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Old School

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  • | 11:01 p.m. March 8, 2012
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Institution. Ave Maria School of Law
Industry. Law
Key. Southwest
Florida's law school grows.

When Ave Maria School of Law decamped from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Naples in 2009, it took 38 moving vans to haul the school's possessions.

Professors and students soon followed to what is now the only law school in the coastal stretch between the Tampa Bay region and Miami.

But this school is distinctly “old school.” Its conservative brand of legal studies fits more appropriately in the Naples area than in Michigan, where it was competing with half a dozen other law schools.

For the tax year ending June 30, 2010, Ave Maria School of Law's revenues rose to $18.3 million, a 15% increase over the prior year, according to the school's tax return posted on Contributions to the school that year rose nearly 60% to $5.4 million, and program revenues increased 37% to $13.6 million. (More recent financial data were not available.)

The university was seeded by Thomas Monaghan, the founder of Domino's Pizza who built a sister university near Immokalee in eastern Collier County called Ave Maria University. Monaghan's Ave Maria Foundation funded both institutions, but they are separate entities.

For the first time since its founding in 2000, Ave Maria School of Law ran a surplus last year and didn't have to depend on Ave Maria Foundation, says Eugene Milhizer, the president and dean.

It's an auspicious start for a young law school that struggled to stand out in Michigan. “We were one of five or six law schools up there,” says Milhizer. “Southwest Florida was the largest region without a law school.”

The next graduating class will have about 160 students, double the number of each of its previous two Florida graduating classes.

No law and ice cream
Some of the most brilliant legal minds of the day contributed their insights to the formation of Ave Maria School of Law in 2000. One of those, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, is reported to have insisted on a strict curriculum that didn't veer into “law and ice cream courses.”

James Fox, the first graduate to make partner at an established firm, says he took a class on the moral foundation of law with Robert Bork, the conservative jurist whose appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court was famously thwarted. “It was us against Bork,” Fox recalls with a chuckle. Fox vividly remembers Bork warning his students: “Anything you think you know, I can demonstrate you don't know anything.”

Fox says professors took attendance at every class and the course load was rigorous. “I worked almost 100 hours a week in that first year,” says Fox, a member of the Ave Maria School of Law's inaugural graduating class and now a partner with the Roetzel & Andress law firm in Naples. At the time, Fox was an older student with four children.

While the school is Catholic, graduates are well prepared for whatever law work they plan to do. “There's nothing Catholic about civil procedure. You have to produce technically skilled lawyers,” Fox says.

“We're serious about being a Catholic school. We're orthodox, but we're not a seminary,” says Milhizer. In fact, about 40% of the students aren't Catholic, he notes.

Students are drawn by the school's conservative values, Milhizer notes. “This has appeal beyond the Catholic Church,” he says. “We're counter-cultural.” The law school teaches strictly limited interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and judicial restraint, favoring free enterprise, privacy and serving the common good. Graduation speakers have included former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

A disproportionate number of graduating students relative to other law schools enter the Judge Advocate General Corps, the law branch of the U.S. military. Milhizer, a JAG veteran himself, estimates 6% to 7% of the students at Ave Maria School of Law practice military law after they graduate. Milhizer can't cite a specific reason why this is so, but suspects the school appeals to those seeking conservative credentials.

Beyond Naples
Ave Maria School of Law recruits students from around the country. Tuition runs about $35,000 a year and the majority of students get financial aid.

“Our mission is not geographically bounded,” Milhizer says, estimating that fewer than 40% of the students are Florida natives. “We've always recruited nationally.”

The school's approximately full-time 500 students live on and off the campus at the Vineyards development near Vanderbilt Beach Road and Interstate 75. The buildings it occupies once housed an assisted-living facility; the swimming pool is now a water feature.

For now, Ave Maria School of Law is not planning to grow its student population significantly. “We don't aspire to be a huge law school,” Milhizer says.

When they graduate, students tend to stay in Florida. “More of them practice in Florida than anywhere else,” Milhizer says.

But the economic downturn didn't spare the business of law, and jobs have been scarce. “There's been a restructuring of the legal profession,” says Milhizer, noting that many students are now in the public sector.

Government's growing intrusion into citizens' daily lives took another step recently when the federal government mandated insurance plans fund contraceptives.

That didn't go over well with the Catholic Church and other religious institutions.

Ave Maria University's board of trustees met in emergency session, and in late February it authorized the university to file a lawsuit to challenge the mandate. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed the suit on behalf of the university, located in eastern Collier County. (Ave Maria School of Law, a sister school, did not join the suit.)

“We felt like we had no choice,” says Jim Towey, the university's president. “I smelled a rat back in November and met with the Becket Fund and got them on retainer.”

Towey says the Catholic Church has been supportive of President Barack Obama's health care goals, and he says the lawsuit is not a sign that the university is taking a more activist stance overall. “We're not in the fight over Obamacare,” Towey says.

“We didn't seek to be in the political cauldron,” Towey adds. “It's a big step for a little school.”

Ave Maria University's annual budget is nearly $35 million and it has 155 employees. Towey says the university will forego buying health insurance for its employees and pay the $2,000-per-employee fine if the mandate goes into effect. But, he notes, “we don't have $300,000 sitting around right now,” says Towey. “Our plate's full just growing the place.”

Towey, who served as director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to 2006, says the Obama administration miscalculated the political impact of the mandate. “He didn't understand the strength of conviction,” Towey says. “People will fight to the death on this.”


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