And yet, in spite of this expertise and what Clarke described as “the best of intentions,” in November 2016, the ABA censured Valparaiso and placed Charlotte on probation—in both cases because of actions that occurred under Conison’s watch. The censure at Valparaiso covered the years between 2007 and 2013, during which time the ABA claimed that the school had admitted students who were unprepared to pass basic legal classes or the bar examination. In the case of Charlotte’s probation, ABA officials cited a lax admissions policy as well as the absence of a “rigorous program of legal education” that would prepare students for the bar examination.
I recently reached out to Conison to get his take on the troubles facing the school. He initially accepted, but Victoria Taylor, the school’s public-relations director, later canceled our interview, asking that I instead refer to letters the dean had issued to the university community.
Clarke wasn’t surprised by Conison’s reluctance to speak on the record. “You asked me for the names of other professors to talk to, faculty who recently left or are still there … well, not many people are going to be willing to go on the record,” he said. “The faculty who took buyouts accepted them subject to non-disclosure agreements, and the folks who are still there are probably nervous about what’s going on right now. Everyone is worried about lawsuits.”
Lost in the struggle to keep Charlotte’s doors open is a discussion of the school’s much-changed curriculum, which may have already left many underprepared students without a secure option to continue their law education.
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“Over the past decade, law schools have been cutting off their noses to spite their faces as far as course offerings go,” Wasserman explained, noting that law schools had begun emphasizing skills-based education, such as clinical experiences, at the expense of elective courses that covered subjects that were on state bar exams. “Learning how to practice law is useful, and it’s nice to see law schools teaching you how to draft documents and interview clients, but we used to learn that on our own, after law school.”
Clarke affirms Wasserman’s assessment, at least insofar as it applies to Charlotte School of Law. “We had a legitimately fantastic teaching faculty, the best I’ve ever encountered … everyone was there because they wanted to be there,” he said. However, Clarke stressed that Charlotte’s focus on practical skills over instruction in bar exam subjects proved problematic in a state that tests students across 16 subject areas. “Many of our students weren’t very good writers when they arrived, and by the time they graduated, they weren’t all that much better equipped to answer the essay questions on the bar exam.”
October’s probation was only the beginning for Charlotte, which, like Valparaiso, had already bought out the contracts of some of its faculty. The Department of Education’s decision in December to terminate CSL’s access to federal loans, however, meant the end was not only going to be certain but also swift; last year, federal aid and loans to the school’s students amounted to nearly $50 million. Feelings of confusion and anger permeated the campus, with students worried about their futures. “Again, it’s just infuriating. We’re smarter than that. [Administrators] should have told us this stuff beforehand. You have held our futures hostage,” a third-year law student, Margaret Kocaj, told The Charlotte Observer.