By: Hailey Hawkins
I am not a reporter, and I may not be what many would consider a “traditional” law student. I entered Teach for America immediately after college and taught high school math in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for three years. During my second year of teaching I met and fell in love with the man who is now my husband, a CSL graduate, and an assistant public defender in Gaston County. When I decided to leave the classroom to change careers and attend law school, my primary goals were to stay close to Charlotte and attend a school that made the most economic sense for me. Now that I am in law school, involved in the Civil Rights Clinic, Moot Court Honor Board, and Law Review, I have had the opportunity to work with some of the most amazing faculty members, students, and practitioners in Charlotte.
On Thursday, September 12, 2013, WFAE Reporter Julie Rose released her investigative journalism piece on Charlotte School of Law. Like every strong investigative journalist, she approached her research by looking for a particular story, and focused on the evidence that supported her theories. Unfortunately, in a venture to paint Charlotte School of Law (“CSL”) as the biggest school in North Carolina with the lowest quality, there were several facts that were ignored or misrepresented.
Charlotte School of Law is not the “traditional” law school. While every other law school in North Carolina has an average age of 24 for the entire enrollment, the average age of a first year student at Charlotte School of Law in 2012 was 27. Many students at CSL are not the traditional students coming straight from undergraduate school who knew their whole lives that they wanted to be lawyers. Rather, the nontraditional student may want to start his or her own business based on past experiences and areas of expertise, already own a business and want the legal education to better manage that company, or see the opportunities for dual-degree programs or part-time curricula that fit in with their familial or professional lives. There are also traditional students, those coming straight from an undergraduate institution, who wanted to live in Charlotte or already lived in Charlotte. Other students have families and spouses that work and live in Charlotte, and for these individuals, commuting nearly three hours every day, or even once a week, is not an economic option.
Julie Rose quoted Elie Mystal, editor of the blog Above the Law: “If you’re that dead set on going to law school and staying in North Carolina, you should go to the absolute cheapest law school you can get into, get your degree, pass the bar and then hustle for a job. Unless you go to Duke, you’re gonna have to hustle for a job and so, you might as well hustle for a job with as little debt as possible hanging over your head.” This statement may be true, and if this is the case then it actually supports most students going to Charlotte School of Law. There are several students in Charlotte School of Law with high LSAT scores and GPAs from their undergraduate school who have made the financial decision to attend CSL because they have earned merit scholarships. There are students here because this is the only opportunity they had based on other factors, such as having a family in Charlotte, attending undergraduate school years ago, or not doing as well on the LSAT.
The reality is that Charlotte School of Law is giving people an opportunity to achieve a higher level of education that may or may not have otherwise been available. Classes of students of different of ages and backgrounds lends to conversation and case analysis far beyond what is written in the book. Most of the faculty members have practiced in their respective fields and can bring real-life situations into every class. The diversity of the student body, combined with the clinical, practice-ready approach built into the curriculum, has allowed individuals to grow beyond just the black letter law to develop practical skills that can be applied in their professions.
Ms. Rose spoke with Isaac Sturgill, a recent alumnus of Charlotte School of Law who works for Legal Aid of North Carolina in Charlotte, and instead of changing her thesis that CSL provides a low quality education, she explicitly states that “he is not the norm.” However, this statement leaves the question, “what is the norm?” The numerous clinical opportunities available to students provide hours of pro bono resources in the city, and since 2006 over 140,000 hours of legal services have been provided to Charlotte. Of these hours, 67,155.46 hours are pro bono, 59,432.36 hours through externships, and 14,465.03 are hours of community service. Julie Rose sat in on one of the meetings for the Civil Rights Clinic and, despite witnessing a conversation outlining a research proposal that could positively impact the administration of justice for parties to criminal district court proceedings, the only reference to that meeting was the picture on the website, supplementing the article. In spite of all the evidence suggesting that this clinical approach and focus on legal services actually was “the norm,” Rose focused on the cost and size of the school.
Julie Rose’s article and the statements contained therein do not paint an accurate picture. Although the CSL bar passage rate for the North Carolina July 2013 bar was 58%, this is not the average that Charlotte School of Law has produced since its inception. In February 2010, July 2010, February 2011, and February 2013 Charlotte School of Law students were above the average passage rate in the state, and over the past four years the bar passage rate has averaged approximately 70%. In terms of employment, 88.9% of the 2012 graduates were considered employed per the NALP, a national organization of legal recruiting and placement professionals that has collected legal employment data for nearly 40 years. Of this nearly 90% of graduates employed, 89.4% are employed in positions that require bar passage or a law degree, and 5.8% are employed in other professional positions.
As Rose identifies, “many of [the professors] graduated from top law schools—[and] rave about the freedom and support they get from the school.” Charlotte School of Law not only hosts professors from top law schools, such as Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, Wake Forest, and UNC, but also individuals who excelled or still excel in their practice areas. The focus on practice ready, clinical, non-traditional education allows professors to offer greater advice and experiential learning opportunities so students can hit the ground running as soon as they enter a firm or practice, or start their own firm. The faculty, which defines the quality of education available at a school, is focused on ensuring that students are leaving CSL with the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in the legal profession.
Our school is young, and our alumni base is not as established as Duke, Wake Forest, or UNC, but as the alumni base grows so will the job market in Charlotte. John Lassiter, President of Carolina Legal Staffing, stated, “The challenge is the legal profession always has biases to highly-ranked schools that have strong alumni bases.” The alumni that graduate from CSL are neither less qualified nor less intelligent to compete for the jobs, but the reality of these biases does play a role in the job market. Students from CSL will need to work twice as hard, if not more, to overcome the presumptions that Rose’s article exacerbates. Charlotte School of Law is young in the legal community, and being new naturally causes uncertainties in an established community. However, the timing and focus of Rose’s article adds greater stress to those students who just graduated, passed the bar, and are now entering the grueling job market because it builds on a negative presumption that these new lawyers will need to overcome.
Students and faculty members of Charlotte School of Law have been fighting the uphill battle to build a positive reputation and earn a position of respect in the North Carolina legal community. Rose’s article demonstrates that the battle is nowhere close to over, and calls for action on behalf of all students, faculty, and alumni of Charlotte School of Law. It is our task to prove these stereotypes wrong and demonstrate that our school and students are intelligent, talented, and providing a service in the Charlotte community. Through perseverance, hard work, and time, we can show that graduates striving for public justice and excelling in their respective fields ARE the norm.