Winston Churchill once famously said that “[a]ll the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.”
“Faith” is a simple word, too, and, according to Noah Webster’s online progeny, faith is the “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”
Two and a half years ago, when members of thefirst class of the Charleston School of Law (CSOL) matriculated in a former area Chamber of Commerce building on Ann Street, they certainly had faith.
Faith that this tiny, nascent, private law school would one day become accredited, and that they would not have left behind careers, cities, and other schoolsin vain.
Well, last week, after years of preparation, their faith was rewarded, as the American Bar Association’s Accreditation Committee gave CSOL “provisional accreditation,” which will be forwarded to the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education in June.
A stepping-stone to full accreditation, the recommendation is the highest form of approval allowed to a new law school. It also means the school is on the right track to becoming fully accredited, which could happen in as little as two years.
CSOL is not the only downtown higher-ed school facing change, as The Citadel recently named a new commandant, College of Charleston President Lee Higdon announced he was leaving for a job at Connecticut College, and Johnson and Wales will be closing its local campus for good within the next few weeks.
Now, CSOL graduates will be allowed to take the bar exam in South Carolina and other states. Once they graduate, that is; the first class is scheduled to do so next year.
If the school hadn’t received the recommendation, no doubt students would have been forced to question the time, effort, and money they have spent on getting a legal degree from CSOL.
“I wasn’t too worried,” says second-year law student Jeff Yungman, who recently received a prestigious fellowship from the ABA to provide legal assistance to the clientele at the Crisis Ministries homeless shelter where he has worked as a social worker for the past seven years. “The mood from the teachers and the administration wasn’t tense; I felt sure we were going to get it.”
CSOL Dean I. Richard Gershon submitted a 150-page site evaluation questionnaire and a 250-page self-study to the ABA. Gershon describes the latter as both “long-term” and “onerous.” But he also says the self-study was fruitful because it helped identify the school’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Our strengths are, first and foremost, the quality of students we have been able to attract and enroll,” says Gershon, who left a fairly green law school in Texas to take the job in Charleston. Barely a toddler among grown-up law schools, CSOL’s average LSAT scores rivals those of the USC School of Law.
Gershon shies away from the idea that the state’s only two law schools are becoming locked in a battle for dominance. “That is not something we want to get into; it is not our goal to ‘overtake’ USC, nor do we see it as our goal.”
In fact, the two schools, one private and the other public, are forming partnerships.
As strong as its student body may be, the school’s biggest weakness proved to be its physical plant.
The school currently has office and classroom space in the former Chamber building and the BellSouth building, and uses renovated auditoriums at the nearby American Theater for lecture halls.
Gershon is unworried, saying that as the school continues to grow, the need for bigger and more facilities is part of the “natural progression” of a law school just starting out.
To that end, CSOL has obtained a letter of intent from BellSouth to purchase the communication company’s Meeting Street building. At 85,000 square feet, the school would not have to go down the same road as many local public K-12 schools and install mobile trailers to house classrooms — something it has already prepared for, having spent nearly $1 million to purchase a nearby vacant lot downtown.
While the school expects an additional surge of student applicants as a result of the recommendation, Gershon says CSOL will limit its size to 600 students. In its first two years, the school received over 1,800 applications for 400 slots.
“The people who showed the real faith were our first-year students two years ago who applied without being able to see classrooms or a faculty list,” says Gershon.
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