to practice in both the United States and Europe. Nova also continues to spotlight its program of computer technology for lawyers, which has earned the school a reputation as one of the “most wired” law schools in the nation. While Nova has not increased its scholarship aid program, Jason said the new competition from FIU has prompted the school to make scholarship offers to candidates earlier, in the hope of winning earlier commitments from students who are accepted for admission. Of the private South Florida schools, FIU may pose the least challenge to University of Miami, which draws 70 percent of its students from out of state. In addition, the UM law school dwarfs FIU’s program at this point, with 1,100 total students. As a result, dean Dennis Lynch said, UM hasn’t felt much competition from FIU. UM is the only law school in South Florida that is rated in the top 100 in the country in U.S. News & World Report‘s annual law school rankings. It checks in at 84. In contrast, U.S. News places Nova and St. Thomas in the bottom tier of law schools nationally. Despite UM’s lofty ranking, Lynch acknowledges that FIU’s much lower tuition will be an important factor for South Florida candidates, particularly those interested in attending part time. “Because of the tuition break, FIU always will be most competitive for the Florida applicant pool,” he said. In the future, Lynch predicted, FIU increasingly will compete with his school for out-of-state and Hispanic candidates — if and when FIU wins ABA accreditation. For now, UM isn’t feeling any pinch. Applications are running double the rate of three years ago. This fall Lynch expects as many as 5,000 applicants. The school will accept 1,000 to fill 390 spots. At the FAMU law school in Orlando, low tuition also is a big draw. Lower tuition means less debt at graduation, which in turn means that FAMU graduates are freer financially to practice the kind of law they prefer rather than the type that’s necessary to pay off their loans, said Bernadette Adams Davis, the school’s information coordinator. This is consistent with FAMU’s emphasis on public interest law. The school will require its third-year students to work with indigent clients in a clinical program. “Law school graduates from private institutions often don’t have the option to accept lower-paying jobs in government or public service because their debt is just too high,” Davis said. “Our graduates can have more options in the kinds of work they do.” FAMU also stresses its African-American history and its strong alumni network. In addition, like FIU, FAMU offers a convenient location. Davis notes that prior to the school’s opening last fall, there were no public law schools in the I-4 corridor — only private law schools such as Barry University and Stetson. Up north, the state’s other top law schools in the U.S. News rankings — Florida State University, ranked 64th, and University of Florida, ranked 45th — say they aren’t sweating over FIU and FAMU. For one thing, they offer in-state students the same low tuition. “We’re not doing anything different,” said Mark Seidenfeld, associate dean for academic affairs at FSU. “We have not seen any perceptible effect on our applicant pool or admissions.” “It’s not an issue for us at all,” said dean Mills at UF. “We have become one of the most selective law schools in America, so we have lots of people who still want to come here.” FSU and UF officials say the toughest recruiting issue they face is maintaining their enrollment of qualified minority students in the wake of Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2000 prohibition against race-based admissions and scholarship programs under his One Florida initiative. “In the long term, the new schools may have some impact,” Mills allowed. “But the thing that has the greatest impact is the absence of the public scholarships for minority students. That affects all law schools in Florida.” Aside from the minority recruitment challenge, will Florida’s law schools face a competitive squeeze when the economy rebounds and the torrent of law school applications turns to a trickle, as happened during the late 90s economic boom? Harley Scott Herman cites several factors that could jeopardize the state’s weaker law schools, particularly the private ones. First, the Florida Supreme Court raised the Bar exam passing score this year. That could cause problems for law schools like St. Thomas University, whose graduates posted less than a 50 percent passage rate on their first try. A low passage rate makes it harder for a law school to attract strong applicants, and can jeopardize a school’s accreditation by the ABA. Second, the two new state schools can apply for provisional ABA accreditation next spring. If they receive accreditation — and their deans were selected specifically for their expertise in the ABA accreditation process — that will greatly strengthen their recruitment, possibly at the expense of other schools. “If the economy picks up, the Bar passage rates go down, and the state schools have accreditation, it’s sort of a one-two-three-punch that could yield at least one casualty in the South Florida law schools,” Herman said. But none of the law school leaders admitted worry about this, given Florida’s large and growing population. “This is a big state and I suspect there’s enough desire to go into law that there’ll be enough students to support most all of these law schools,” Mills said. Herman agrees — to an extent. “In the long run, there certainly is a need for every school that’s here, and maybe more,” Herman said. The question is, can you keep all the schools going long enough to fulfill the need?”

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