Law Schools and Education & Workforce Development and Law

Entrepreneur sees niche for for-profit law school

May 7, 2007

Dick the Butcher, in Shakespeare's "Henry VI," wanted to kill all the lawyers. Even some lawyers want to off their opposing counsel.

But Mark Montefiori wants to create a law school to birth perhaps hundreds more of them each year.

He plans to share with potential investors his vision for The Abraham Clark School of Law, named after one of the lesser-known signers of the Declaration of Independence, May 10 at the Indianapolis Marriott North.

"It's a grass-roots approach," said Montefiori, of Carmel, whose day job is to help private colleges develop programs for working adults.

Preposterous, some legal beagles will bark. Just ask the folks at Indiana State University, who were held in contempt after announcing in late 2005 the creation of a task force to study the need for another law school.

After all, Indiana University's largest law school is right here in Indianapolis, with more than 900 students enrolled and a broad alumni network.

There's also the IU law school in Bloomington, the Valparaiso University School of Law or the University of Notre Dame Law School. Together, they have more than 1,800 future lawyers enrolled. And the Indiana Supreme Court every year admits only about 600 new lawyers to practice in the state.

But Montefiori's graduates wouldn't necessarily be the suits that populate tongue-tangling downtown practices. The private, for-profit law school he hopes to open in the fall of 2008 would largely appeal to working adults, including those whose existing careers could be enhanced with legal training.

Though it would prepare students to take the bar exam, it would also provide the training to conduct arbitration, mediation and other procedures to settle disputes before they go to court. Montefiori also notes the increasing regulatory pressures stemming from corporate scandals is driving demand for executives well-versed in the law.

"A lot of times, companies get into trouble because they have an executive or manager doing things they ought not to be doing," he said.

New niche

If Montefiori can pull it off, Abraham Clark [abrahamclarklaw.com] could be a first-of-its-kind law school in Indiana.

"It would be interesting to see a for-profit law school in Indiana. That would be a new opportunity for us," said Jeff Weber, commissioner of the Indiana Commission on Propriety Education, which regulates for-profit schools.

Currently, a number of for-profit schools offer components of legal training without preparing students to become lawyers. For example, last fall, Brown Mackie College in Fort Wayne asked the commission for approval for a bachelor's degree in legal studies.

But Montefiori faces a number of challenges, not the least of which is accreditation and acceptance into a close-knit community with a century and a half of tradition in Indiana.

For one, the school would be able to offer only certificate programs until after a year-long review by the commission. And before students applied, they'd likely want to know they could transfer their credits elsewhere if need be. For that, the school would need accreditation from a regional or national agency.

Montefiori says first things first. He can't apply to the commission to operate the school until he secures a location. He's looking at some space for rent in the northern suburbs. "It won't be your traditional college campus."

He'd also need to recruit a cadre of full- and part-time professors and others experienced in financial aid, American Bar Association Standards and curriculum writing.

Montefiori said he's been in touch with three potential investors he won't identify, though he'd like to secure several others for the estimated $2 million minimum startup cost.

His financial target is extremely conservative, say those familiar with law school operations.

Tuition is still something to be worked out. Montefiori would like to keep it under $30,000 for the entire degree program "although I don't know how realistic that would be."

For-profit ties

The Michigan native and 12-year veteran of secondary education has sizable connections. Montefiori works for an arm of Apollo Group, the Phoenix-based parent of The University of Phoenix. The nation's largest private, for-profit university offers site-based and online degrees marketed to working adults.

Montefiori's resume touts success in growing admissions and developing classes, such as on-site classes for Apollo at Boston Scientific and at Baxter Pharmaceutical locations.

Montefiori insists the law school is his baby, not his employer's. He said he's had a personal interest in law school since being accepted at an East Coast institution when he was younger. Instead, he took a detour to work for a congressional office.

As for students, Montefiori figures Abraham Clark could land 300 to 400 within a few years. He noted that IU's law schools get more than 2,500 applicants a year.

Local law types had mixed reactions.

"I don't think there's a dearth of law schools," said James P. White, an IU law school professor who for 26 years worked as a consultant to the ABA in helping with the accreditation of some of the roughly 190 U.S. law schools.

"I don't think there's a shortage of lawyers in Marion County," said veteran Indianapolis attorney Gregory Fehribach, of Stark Doninger & Smith.

Most who attend law school in Indiana go with the intention of becoming lawyers, he said.

That brings up the question of how the for-profit school's students would use their legal education. In the purist sense, Fehribach said, the ability "for people to have access to greater education is good." Adult continuing education is essential for the state to flourish, added the Ball State University trustee.

On the other hand, Fehribach and other attorneys wondered if those who stop short of being admitted to practice law could do more harm than good--learning enough law to make them dangerous.

An inadequately trained person "could clog up the system even more ... it's the same as medical school."

While many are drawn to the sexy aspects of the legal system, such as arguing a case before a jury, attorneys need to learn essential civil procedures, such as when to file a pleading.

"It's everything that drives lawyers crazy about the practice of law. ... We never see civil procedures on TV," Fehribach added.

A number of private law schools have popped up over the last decade since the American Bar Association began accepting applications from proprietary schools for ABA accreditation.

Some law schools have emerged as ways for employees and civil servants to improve their rank and thus their pay grade--not for the intention of practicing law, said White, pointing to a number of small, for-profit schools in California.

Among the largest for-profits to emerge are those owned by Naples, Fla.-based InfiLaw Corp., which operates such schools as Florida Coastal School of Law and Charlotte School of Law.

InfiLaw is funded by the deep pockets of Sterling Partners, a private equity firm with holdings in such education-related companies as Sylvan Learning Centers and Professional Career Development Institute.

For-profit schools often like to tout their ability to respond to market needs, unimpeded by academic bureaucracy.

Critics have said the need to satisfy investors might force them to fill seats at the risk of compromising academic standards.

At least with public law schools, the money goes for the needs of the school, White said. Whereas, with a for-profit school, there's the inherent motivation to "run it on the cheap, if you will."

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