Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Law Schools Offering Money Back Guarantees? Yup- But Strings are Attached

Can't pass the bar exam? Here's a $10,000 refund.

Two law schools are experimenting with refund programs for graduates who don't pass the bar examination after two tries, provided they complete a rigorous set of bar preparation courses beforehand.

Florida Coastal School of Law is offering the same refund to students dismissed for academic reasons following their 1L year, plus $2,000 to those who fail to secure a externship, clerkship, clinical experiences or other substantive legal work while in school.

The Charlotte School of Law has launched its own pilot program offering $10,000 to graduates tripped up more than once by the bar exam. Both are for-profit law schools operated by InfiLaw Inc., which also owns the Phoenix School of Law.

The idea behind the Assured Outcomes Partnership, as the programs have been dubbed, is to assure students and prospective applicants that their instructors will do all they can to help them succeed both academically and in their careers, Florida Coastal dean Peter Goplerud said.

At the same time, the offer creates an incentive for students to take full advantage of the academic support and bar preparation services available through the law school, he said. The goal is make sure students never need to take the law school up on the refund offer.

"The key is that this is a partnership. It's join accountability," Goplerud said. "If students complete the requirements we've set out, we aren't going to write any checks."

He was unaware of any other law schools that offer similar refunds.

Florida Coastal's program is more comprehensive than Charlotte's. It covers three distinct areas: academic performance, bar passage and work experience gained while in law school.

"Law school is not for everyone," reads the overview of the program on the school's website. "If, after the first year, a student is academically dismissed despite adhering to all Assured Outcomes Partnership terms and conditions, he or she will receive $10,000 from Florida Coastal School of Law, which we recommend be used to defray any student loans incurred."

Full-time tuition at Florida Coastal runs about $37,000 a year.

The refunds by no means represent free money. To qualify, recipients must fulfill a series of requirements that include attending review sessions, submitting study schedules, submitting class outlines, attending writing assistance workshops and writing practice essays. If students complete all the requirements and still flunk out following their 1L year, they may receive the $10,000 refund. This potion of program is open to students who enroll next fall.

Similarly, graduates must complete a robust bar preparation program to qualify for the refund should they fail the bar exam after two attempts. (This portion of the program is available to full-time students who started their law studies in January, both at Florida Coastal and Charlotte.)

The Charlotte pilot program mimics this aspect of Florida Coastal's program and is available to graduates who fail the North Carolina or South Carolina bar exams twice.

"It's a safety net of a certain type," said Daniel Piar, associate dean for academics at Charlotte Law. "If you do [the bar exam preparation requirements] and you're still not successful, something is wrong."

The legal work experience portion of the Florida Coastal's program is intended to assure students that they will secure an externship, participate in a clinic, land a law clerkship, do pro bono work or complete a legal skills lab while in school. To qualify for the $2,000 refund, however, they must work closely with the school's career services personnel and meet certain job application deadlines.

"We hope to achieve a cohort of gradates that have taken full advantage of what we believe is a very strong offering of support mechanisms," Goplerud said. "We want to ensure our students have the work experience they need to have successful careers."

Assured Outcomes was not conceived in response to any concern from the American Bar Association over Florida Coastal's bar passage rate, Goplerud said. More than 75 percent of it graduates passed the Florida bar exam on their first sitting this past July, giving it the ninth-highest rate among the state's 11 law schools.

Goplerud acknowledged that Florida Coastal's applications were down this year — as they were at nearly every law school in the United States — but he denied that the refunds are intended solely for recruiting purposes. Still, the school has highlighted the program to potential applicants, he said.

Charlotte, too, hopes to see some recruiting benefit for the bar exam assurance program, Piar said.

"Law student these days, I think, have becoming increasingly more selective and savvier consumers, and they're looking more at things like outcomes. So I wouldn't be surprised if we saw more schools launch these types of programs in the future."

Contact Karen Sloan at

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