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Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School has cleared a major hurdle in its long effort to win accreditation from the American Bar Association. The school’s pass rate for first-time takers of the July bar exam was 81 percent for the school’s 16 new graduates, who are the first products of Dean John E. Ryan’s three-year tenure. The school’s overall first-time pass rate was 72 percent. This is a marked improvement over the school’s first-time pass rates of 43 percent the previous year and 27 percent the year before that, and it brings the school much closer to this fall’s average 93 percent pass rate for first-time test takers from the state’s four accredited law schools. “I think the kids responded very well [to the school's changes] over the past three years, and these are the results. I also think they got a much better education than people have been willing to give us credit for,” Ryan said. Mercer University School of Law led Georgia’s accredited law schools for the first time with a 94.2 percent first-time pass rate. The University of Georgia School of Law and Georgia State University College of Law posted pass rates of 93.2 percent and 92 percent, respectively, and Emory University School of Law had a 92.6 percent rate. The average 93 percent pass rate for students from these accredited schools far surpassed the 81 percent pass rate for those taking the bar from out of state, said Hulett H. “Bucky” Askew, the director of the Georgia Office of Bar Admissions. The John Marshall dean acknowledged that the extent of his school’s improvement surprised him. “I’d be a damn liar if I said no,” he said. “I am pleasantly surprised and greatly relieved.” The school is making its fifth bid since 1997 for ABA accreditation. The ABA refused to accredit the school on its four previous attempts in part because of low bar pass rates. The school must receive national accreditation by 2008 or it will lose its Georgia accreditation, which allows students who pass the state bar exam to practice law in Georgia. The dean will travel to Little Rock, Ark., on Friday to find out whether the ABA’s accreditation committee shares his confidence in the school’s future. He hopes the improved pass rate, along with other improvements in the curriculum, faculty, library and classrooms, will persuade the committee to recommend John Marshall for accreditation to the ABA Council on Legal Education, which would make its own decision by early December. If the council approved the recommendation, all that would remain is concurrence by the ABA House of Delegates at its mid-winter meeting in Salt Lake City. Askew, who is a member of the Council on Legal Education but will recuse himself in the John Marshall accreditation decision, said that it would be difficult for anyone outside the 19-member committee to predict Friday’s outcome, because the evaluation process is so complicated and so many people are involved. Ryan has “done most of the things, perhaps all of the things, that need to be done from the accreditation perspective,” Askew said. “They’re right on the verge now,” he added. “Whether they make it or not, I really don’t know. For anyone to speculate would be premature.” INHERITED TROUBLE Ryan faced a daunting task when he arrived at John Marshall in the summer of 2001 with the charge of getting the school accredited. The admissions requirements, number of full-time faculty, curriculum, library, classrooms and finances — just about everything that makes a law school — were far below ABA standards. The school was still recovering from what previous dean Robert J. D’Agostino called its “darkest time,” when it did not receive in 1999 the ABA accreditation that D’Agostino and other faculty members had expected. At the time, the school’s deadline from the Georgia Supreme Court for national accreditation was 2001. That meant that students enrolling in 1999 faced the prospect of being unable to gain a bar license when they graduated. The failed accreditation bid hit the school hard: Only 25 students entered John Marshall that fall, down from 173 just two years earlier. The Georgia Supreme Court gave the school a reprieve in July 1999, allowing it until 2003 to gain ABA accreditation. Just as Ryan arrived, the court again extended the deadline, to 2008. In 1999, the school’s finances were in serious trouble — another reason the ABA had turned down its accreditation bid. At that time, said Jorge L. Flores Jr., a 2000 graduate, “we didn’t know if we were going to have class the next week because there was not enough money to pay the faculty.” He said students even took up a collection to keep the school open and raised $19,000. “We believed in the school,” he said. “They believed in us and gave us the opportunity a lot of other schools wouldn’t give us.” Flores now runs his own four-attorney law practice in Conyers, specializing in workers’ compensation and personal injury for the Latino community. To gain a much-needed infusion of capital, D’Agostino, who remains on the faculty, approached Argosy Education Group (now Argosy University), a for-profit chain of clinical psychology schools that had diversified into medical and legal education. Argosy took over John Marshall’s management in the fall of 1999 with the goal of ABA accreditation. The company subsequently bought John Marshall in March 2000. In October 2001, four months after Ryan started as dean, Argosy’s founder, Michael C. Markovitz, bought the law school outright. John Marshall and a Canadian vocational school were all that he kept from the company. “Here is a diamond in the rough. Here is something that could be a real asset in the community if only it could be whipped into shape,” he said of his decision to buy the school, which he said is not yet profitable. It was Markovitz who recruited Ryan, who had successfully led Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island to ABA accreditation. Ryan, a night law school graduate himself with a degree from the McGeorge School of Law in California, accepted the job, he said, for the challenge and because he believes that law schools with night programs, such as John Marshall, should continue to exist. “If admission to the legal profession is going to be reserved for the rich and well-heeled, then you don’t need a place like this,” said Ryan. “If one believes that American society is far better served by providing the greatest access to the legal profession, then we need the John Marshalls of the world.” REINVENTING JOHN MARSHALL When Ryan arrived in June 2001, he started his reinvention of the school by establishing a core curriculum. Before, students had been allowed to take classes in any order. The dean, who teaches a first-year contracts class, was surprised to find the student body president — a 3L — in his class that fall. Next, he instructed the faculty to tighten their grading, which “has become far more realistic,” he said. As a result, the school has gone from having few, if any, students flunk out before Ryan’s arrival to an academic attrition rate of about 13 percent for the last three entering classes. Ryan noted that he expects that rate to decline as the school matures. But the toughest task Ryan faced may have been to raise admission standards when the school’s reputation was at a low point. Ryan established a formal recruiting program that fall and dispatched the admissions director on a tour of the state’s colleges and universities to promote the school, which had not been done before, he said. TOUGHER STANDARDS Several students who arrived in 2001 said they enrolled despite the school’s problems because they believed that it would improve. Cheril L. Lee, a night student who expects to graduate in May, said she spoke to Ryan before applying and believed he could accomplish his mission. “I knew they were making big changes. I knew in what direction they were moving,” she said. “From what I understood, there was about to be a huge transformation, and I was excited to be involved with that,” said O. Glenn Goodhand IV, a 4L who enrolled because he wanted to attend law school part-time while running the entertainment promotion company he’d started. “My entrepreneurial spirit saw something blooming and developing.” When Ryan arrived, there was no minimum LSAT requirement. The school essentially practiced open admissions, he said. The dean initially set an LSAT score minimum of 140, which has risen incrementally over his tenure, most recently to 150 last March. The median LSAT score at Emory is 164, at UGA it is 162, and at Mercer it is 156. The average LSAT at GSU is 158. GPAs at the state’s accredited law schools range from 3.3 to 3.7. The average undergraduate GPA for the incoming class at John Marshall has risen to 3.1 for this year’s incoming class from 2.6 in 2001. Admissions have become more selective over the past three years. The school received 190 applications for fall 2001 and admitted 57 percent, the dean said. For the fall 2004 class, the school received 455 applications and admitted 37 percent. Even though the school has become far more selective, it has still increased enrollment from about 120 in 2001 to 180 at present. The school has room for 450 to 500 students, Ryan said. A FACULTY OVERHAUL The dean also has performed a massive faculty overhaul. He has hired 10 full-time faculty members for a current total of 16 (not including himself) — up from 10 when he arrived. As a result, he’s sharply reduced the standard teaching load from nine classes per year to four, while also reducing the school’s reliance on adjuncts, which had not sat well with the ABA. He also revamped the school’s writing program, in part because of the importance of essay questions on the Georgia Bar Exam. Several of the school’s new faculty left lucrative, albeit junior, positions with large firms or in the corporate world to join the school. The firm’s four new faculty hires for this year include associates from Alston & Bird and Troutman Sanders and corporate counsel from Georgia-Pacific Corp. And Ryan made a few unconventional hires. The school’s director of public relations and alumni development, Virginia Greer, is a case in point. After a 13-year career in insurance litigation, Greer, who graduated from the Washington and Lee University School of Law, was burnt out on corporate law and ready for a change. She was considering a new career in corporate communications and took a job in the interim waiting tables at Veni Vidi Vici, where the dean is a regular customer. At the time, in 2002, Ryan needed someone to organize an alumni association, establish a career placement office and launch the school’s public relations and marketing efforts — none of which yet existed. He offered Greer the job. “I saw an amazing opportunity to take something and build it,” said Greer. Greer found a “fractured and apathetic” alumni base. There was no alumni association, and the school didn’t know where many of its graduates were. Now there is an alumni association, a newsletter and, once the school gains accreditation, it may embark on its first organized fund-raising campaign. The school also had never had a real career placement program. Accreditation would allow the school to join the National Association for Law Placement, a career network made up of law schools and legal employers from around the United States. Only ABA-accredited law schools can join NALP. The eight-story building that houses John Marshall at 1422 West Peachtree St. is beginning to look more like a law school, thanks to $800,000 in renovations. Ryan recalled that when he arrived in 2001, the school’s only lecture hall was so close to the street that the noise made it like “sitting in the middle of the Talladega 500.” The library was scattered across different bits of three floors. The noisy lecture hall has been turned into a student lounge, new state-of-the-art classrooms have been built, and the library now occupies all of three floors. Empty cubicles on the administration floor await student loan coordinators. Federal education loans are available only to accredited schools. Ryan was not offered a performance bonus to get the school accredited, although he might receive a psychic bonus, said Markovitz. “It’s not about money. It’s about a job well done and doing the right thing by the students, the faculty and the community,” he said. “I might take him out for a nice steak dinner,” he added.

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