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Test results expose FAMU law school struggles

When officials opened the new $30-million law school building last month, a little talked about fact was that barely half of FAMU's law school grads passed the state bar exam, a requirement for praticing law.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published April 23, 2006


ORLANDO - When Florida A&M University opened its $30-million law school building last month, administrators and supporters hailed it as a symbol of the young school's progress.

What officials didn't talk about: the bar passage rate of FAMU's first law school graduates.

It is the lowest of Florida's four public law schools and among the worst of any Florida law school, public or private.

Barely half of the 51 FAMU graduates who took the Florida Bar exam in July passed. And just 13 of them were African-American, according to FAMU records.

That's not what state lawmakers had in mind after investing more than $40-million in the law school since 2000. They were told a law school run by a historically black university would dramatically increase the number of African-American lawyers in Florida.

FAMU's bar passage rates will be one of several factors that determine whether the American Bar Association fully endorses the law school, which has been shaken by payroll problems, low black enrollment and a donation scandal that led to the ouster of its first dean.

Interim dean James M. Douglas concedes the school has work to do as it grinds through the accreditation process, which began in November with a site visit from ABA officials.

"Bar passage is not what we want it to be, and it's not where it will be," Douglas said.

He doesn't think FAMU's passage rate is low enough to threaten accreditation. But he acknowledges it can be a deterrent when recruiting students.

"Nobody wants to go to a law school that doesn't prepare you for the bar," Douglas said. "Nobody wants to go to a law school that doesn't get accredited."

ABA officials and some Florida law school administrators caution against putting too much weight on bar passage rates.

"Bar passage often comes up because it's an easy number to look at, but the accreditation committee looks at a range of things," said George Dawson, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Florida law school.

The ABA also considers a school's curriculum, financial stability, admissions process and the quality of its faculty, said Nancy Slonim, an ABA spokeswoman.

The FAMU law school was granted provisional accreditation two years ago, which is why its graduates can take the bar exam. But that privilege will end if the school can't secure final accreditation.

Douglas said he thinks many of the FAMU students who failed the bar in July did so for lack of personal preparation, not because of any weakness in the school.

Indira Toolsie, a third-year student who will take the bar in a few months, said she loves FAMU's law program because it is geared toward bar passage.

"I feel so much more prepared than my counterparts at other law schools," she said. "I have the edge."

Still, FAMU administrators say they are working to improve their bar preparation, in part by urging students to put as much effort into studying for the exam as for their class tests.

"They are well on their way to answering some of the problems," said Senate Minority Leader Les Miller, D-Tampa, who pushed hard for the school. "I still think . . . FAMU is producing the students that we need."

Eileen Gongora-O'Malley, 30, is one of the 27 FAMU law graduates who passed the bar in July. She also is one of the handful of Hispanics who were in the school's inaugural class.

She attributes the high number of bar failures to several factors, including the fact that FAMU law students don't fit a traditional mold.

"This was a second career for a lot of us," said Gongora-O'Malley, who now practices family law in Sanford. "People were juggling businesses, babies just born that they barely saw."

Admissions data show FAMU students are older and academically weaker than their counterparts at the Florida International University law school in Miami, which was created at the same time as FAMU's law school.

The average age of FAMU law students is 32. At predominantly Hispanic FIU, which also is seeking full accreditation, the average age of full-time students is 26.

FIU law students had significantly better undergraduate grades than their FAMU counterparts. And they scored higher on the law school admissions test.

FAMU law graduates did slightly better on the bar exam administered in February, with 57 percent passing. But that still lagged far behind the 86 percent passage rate of FIU graduates.

"In a short period of time, we have developed a program that is competitive with the best law schools in Florida," said FIU law school dean Leonard Strickman. "If we had low bar passage rates, I'd be concerned."

Both schools, however, share one problem: drawing enough students from their ethnic base.

FIU's law school is 42 percent white, 41 percent Hispanic and 11 percent black. Its stated goal is to increase the number of Hispanic lawyers in Florida.

FAMU's law school is 44 percent black, 39 percent white and 13 percent Hispanic.

"I was surprised not to see more minorities (at FAMU)," said Toolsie, 26, who is African-American. "But we are a lot more diversified than the typical law school, so that's a good thing."

Douglas said FAMU is working to attract more black students by recruiting at historically black universities. But it isn't easy.

"The problem with a new school is convincing good students to be part of something new," Douglas said.

And even as it tries to lure more black students, the school has been plagued by management and accounting problems that could make potential applicants leery.

In June, then-law school dean Percy Luney Jr. stepped down after it was discovered that a donor paid $1-million to the law school to create an endowed chair - then got $100,000 a year to fill the chair himself.

The same month, law school professors threatened a boycott after they didn't get paychecks for several weeks. Douglas said a computer glitch caused the problem.

The search for a permanent law school dean, one of several vacant FAMU dean positions, is under way. Douglas' contract runs out June 30, but he said he will stay until a dean is hired.

University of South Florida graduate Chris Giacinto, 33, commutes to FAMU's Orlando campus from Tampa. He said he is pleased with the law school and impressed with his professors.

"But the administration could be improved," he said. "The fact that this is a startup school, they need to stop saying that. We're in year four. This is it.

"Now it's up to us to make it."

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 23, 2006, 22:41:02]


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