Court rebuffs Barry grads
By Scott Powers
Sentinel Staff Writer
May 17, 2002
The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the first 111 graduates of the Barry University School of Law in Orlando cannot become lawyers in this state.
Citing its own rules, the court said students who graduated before February 2001 cannot be allowed to take the bar exam because Barry was too far from accreditation at the time.
The decision dealt a crushing blow to students like Robin Drage, 44, who is wondering what to do now with a law degree that cost more than $60,000 in tuition, required countless hours of study, and caused sacrifices for her family.
"We're devastated. No one anticipated this result," said Drage, who earned her degree from Barry in January 2001.
A former elementary school teacher who now works as a legal aide on behalf of abused and neglected children, she dreamed of being a lawyer protecting children.
"It is my life dream, something I wanted to do since I was a child. You can't put a dollar value on your dreams," she said.
Barry officials huddled Thursday to see if they had any options left.
Graduates suggested that the school could ask the court for a rehearing or offer to re-teach affected graduates with some sort of tuition waiver.
Barry Law Dean Stanley Talcott and Vice President Peg Albert declined to speculate.
"Certainly, our concern is with the graduates. As always, the university will do all in its power," Albert said.
"What that means right now, I don't know."
The law school at 6441 E. Colonial Drive has always been a risk. Started as an independent school and purchased by Miami-based Barry University in 1999, it struggled for four years to win accreditation from the American Bar Association. Students knew nothing was certain.
The ABA finally granted provisional accreditation in February. But by then, many students already had graduated.
The Florida Supreme Court has a rule that if a new law school graduates people before it is accredited, then the school has 12 months to get accredited or those graduates cannot take the Florida Bar Examination. If they do not pass the exam, they cannot become lawyers.
The court let some of Barry's graduates take the exam anyway, and 69 did.
But their scores were sealed and now may get thrown out without ever being revealed.
9 passed bar exam
All of Barry's graduates since February 2001 qualify. Twenty-six of them have taken the bar exam. Nine passed.
Barry argued that it really didn't miss the court's deadline, saying the court should measure the 12 months to when the accreditation application was filed, not to when it was approved, because some delays are not the school's fault.
In fact, Barry filed its last application in 2000, though Barry had to rewrite it twice to keep it alive.
The court didn't buy it, saying the 12 months must be measured from the date the ABA actually awards provisional accreditation.
That wording could be a warning to the next two new law schools that will seek accreditation - the Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando and the Florida International University College of Law in Miami, Talcott said.
The ruling is so narrow -- and the accreditation process so long -- that any failed application probably assures that some graduates will miss the court's deadline.
"It cuts it very, very close, even under the best of circumstances," Talcott said.
"Some schools do get accredited on their first try, but a negative ruling in the first attempt is not at all uncommon."
Many graduates, including Drage, are not giving up.
Some think a rehearing, questioning the rule's validity, might work. But not all Barry graduates are expecting another miracle.
"It's down to final," said Len Mancini, a January 2000 graduate who works in the legal department of the Orlando Utilities Commission and is seeking another law degree from St. Thomas University in Miami. "It's time to get on with life."
Not everyone was surprised by the ruling. Winter Park attorney Howard Marks is suing Barry on behalf of students who quit the school because they were convinced it did not do everything it could to win earlier accreditation.
'The law is harsh'
"But sometimes the law is harsh. For the students' sake, we absolutely wished the Florida court would have granted the petition," Marks said. "But since they did not, we are proceeding on behalf of the students, against Barry Law School."
Chuck Ward of Oviedo, who graduated in June 2000, said the rule is particularly unfair to people like Drage. If Barry had scheduled the commencement just a few weeks later, Drage and the 33 others in her class would have no problem.
Some students, he said, were known to have dragged out their education just because they were worried they might graduate too soon.
"Here's the crux of the problem," Ward said.
"Some of the students I sat side-by-side with for years, who I got better grades than, can now get licensed to practice law because they put off their graduation. And I can't because I didn't. That's why some people go into the legal profession -- to prevent that sort of unfairness."
Scott Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright (c) 2002, Orlando Sentinel