JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 43,000-square-foot building on Jacksonville’s Southside now sits empty after Florida Coastal School of Law — once considered a respected, up-and-coming Jacksonville law school — closed its doors for good at the end of the 2021 spring semester.
The school had been declining in enrollment over the previous decade, and former students who spoke to News4JAX said their law careers took a hit because of it.
Kim Lambros experienced that phenomenon as she was looking for work after graduation.
“They would just blanket deny,” Lambros said of her prospective employers. “Nobody would give me interviews. Ultimately, I ended up having to take a job at a local tax firm that did not use my Juris Doctorate, but it was the only job, at that point, I could obtain.”
Jennie Rose Reiter-Smith said she had wanted to go to law school ever since watching Perry Mason as a child. She moved to Florida after getting accepted to Florida Coastal School of Law and planned for her law career to help support her husband’s medical costs.
“I wound up losing my husband because of it,” Reiter-Smith said. “We did not have the medical insurance we needed for him to get the heart transplant. So this caused more than just a financial thing for me. I lost everything.”
The school’s shuttering also made it that much more difficult for students to pay off massive student loans, which are particularly pricey for legal education.
According to a 2020 survey from the America Bar Association, more than 75% of law students graduate with at least $100,000 in debt and over half owed more than $150,000.
In April, the Biden Administration announced that the Borrower Defense Program would allow any former students to apply for full debt dismissal if their for-profit college acted irresponsibly or predatory.
“I graduated with roughly $250,000,” Lambros said of he debt. “I am at $350,000 and it’s climbing. I’m making payments, I’ve continued to make payments throughout the course of my postgraduate 10 years.”
The combined debt of the 20 former FCSL students News4JAX contacted, is more than $3.5 million.
The handful of remaining FCSL students are finishing their programs at other law schools that are accredited in what’s called a “teach-out” plan.
News4JAX contacted the law school’s former director of institutional advancement, Margeret Dees. She declined to comment on the reason for the school’s closure, but offered a statement.
“There have been many outstanding graduates and faculty from Coastal Law over the years [they] continue to be great contributors to our legal community,” Dees wrote.
Warning signs identified years ahead of closure
In 2021, regulators from the American Bar Association found the school failed to meet federal standards which are meant to protect student loan borrowers from taking on debt, for a challenge they might not be ready for.
David Frakt, a veteran attorney and law professor, noticed issues with FCSL’s admissions in 2014 when he was being considered to take over as dean at the institution.
“Those standards require that a law school not admit any student who does not appear capable of completing a J.D. program and passing the bar because, unlike many degrees, you can’t go out and practice law unless you pass the bar exam,” Frakt said. “The [FCSL] reputation was as a school that was churning out a lot of graduates, that had grown very quickly, but that they had a pretty solid educational program, but as I started to delve into the numbers, in preparation for my discussion as a potential dean, I started to be concerned, looking over the previous two or three years of the quality of the students that they were admitting.”
In April 2014, Frakt made his pitch for the dean position, but didn’t hold back his concerns.
The presentation he gave school leadership was titled: “FCSL: A Law School in Crisis.”
In his presentation, Frakt listed a host of troubling signs including fewer graduates passing the bar exam, fewer graduates getting jobs, fewer students applying to the school and students at the top of their class transferring to other schools.
The school was also lowering the application standards to allow more students in.
For example, the metric for how successful a law student is likely to be is the Law School Admission Test or “LSAT.”
Applicants with an LSAT score of 150 or above are considered to have a reasonable-to-high aptitude and are more likely to be successful in law school.
When scores are 145 or below, those applicants are considered lower aptitude and have a much higher risk of dropping out or not completing the program.
In Frakt’s presentation, he showed school leaders that for the previous six years, the school was accepting higher and higher risk students.
“That was a big red flag because that sets off a vicious cycle, those students are going to struggle to pass the bar, the bar pass rate will decline,” Frakt told News4JAX. “That makes prospective students wary about coming to that school, it gets harder to attract good students, and so you end up where you have fewer students applying.”
Frakt told FCSL leadership that if he would be brought in as dean, he would recommend scaling the school back, letting some staff go, and reducing admissions to meet the reduced demand.
His presentation was not well received.
“Not only did I not get the job, I didn’t even get to finish my presentation because the president came in and asked me to leave and claimed that I was insulting the school. And I asked anyone present who was insulted to raise their hand,” Frakt said. “Nobody did, but people were really in shock that the president would come in and interrupt a job talk like this.”
In April 2021 what Frakt predicted, happened.
The school lost its ability to have its students get federally-backed loans, financially crippling the school.
FCSL sued to reverse the decision, but it was upheld that the school failed to meet financial responsibility standards, fiduciary standard of conduct and the ABA’s standards of participation.