Ave Maria School of Law's president has elevated the profile of the Naples-based institution in just more than two years. His moves have paved the way for future growth.
Institution. Ave Maria School of Law Industry. Law Key. Boosting the pass rate for the bar exam is key to law school growth.
When Kevin Cieply became the president and dean of Ave Maria School of Law in Naples just more than two years ago, the passage rate of the bar exam by its students was well below its Florida peers.
High passage rates of the notoriously difficult bar exam are critical for any law school to attract and retain top-caliber students. Better scores also help persuade wealthy donors to contribute money to the school.
It didn't take long for Cieply, 54, to make his mark.
Less than one year after he became dean, Ave Maria School of Law students ranked first in the state, when 83% of graduates passed the February 2015 bar exam on their first attempt. That exceeded the statewide average of 64.3% by a wide margin.
Cieply is humble about the students' success. “It's still a work in progress, for sure,” he says. “It's a tough test for anybody.”
The excitement on campus is palpable, and word is getting out about Ave Maria in Southwest Florida and beyond. A successful $3 million fundraising campaign allowed the school to purchase land and buildings at The Vineyards, a Naples residential community where its campus has been located since it moved from Michigan.
Another multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign is underway now to help veterans get a full scholarship to law school. Tuition costs $39,450 a year for the three-year program — prohibitively expensive for most veterans.
Scholarships are a big deal because that attracts a wider pool of applicants. “There are fewer students [nationally] than 30 years ago, but 50 more law schools,” Cieply says, noting that Ave Maria School of Law students on average pay half the full cost of tuition with the rest coming from scholarships.
The law school has also embarked on programs to reach out to the community. For example, it organizes a human-trafficking clinic in which students learn how to represent survivors of sex and labor trafficking as they seek immigration relief from the U.S. government. “We do a lot of pro bono work here,” Cieply says.
The school's Naples campus is large enough to accommodate immediate growth. But the long-range plan is to move the law school to the fast-growing town of Ave Maria in eastern Collier County.
Ave Maria School of Law was founded in 2000 in Ann Arbor, Mich., and seeded by Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan. It moved to Naples in 2009. It is separate from Ave Maria University in eastern Collier County, though Monaghan, from his personal fortune, initially funded both institutions.
“Tom's dream has always been to move [the law school] out there,” Cieply says. “We're two separate schools right now.”
Although the school emphasizes its Catholic roots with prayers before each class and two masses a day, 30% of its incoming class is not Catholic. “It's a safe harbor for students of faith to learn law,” Cieply says.
'Raise the temperature'
Prior to his appointment to lead Ave Maria School of Law, Cieply was associate dean at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School. In that capacity, he had the task of preparing low-income students to pass the bar exam.
The bar exam is the ticket to the law profession, and Cieply came to Ave Maria knowing what it takes to prepare students to take the exam. That included adjusting the curriculum, stricter grading, more exams, more rigorous admissions and hiring a staff of people dedicated to helping students pass the exam.
Cieply appointed retired Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Buscaglia as director of bar preparation, praising his patience and dedication to tutoring students one-on-one. “He's been a game-changer for us,” Cieply says.
In addition, Cieply named Elizabeth Humann an adjunct professor to help with the bar exam on a part-time basis. Humann posted the second-highest score in the state on the February 2016 bar exam, and Cieply says he is looking for a third faculty person to join the bar-preparation staff.
When Cieply arrived on campus in summer 2014, he instituted a stricter grading policy that required professors to give the lowest-scoring 20% of their students a “C.” The idea was to identify students who were struggling and place them on academic monitoring so they had a better chance to pass the bar exam.
The grading requirement has been more relaxed lately because Ave Maria adjusted its admissions policy to require higher scores on the Law School Admission Test, a standardized test law schools require for admission. Cieply says there's a correlation between higher LSAT scores and bar exam success. “The LSAT is a good predictor,” he says.
The curriculum itself was also changed to adapt to areas of the law that the bar exam targets. For example, Ave Maria dropped federal taxation and added consumer law.
Test taking is a key to success, too, and midterm exams are now mandatory for every class. “The students now have to really get prepared halfway through the semester,” Cieply says. “It raises the temperature twice as much.”
Veterans need apply
A significant portion of the school's fundraising goes toward scholarships. Rather than focus on a few big contributors, Ave Maria School of Law targets smaller gifts from a greater number of people.
For example, it recently launched a fundraising project to fund veteran scholarships and a law library. The school seeks $50,000 in contributions from 100 donors who can become founding members of the Veterans Memorial Law Library at Ave Maria School of Law.
The school has 17 veterans studying the law at no cost by combining scholarships and veterans' benefits. “We'd like to double that next year,” says Cieply, who served for more than 22 years in the Army and Wyoming Army National Guard as a helicopter pilot, company commander and a Judge Advocate General's Corps officer.
Ave Maria has been named a “veteran friendly” school by Victory Media, boosting its visibility among veterans. In addition to encouraging veteran applications on its website (avemarialaw.edu/veterans/), the campus is fully handicapped accessible because The Vineyards is a retirement community.
Because of Southwest Florida's large veteran population, Cieply says Ave Maria School of Law is planning a campaign to raise $4 million to endow a veteran's law clinic that would provide free legal advice to veterans. Students would get the opportunity to have hands-on training helping veterans with their legal issues. “There's no doubt there's a need for it,” says Cieply.
Ave Maria School of Law
Students enrolled: 269
Average age of students: 28
Faculty: 59 faculty and adjunct professors
Number of employees: 101
Scholarships awarded: $3.7 million annually
Tuition: $39,450 annually
With its wealthy population of retirees, it's no surprise that Naples has become a hub for estate-planning attorneys and associated professionals such as accountants, insurance and wealth-management advisers.
Ave Maria School of Law will bring many of these professionals together for its fourth annual estate-planning conference April 28 at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples. For more information, visit avemarialaw-estate-planning.avemarialaw.edu/