Dean Larry Cunningham was full of apologies after running a few minutes late to a meeting. A group of Charleston School of Law students had surprised him last-minute by dropping off a handful of handwritten thank you notes, expressing their appreciation to him for volunteering at a recent event.
The bubbly moment was a far cry from where the law school was nearly eight years earlier, on the brink of disaster and on its way to permanently shuttering. Back then, school administrators were far more likely to receive correspondence related to lawsuits than sentimental cards.
The hiccup in the school’s history began in 2013 when owners Robert Carr and George Kosko called an impromptu gathering of faculty to inform them that that the school would either have to close or be sold to InfiLaw, a Florida-based for-profit company that owned three law schools considered so-called “diploma mills,” including Charlotte School of Law.
The Charleston law school was only 10 years old at that time.
Devastated but determined students, alumni, and faculty pushed back — with two faculty members filing lawsuits — fearing that the sale would mar the school’s reputation and lower the standards of a Charleston School of Law education.
The turning point came in October 2015 when Ed Bell, a Georgetown trial lawyer, stepped in as president and bought into the school, alongside Carr and Kosko, to save it from the sale to InFiLaw. Bell’s agreed to manage the school, while Carr and Kosko serve as members of the board, until the school goes nonprofit and the former owners are bought out.
Since then, InfiLaw has gone out of business and all of its law schools are now closed, while Charleston School of Law years has clawed its way back from that brink of dissolution to record enrollments this fall.
“We predicted we would get here, but we didn’t predict we’d get here this quickly,” Bell said. “We came from a law school that was getting ready to go under to now a nationally ranked law school in six years, so that’s pretty good.”
Under Bell’s leadership, the school has transformed from a Washington Post headline reading “Charleston School of Law to close?” to increased job placement numbers, the highest South Carolina bar pass-rate in the school’s history at 87% and a student-centric model that invests money back into the education, rather than the pockets of its leaders, Bell said.
This fall, 611 students enrolled in the school, with 1,515 first-year applicants from 35 states — the largest matriculation to date. And job placements are just as strong with firms all over the metro Charleston area, and some as far as Ohio, seeking out CSOL students. One local firm currently employs 11 graduates from the law school.
“When you realize that a downturn like we had could have had a horrible adverse effect on our applications and admissions, I think we’ve been really fortunate,” Bell said. “It’s a testament to our faculty and our staff and our school. We have some good, strong bones.”
Pursuing nonprofit status
Bell’s involvement with the school started years ago, when a CSOL student was temporarily staying with his family. When troubles arose later on, the woman and her now-husband, also a Charleston School of Law graduate, asked if Bell would be willing to step up and help save the school with a group of others.
A couple months later, Bell asked who else had joined the effort and he learned he was still the only one.
“It just happened,” he said. “I can’t tell you. I just felt compelled to do it. I couldn’t back down. I said, ‘You know, I’ll do the best I can,’ and I did.”
Over the years, Bell felt the best way to right the ship was to reinvest in the school, the facilities, the faculty and students.
While the school is still using a for-profit model, Bell has assured he has no interest in profiting from the school, and he thinks that is what has made the difference for CSOL.
“If you have some money in the bank, do you take that as a profit or do you put it back in the school for the benefit of the students,” he said. “Do you have a board that wants to get paid or do you have a board that wants to reinvest?”
Annually, Bell earns a salary of $1 and said he hasn’t taken a penny out of the school since he began in 2015. Comparatively, between 2010 and 2013, Carr, Kosko and the school’s three other co-founders — who have since left the institution — withdrew $25 million in profits from the school.
Bell, on the other hand, has put money into the school, settling a $6 million debt to InfiLaw. At the time of his arrival, the balance was $5 million, and Bell paid off the loan in 2017. He also settled two lawsuits recruited more faculty and updated the facilities to meet American Bar Association standards.
On his first day, Bell set a new tone by rehiring four teachers who had been let go during the distress, most of whom are still there today.
The school has had some lean years, but Bell and Cunningham are committed to Bell’s goal of nonprofit status. The conversion process should typically have only taken three years, but the road is complicated because the school must first generate the resources for the conversion, develop a reliable plan for the ABA, receive the ABA’s acquiescence to change in structure, and then receive approvals from the Department of Education, Internal Revenue Service and the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.
Before the school reaches that status, Carr and Kosko will be bought out.
“We owe it to [the students] to give them an education that’s going to enable them to be successful,” Cunningham said. “I really view it as an ethical or moral imperative that that we focus on students so much. And for them to be successful, they have to be able to engage with us.”
An entirely new culture
David Estes, a third-year law student, hadn’t heard of CSOL’s history when he applied, but said his experience has been everything he’d hoped for in a law school because of the professors and their interaction with students on a personal level.
“There is still the respect of a student-teacher relationship, but it isn’t confined just to that,” Estes said. “If you want to ask about their career experience, or share your own personal goals, they are always happy to speak during office hours or work around your schedule.”
From his first tour of Charleston School of Law, Estes felt at home and today considers Cunningham family. The two forged a bond during the pandemic, working on initiatives engage students despite socially distanced protocols.
Cunningham worked outside of the scope of his role, Estes said, attending virtual social events and judging contests that brought a glimmer of relief and joy to the mundane shut-in days.
“We have some professors with amazing accolades that could really be doing anything else, practicing, but they have a passion for wanting to foster and create that next generation of legal leaders,” Estes said. “They want to be here, and I feel like they’re living out their passion that way by helping us.”
The school and its culture sell itself, Cunningham said, with small classes, faculty that has been rated by Princeton Review as one of the top 10 most accessible, and millions of dollars in scholarships.
For every student that is accepted to the school, Dean of Admissions Jacqueline Bell personally calls them to welcome them to the school. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg writes a letter to every incoming student, welcoming them to the city.
“We’re able to say here are the improvements that we’re making in career services. Here’s how we’re going to help you get a job. Here’s how we’re going to help you pass the bar exam. And here are the results that we’re seeing,” Cunningham said.
Bell’s passion for law is mirrored in his students, and his humility of working to earn their trust amidst a crumbling foundation is possibly what’s built the school back up again.
“It’s simple,” he said. “You tell people the truth. You tell them what you can do for them and how important they are to the school and treat them as such. It’s an old fashioned way of doing business, but it works. It works.”