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Four years, $60,000, a worthless law degree
By BARRY KLEIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000
ORLANDO -- In six days, Ty Parker will be handed a piece of paper that cost him four years of work and $60,000 but is now almost completely worthless.
It's his law degree.
Like each of the 120 newly minted graduates of the Barry University of Orlando School of Law, Parker, 28, was told recently that his school is unlikely to receive accreditation from the American Bar Association.
That means none of the graduates will be allowed to take the Florida Bar exam, which they must pass before they can practice law. In fact, the students will have a tough time becoming lawyers anywhere since only a handful of states allows graduates from unaccredited schools to sit for their exams.
Parker, who had hoped to practice law with his father in Crestview, says he was devastated by the news.
"Everyone here is in a state of shock," he says. "The school has had its problems, but things have definitely improved in the last year. None of us thought this would happen."
That's because everyone here thought the worst was behind them when Barry University, a well-regarded Catholic institution based in South Florida, purchased the privately run University of Orlando School of Law last year.
The law school enrolls 360 students on its 25-acre campus, which used to house a drive-in movie theater. There are two classroom buildings, an administration building and what accreditors concede is a well-stocked law library.
But the school has gone through four deans in five years of operation. And before Barry started signing checks, it owed vendors more than $2-million and was having trouble meeting its payroll.
Associate dean Frank Schiavo has been on board from the beginning. He says the difference since Barry officials arrived is "night and day."
"They have been extraordinarily committed to fixing the problems," he says.
But they may have come too late.
The ABA gives students who graduate from an unaccredited law school what amounts to a 12-month window. If their school can secure provisional accreditation within that period, they can take the Bar exam.
But if time runs out, so does the value of their degree.
The clock is already running for the 17 Barry students who graduated in January. It will start ticking for the next 120 graduates when they receive their diplomas June 11.
Sister Peggy Albert, the school's executive vice president, told students last week that the college intends to vigorously appeal an ABA committee's recent recommendation against provisional accreditation.
The school thinks it has a real shot at winning. An ABA council will review the case and issue a ruling in July.
Sister Peggy says she knows the students are hurting, especially those who just graduated. "We're telling them all to be positive," she says.
Eric duBois, president of the school's Student Bar Association, is trying.
"Even if I can't practice law, I'll still have a professional degree," says the 25-year-old University of South Florida graduate, who says he borrowed $60,000 to pay for his legal education. "At least it will be on my resume."
At a time when Florida is gearing up to create two new public law schools, in large part to increase the number of minority lawyers in the state, the problems in Orlando offer a cautionary note.
Sister Peggy says one of Barry's primary missions is to educate minority students, who make up about 30 percent of the law school's enrollment.
She says a major reason Barry bought the law school is to ensure that its minority graduates have access to legal education.
But the team that recommended against accreditation focused much of its attention on the school's low admission standards.
Some first-year students, for example, were admitted with grade-point averages as low as 2.03. That record wouldn't even be considered at law schools such as the University of Florida's, where the median GPA for last fall's class was 3.57.
Schiavo says a number of the students cited in the report are minorities. He says it doesn't seem fair to censure Barry for admitting them when the ABA's standards require law schools to provide opportunities to minority students.
While school officials say they will make that point when they argue for accreditation next month, the truth is many of Barry's students ended up here because it was one of the few, and sometimes only, law schools that would take them.
Parker says he tried to get into law schools at UF and Florida State, but was turned down.
"I had a pretty average test score and GPA, and they said no," he says. "But I liked what I saw when I visited here, and they accepted me. So here I am."
Parker remains hopeful that Barry will secure accreditation before time runs out on his plan to join his father's law practice.
So hopeful, in fact, he already is studying for the Bar exam.
"I've got my fingers crossed," he says.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.