The Rise and Fall of a Law School Library
by Anthony Aycock
Not many people get to start a library from scratch. I did. On June 5, 2006, I became the 14th employee, and first librarian, to start work at Charlotte, N.C.’s privately owned, for-profit Charlotte School of Law. Things were great for a while. Then they weren’t. Duncan Alford, the inaugural library director, resigned after less than a year, in a snit over finances. I left 2 years after that. Eight years later, the school was placed on probation by its accreditor, the American Bar Association (ABA). Next, it lost its ability to offer federal student loans. The school tried everything to stay in business, but the dog, as they say, just wouldn’t hunt. On Aug. 10, 2017, its state operating license was yanked, and Charlotte School of Law was no more.
A PROMISING START
Charlotte in the mid-2000s was a city on the rise. It was the second-largest city in the southeast and had the fastest-growing metro area. It was home to Bank of America, the nation’s second-largest bank; Duke Energy, its largest electric utility; pro teams in basketball, football, and hockey; and UNC–Charlotte, the third-largest of the University of North Carolina’s 16 campuses. Jobs, culture, education, livability: The Queen City had everything. Everything except a law school.
“We’ve got a growing, affluent population that wants better medical, dental and professional services,” wrote Wachovia chief economist John Silvia in 2005. “But we don’t have the educational resources to produce these people.” Tired of importing the best doctors and lawyers, he thought the city should “grow its own.” It’s not like it hadn’t been tried. UNC–Charlotte and Queens University, a private school, had both failed to make it happen.
Then came Sterling Partners, a Chicago-based venture capital firm. Sterling had money. It had Wall Street prestige. It was motivated. Best of all, it already operated two law schools: Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville and Phoenix School of Law, later renamed Arizona Summit Law School. In March 2005, it launched Charlotte School of Law.
In early 2006, the school began hiring staff, including its founding dean, Eugene Clark. I was serving as the director of the Mecklenburg County Law & Government Library, a barely solvent nonprofit. It was once part of the county public library but had been spun off—some might say cast off—a few years before. It was the city’s only law library, and the board had been putting off closing it for months. Not wanting to be out of a job, I thought the new law school might be interested in buying us out. It would need a collection, after all, plus it could pick up two staff members: Heather, my part-time clerk, and me.
The board president contacted Clark, who decided to meet with us. Within minutes, he had agreed to the acquisition. I was impressed with the school’s three-fold mission:
1. Produce practice-ready lawyers.
2. Be student-centric.
3. Serve the needs of the underserved.
I had also always wanted to work in an academic library. I had been talked out of a career as a professor years before; this felt like a second chance. Finally, I was excited to start a library. In previous jobs, I had been a fixer, cleaning up after months of institutional neglect. This time, I would be on the front end, making sure things were done right.
SUCCESS, BUT MISMANAGEMENT
In those heady early days, the school’s eventual closure would have seemed improbable. Everyone—news media, business leaders, the legal community—had boarded the Charlotte School of Law train. Clark was avuncular and well-spoken and a good ambassador for InfiLaw (Sterling’s parent company for its law schools). The rest of the faculty, which included some Harvard alumni, also seemed first-rate. The school would operate in a rented building while a brand-new, permanent home was constructed. About 100 students—most full-time day, some part-time evening—formed the inaugural class.
Most schools teach legal theory, not the meat and potatoes of being a lawyer, so Charlotte School of Law’s practical focus earned it far-reaching praise. Those initial students got prestigious clerkships with judges and leading law firms. They were also civically engaged, teaching law classes at high schools and staffing pro bono legal clinics. The North Carolina Court of Appeals held oral arguments at the school. ESPN’s Jay Bilas, a Charlotte resident, gave a talk. Katie Couric broadcast CBS Evening News from the rooftop. We sailed through provisional accreditation in 2008. Full accreditation seemed a fait accompli.
And yet, even in that Midas-touch era, there were signs of mismanagement. Alford, despite Clark’s assurance that I would be the library’s associate director, refused to use me at that level, dumping me into a reference librarian slot. Moreover, he offered Heather a salary so picayune, she declined and found another job instead. When InfiLaw set the library budget at more than a million dollars less than Alford had been promised, it was too much for him, and he left for the University of South Carolina. Other faculty members left too, maybe because, instead of teaching and scholarship, they were made to focus on business culture nonsense like accountability groups, continuous personal improvement, and Jim Collins’ Good to Great. Applicants who failed to meet the middling admissions standards could pay for a series of online courses that purported to simulate law school but were actually a money grab. “I definitely felt misled,” one student told The Charlotte Observer. “That program they sold me doesn’t get you ready for anything. It’s taking $3,000 from people for a joke.”
Despite these shortcomings, Charlotte School of Law achieved full ABA accreditation on June 10, 2011, which was 18 months after my departure. It was the last bit of good news for the school. In 2012, a student was charged with second-degree murder when he pushed a person through the open front door of a bar and into a car’s path. In 2013, barely half of the previous year’s class got a job that required passing the bar. Nearly 10% found no work at all. In 2015, one staff member recorded another talking about a plan to pay certain students not to take the bar exam. Why? Those students were likely to fail.
This was a recurring problem for Charlotte School of Law, which often had the lowest bar passage rate of the seven North Carolina law schools. Only 58% passed in 2015. By 2016, it was 45%. (The state average was usually in the 70s.) The reason is clear: The school accepted students it shouldn’t have, students with shaky undergraduate grades and Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores. Grades and test scores are often pooh-poohed as poor measures of how a student will fare in college. And yet, for law school and the bar exam, they are excellent predictors. This is why the ABA pays attention to them. And this is why, when they dipped too low, with the corresponding drop in bar passage, the ABA placed the school on probation, ordering it to come up with a plan to improve these metrics. A month later, the U.S. Department of Education canceled federal loan funding, calling the school “dishonest” and “misleading” in describing the education it offered and the likelihood of its students becoming lawyers.
The reaction to this was a collective “WTF?!” Students hadn’t known anything was wrong. Now they were on the hook for $40,000 a year in tuition. On Dec. 24, 2016, a group of them filed a class-action lawsuit. Other lawsuits followed. Rather than focusing on its plan to get off of probation, the school warred with the ABA, threatening a suit of its own. Finally, in August 2017, its license to operate as a postsecondary institution expired. Charlotte School of Law was fully, finally gone.
Other InfiLaw schools are either shuttered or heading that way. Arizona Summit Law School closed in 2018 after losing its accreditation and being evicted for failing to pay rent. In 2019, Florida Coastal School of Law applied to the ABA for nonprofit status and was denied. Twice. It was also found to be noncompliant with two sections of Standard 202, which requires schools to have adequate financial resources.
What hasn’t gone away is the litigation. The 2016 class-action suit was settled for $2.65 million. Others are still out there, including a 2019 action against Sterling Partners, alleging consumer fraud and deceptive business practices that left students with $200,000 in non-dischargeable student loans plus the cold comfort of a diploma from a disgraced organization. Meanwhile, what remains of Charlotte School of Law made good on its threat to sue the ABA, claiming that the organization acted improperly when it put the school on probation in 2016. Good times.
How do I feel about the demise of the school and the library I helped build? I run into Charlotte School of Law graduates from time to time. Some are working; some are not. Some are proud of their alma mater; some gave their diplomas to scrap paper drives. Most get this bewildered, Picard-after-rescue-from-the-Borg look when they contemplate what happened.
I’m proud of my work at Charlotte School of Law. I helped hire and train six staff members. I supervised two collection moves: the Mecklenburg County Law & Government Library collection into our first building in 2006, then the whole library into a new building in 2008. I wrote policies and designed the library website. My daughter and her friends had summer jobs with us unboxing and shelving all of the books. I taught legal research and writing to the first-year students.
Best of all, I got library director Alford to agree to open the library to the public, which was not his inclination. He worried about patrons hanging around, turning an environment meant for study into one of recreation. Perhaps he forgot that people don’t go to a law library for fun. They go because they are getting a divorce. Or fighting for child custody. Or appealing a prison sentence. Or avoiding eviction. Their situation is frightening, they can’t afford an attorney, and time is running out.
“It’s tragic,” says Kim Allman, a former Charlotte School of Law staffer, “because now Charlotte, my hometown, has no law library. All that work is wasted. For the sake of greed, something wonderful was destroyed.” So another predatory for-profit has ended up on the ash heap of history. I used to cringe when I saw it on my resume or discussed it in interviews (thank goodness it hasn’t kept me from getting jobs), but that feeling is fading. I no longer have that academic career I once dreamed of, which is fine. And I did learn something valuable: In every situation, do the opposite of InfiLaw. If I stick to that, I’ll be Librarian of Congress in no time.