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FAMU Law School Still Facing Growing Pains

FAMU Law School Still Facing Growing Pains
Suffering from poor bar passage rates, interim dean
restructures curriculum to better prepare students for exam
By Marlon A. Walker

Since becoming interim dean of Florida A&M University College of Law, James M. Douglas has overseen the school’s relocation into a new $30 million building, revamped the curriculum for first-year students and presided over the graduation of the school’s second class since its reincarnation.

Even those positive steps weren’t enough to keep the law program out of the news, as word spread that its bar passage rate was falling well below the rest of the public schools in the state university system. Last July, only 27 of FAMU’s 51 law graduates passed the exam. Of those, only 13 were Black as the school has had difficulty recruiting Black students.

But Douglas says it’s still a bit too early to analyze or criticize the school’s record. The law school has graduated 138 students since re-opening its doors to the first group of students in 2002.

“It’s crazy to talk about what type of legal program we have when we only graduated [two] classes. It’s a waste of time,” he says. “This is still in its infancy stage. We haven’t started to grow.”

FAMU officials point to results from the latest bar exam for reason to be optimistic. Fifty-seven percent of FAMU students passed the bar exam, up from the 53 percent in July.

“The rate itself is an improvement,” says Mildred Graham, the school’s director of development and alumni affairs. “Certainly the more times we take it, we expect we’ll have improvement with every opportunity we have to take the test.”

Bar passage is crucial to the accreditation of any law school by the American Bar Association, which also looks at the school’s facility, curriculum and job placement record after graduation. Douglas says reorganizing the law school’s curriculum was one of his first objectives after coming to the school as interim dean. He says he felt the move was necessary to better prepare students for the bar exam and life after graduation.

“We basically restructured the curriculum to make sure that it was a little more rigorous,” Douglas says.

Several classes were not being pushed as hard as they should be, he adds. More class time hours were added to torts (from four credit hours to five), civil procedure (four to six), contracts (four to six) and property (four to five). Constitutional law was made into a seven-hour course after being combined with another course, he says.

“It was less credit hours than they do at a lot of law schools,” he says. “I believe the first year is the core of everyone’s legal education. By allowing students to concentrate on core areas, they are going to be better prepared to take the bar exam.”

A division of law was established at what was then called Florida A&M College in 1949. Its first class was admitted in 1951. In 1966, the state’s governing body for schools prohibited the school from admitting any more students, and it graduated its last class in 1968, a year after Florida State University’s College of Law opened in 1967. During that span, the school graduated 57 students, including a current Florida State Supreme Court Justice.

The Florida Legislature passed a bill in 2000 re-establishing the law school in Orlando, about 250 miles from the university’s main campus in Tallahassee, with hopes that the school would produce more Black lawyers for the state. The student body at FAMU’s law school is 44 percent Black, 39 percent White, 13 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian.

The school has seen its share of turmoil since re-opening its doors. After a university-wide payroll audit in 2005, it was found that a Kentucky lawyer who had given $1 million to the school for an endowment chair was receiving a $100,000 annual salary from the law school. The lawyer, Shirley Cunningham, was taken off the payroll. The school’s founding dean, Percy R. Luney Jr., was dismissed soon after. Douglas took over as interim dean after Luney’s dismissal, but was quickly embroiled in a faculty rebellion. The professors threatened to boycott classes after their pay for the school’s first summer session was not disbursed.

Douglas says it’s unrealistic to think that the school will be where it wants to be so soon after its re-establishment. He says age will allow the school to grow and be seen in a better light.

“If people give FAMU an opportunity to develop its program,” he says, “people will be pleasantly surprised with the number of African-American lawyers that will exist in the state of Florida within the next couple of years.”

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