The Charlotte School of Law has drawn scrutiny in part because of the low percentage of students who have passed the state bar in the last few years. It has consistently had the lowest pass rate in North Carolina, and ranks among the worst in the country.
In February of 2015, for example, the school’s official passage rate for students who took the bar for the first time is listed at 42 percent. But in reality, the pass rate would have been in the 20s if not for a program that paid struggling students not to take the bar. At least that’s what Odessa Alm, the school’s assistant dean for student success, told a small group of faculty members. (Click here to listen to the 37-minute audio.)
"You know if we didn’t have the extended program last time – if we all didn’t work really hard to defer the 21 people we deferred, our pass rate would have been 20-something percent."
A law school professor secretly recorded those comments in the summer of 2015. The school was pushing some faculty to divert graduates to a program that paid them up to $11,200 not to take the bar and instead enter a bar preparation program.
Charlotte School of Law resumed classes this week with an uncertain future. The ABA has put it on probation, and the Department of Education will no longer give the school federal loan money. School officials hope that changes with the Trump administration.
RUMSEY: Lisa, what is this recording and why does it matter?
WORF: It's a recording of a meeting between Alm and professors that help coach students and graduates, so that they're ready to take the bar. This one is about a week before the July 2015 administration of the bar. There are many intriguing sections to the 37 minute recording. What you just heard is especially so in light of the bar deferral program. See, law schools are judged by the percentage of graduates that pass the bar on their first try. It's important for recruiting students and it's important for the school's accreditors, the American Bar Association. A low bar passage rate is one of the reasons the ABA put Charlotte School of Law on probation.
RUMSEY: What is so telling about this piece of tape?
WORF: There are a few ways you can view paying students to hold off on taking the bar. You can say, "We really want our students to pass the bar, so we're willing to give them a stipend, give them a rigorous bar prep course, and make sure they're up to speed to take it six months later." In the most skeptical light, you can say, "it's administrators inflating the school's bar passage rates." This piece of tape makes it clear that a senior administrator is very conscious of how that program has paid off for the school's bar passage rate.
RUMSEY: What does Charlotte School of Law say about this?
WORF: We gave them the quote and that recorded portion, as well as a list of questions the entire recording raises, and they asked for a background/off-the-record meeting. We said we were willing to listen, but needed to have at least some portion on the record. We got an email back later saying, "This topic deals with pending litigation that includes allegations we strongly disagree with. We'll address them in the proper forum and have no further comment at this time."
RUMSEY: What else stands out to you from the tape?
WORF: Certainly the desperation in Odessa Alm's voice. Now, remember this is a week before the bar exam. She's talking to professors who coach, at this point, recent graduates to get them ready to take the bar. These are not graduates going through the deferral program called Path to Success. The students have been taking practice exams that give the school an indication of whether they will pass the exam. It's not looking good at this point, and she wants the coaches to get on them.
ALM: When you’re coaching someone and they're being lazy, do you allow them to be? [No.] Okay, so do we tell them if they're training for some event do we say, "It's okay. You're not where you need to be. Keep trying." We're not cheerleaders. We're coaches. "Get down on the f***ing floor and give me 40. You're going to run more laps." That’s what a coach is. A coach is not a cheerleader.”
WORF: Remember, we're talking about law school graduates here, not high school students. And bar prep is something most law schools leave completely up to the student.
RUMSEY: To put it mildly, Alm doesn't seem to think highly of Charlotte School of Law students.
WORF: No, not at least with their ability to pass the bar, study, and understand information. It seems to be a recognition that the school is either admitting too many unqualified students (at its peak the school had about 1,500 students, easily the largest in the state) or the school isn't doing its job educating students. She does talk about the all-importance of the bar passage rate. She also brings up how a low bar passage rate hurts students.
ALM: They're going to fail and that's not just bad on us. Do you want to have another 60% of our students being without a job and have a $150,000 worth of debt. You have to figure out some way to have the conversation with them.
WORF: And she's talking there about a conversation where they are in their bar prep, basically, what the chances look like for them.
RUMSEY: How much of a priority does the school put on bar passage?
WORF: It appears quite a lot. The school changed its curriculum recently to require students to take an additional bar passage course. And the school runs a lot of numbers to see if their students and recent graduates are on track to pass. It's clear in these recordings that has a lot of weight with school administrators, but also that InfiLaw, the for-profit company that operates Charlotte School of Law and two other schools, keeps close track. Here's Alm again. She mentions Rick Inatome. He's the CEO of InfiLaw.
ALM: It is a week...Right, didn't you feel so f***ing bad when we had 42 percent pass the bar. And we felt like some responsibility for that. I don't want to feel that way anymore. We need to be able to say, to f***ing Rick, who's emailing me the weekend before the bar exam, that we have done every f***ing thing and that's why I'm getting on you guys about it.
WORF: So there's certainly a lot of pressure on these coaches to do everything to get graduates to pass the bar. And Alm reminds them that their jobs are riding on it too.