BY DENISE-MARIE ORDWAY
ORLANDO SENTINEL (MCT)
ORLANDO – Florida A&M University’s law school in Orlando is “well positioned to thrive” but still falls short in academic quality and a number of other areas, according to a new report from the American Bar Association.
One key conclusion from the report: More than 30 percent of the students entering FAMU’s College of Law do not graduate or pass the Florida Bar exam, even after multiple attempts. And those who borrow money to pay for their educations leave with about $96,000 in debt, on average.
FAMU’s law school already ranks last among Florida’s 11 law schools in the percentage of students who pass the bar exam on their first try.
Last week, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners announced that 68 percent of FAMU students passed the most recent exam the first time around, compared with 91 percent of students at the University of Florida and 89 percent at Florida State University, two of the more established state-funded law schools.
While the 68 percent passage rate is low, it does indicate significant improvement. Just three years ago, when the law school in downtown Orlando earned full accreditation from the American Bar Association, the rate was less than 53 percent.
The 84-page report released by the American Bar Association offers insight into how the school has grown and changed. A team of experts who visited the program earlier this year compiled the report as part of a regularly scheduled review of its accreditation.
The bar association’s Accreditation Committee will meet in January to discuss the report and FAMU’s accreditation.
Criticism of FAMU
It’s tough to say whether the report could impact the law school’s accreditation, but longtime FAMU trustee Bill Jennings of Orlando thinks the program’s accreditation is not in jeopardy.
Jennings, who helped lead the push to bring the law school to Orlando, hesitated to comment further because the report was not supposed to be released to the public.
The American Bar Association would not comment on the report or the accreditation process. But its report contains a lot of criticism of FAMU.
The report, obtained by the Orlando Sentinel through a public records request, also cites as concerns the school’s low faculty morale and continuing cuts to funding.
In addition, at the time the report was written, two of the four associate deans were planning to leave and several administrative positions were either vacant or had been eliminated to reduce costs.
No violations report
LeRoy Pernell, the law school’s dean, pointed out that the American Bar Association’s report is a gathering of facts — not findings related to violations or a lack of compliance to accreditation standards.
He also stressed that such reports are designed to highlight weaknesses as a way to help law schools improve.
“The reports are often very helpful in pointing out areas we will need to work on,” said Pernell. “The accreditation standards are quite extensive and we want to make sure that the (FAMU) law school is doing everything it can to meet those.”
Pernell added that FAMU officials are continuing to check the accuracy of the information included in the report and that improvements have been made since the team of experts visited in March.
For example, starting this fall semester, first-year law students are required to take two courses designed to help them bolster the analytical skills they will need to be successful in law school and on the bar exam. Previously, only struggling students were required to take those classes.
Pernell said he expects such changes to help boost the law school’s bar exam passage rate.
The American Bar Association, however, suggests there is a link between the low passage rate on bar exams and the law school’s admissions policies.
The FAMU law school admits students with lower grade-point averages and scores on the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, than many other schools. But administrators stand by the school’s mission of offering educational opportunities to minority students and others who otherwise might not have them.
For example, the median GPA was a 3.10 for students admitted to FAMU’s law school in 2010-11.
Meanwhile, the median GPA at UF’s law school was a 3.64 and the median at FSU was a 3.47, according to the Law School Admission Council, which collects a variety of data annually from law schools nationwide.
Life experiences weighed
The median LSAT score for students admitted to FAMU’s law school in 2010-11 was 148. The median score among students at both UF and FSU was 162.
The American Bar Association report stresses that while the law school is allowed to consider factors such as a student’s background and life experiences when determining who to admit, it is not clear whether FAMU is admitting students who can graduate law school and pass the bar exam even after multiple attempts.
“Certainly, it is admitting students who, by numerical predictors at least, could easily be identified as being at risk of either failing to graduate or failing the bar exam,” the report says.
FAMU already has been sharply criticized in recent months for the large number of lower performing students it admits to undergraduate programs at its Tallahassee campus. State officials recently required the university to submit a plan to drastically reduce those numbers in the coming years as a way to boost its low graduation rate.
Only 12 percent of students who enter FAMU as freshmen earn bachelors’ degrees within four years, according to data from 2010-11.
The Bar Association report also says that although faculty size has increased steadily at FAMU’s law school and faculty members continue to improve their teaching and scholarship, the “rigor in the classroom and on examinations is sometimes lacking, a problem particularly important given the lower entering credentials of the students and difficulties passing the bar exam of many graduates.”