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Recordings Shed Light On Charlotte School Of Law's Methods To Boost Bar Passage

Charlotte School of Law
Davie Hinshaw
The Charlotte Observer

Last week, we reported that the troubled Charlotte School of Law paid graduates deemed at-risk to delay taking the bar and enroll in a bar preparation course. This program came about a few years ago as it had become the state’s largest law school with the poorest record of graduates passing the bar.

Today, WFAE’s Lisa Worf reports on secret recordings of a law school official that shed light on how much the deferral program inflated bar passage statistics.

About a week before the July 2015 bar, it didn't look like most Charlotte School of Law graduates would pass the exam. Odessa Alm, the Assistant Dean of Student Success, gathered a small group of professors who served as bar prep coaches.

"You know, if we didn’t have the extended program last time – if we all didn’t work really hard to defer the 21 people that we deferred, our pass rate would have likely been 20-something percent," she told them. 

Instead, in February 2015, 42 percent of Charlotte School of Law graduates passed North Carolina's bar on their first try. The school often has the lowest pass rate in North Carolina and ranks among the worst in the country. Partly for this reason, Charlotte School of Law came under scrutiny by its accreditor the American Bar Association.

About that time a law school professor secretly recorded Alm. In this particular meeting, Alm was trying to get coaches to impart some urgency on recent graduates. They'd been taking practice exams and it didn't look good. 

Credit Charlotte School of Law
Assistant Dean for Student Success Odessa Alm

"When you’re coaching someone and they're being lazy, do you allow them to be?" [No.] "Okay, so do we tell them if they're training for some event, do we say, 'It's okay. You're not where you need to be. Keep trying,'" chided Alm. "We're not cheerleaders. We're coaches. 'Get down on the f***ing floor and give me 40. You're going to run more laps.' That’s what a coach is. A coach is not a cheerleader.”

At another weekly bar prep meeting around the same time, she struck a similar tone:

"It is on with these f***ing mother****ers. I want them to pass the bar and I believe that they can. But they need to get over themselves. They have no understanding of themselves," said Alm. (Click here to listen to the 64 minute audio file of that meeting.)

Former Charlotte School of Law professor Andrew McAdams was on the receiving end of those pep talks for a year and a half. He was hired to teach Professional Responsibility in the summer of 2014. That's basically a legal ethics class. But the school also put him to work coaching students and recent grads about to take the bar. 

"I do recall those meetings and others where that type of language and that level of, um, disdain was expressed. And it made me uncomfortable and I think it made many others uncomfortable as well," says McAdams. 

Many things troubled him during his time at the for-profit Charlotte School of Law where tuition is $44,000. He says most of his colleagues expressed serious concerns, but it was hard to truly understand the extent of the problems. He'd get instructions that didn't make any sense to him, like encourage struggling graduates to delay taking the bar. 

"My opinion is that you should gear up and study, get ready for a deadline, give it all you got," says McAdams.

So, hopefully, you pass the bar. If not, then you learn from the process and you're better set to pass it on a second try.

McAdams generally told students to take it right away. But he got a lot of pressure to talk with struggling ones about the Path to Success bar deferral program and the $11,200 stipend that went along with it.     

"I didn't feel comfortable approaching them, but the expectation was that we would approach them. And I felt like if this is something we're doing, I think for transparency purposes, it should be documented and we should be able to communicate, this is what it is," recounts McAdams.

So he sent out an email detailing the payment plan. Shortly after, a graduate came to him with a lot on his plate and McAdams thought it made sense for him to enter the Path to Success program. When McAdams told Alm, he says she was ecstatic. 

"Like high-five, good job. Like I scored a touchdown," says McAdams. 

It was jarring. It was also when he began suspecting the school had what he calls a "selfish, ulterior motive" with the bar deferral program. 

Charlotte School of Law had come under a lot of pressure to raise bar passage rates. In January 2015, the ABA told school leaders it had reason to believe the school wasn't demonstrating compliance with ABA standards. And so the school made changes, like toughening the curve. In the recordings, Alm said faculty voted on that. But she says they did not vote on something she called "more controversial and more impactful." That was adding a mandatory bar passage class in the third year. 

"Faculty all across the country are delusional as to what they have the power to do and what they have the power not to do. And, frankly, they don't have the power to allow our school to shut down because our bar results never improve. Because if they don't vote for it, then that's where we're going to be. So we're not going to worry about it," Alm told bar prep coaches. 

As part of that course, students have to pass something like a mock bar exam. She said Law School Dean Jay Conison thought it was important to have all those things in place.

"Jay is very curious about this for ABA purposes. We have a 42 percent. It doesn't matter that we're within a 15. We have a 42 percent. And [the ABA is] not going away. You know, we're still writing a f****ing response.   

That's a response to the ABA's notification. Alm wraps the session up with this thought:

"These students are fundamentally flawed because we've created them to not see themselves in a very honest way."

One way the school did that was by accepting a lot of unqualified students. McAdams came to understand the extent of that at the end of 2015.

Charlotte School of Law offered students with really low LSAT scores an alternative way to gain admission to the school. Take an online course it offered called AAMPLE. If they did well, they got in. McAdams thought it was a good idea, until he began grading their final exams. 

"There's not close enough to passing and then there's not even close enough to passing and then there's what I had, which was just very extremely poor performance on these exams. I became concerned that perhaps the school would want to approach me to see if I would inflate the grades I was giving," recalls McAdams. 

That didn't happen. Instead, he says he received an email that about 20 percent of the people who took the program were admitted to the law school. That was the last straw for him.

WFAE provided Charlotte School of Law a short section of the meeting tape, as well as a list of questions the entire recordings raise. A spokeswoman for the school asked for a background/off-the record meeting.  We said we were willing to listen but needed to have some portion of it on the record. We got an email back saying: "This topic deals with pending litigation that includes allegations we strongly disagree with. We'll address them in the proper forum and have no further comment at this time."