5 Remarkable Years of

Progress and Achievement


Special Fifth-Anniversary Report

In the Beginning

Vision, Commitment,

and Circumstance

Yield a Very Special

Educational Enterprise


French writer Victor Hugo famously observed that "There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come."  Indeed, once a concept has been translated into action and its consequences seen, it can be difficult to imagine how its obviousness ever could have gone unrecognized, or to recall the sequence of events by which it was brought to fruition.

What could be more apparent than the need for vibrant national Catholic law schools? It seems to go without saying that there should be institutions where curriculum reflects the Church's traditional teaching on civil justice and Christian ethics; that draw students from a nationwide pool of qualified college graduates intent on influencing the practice of law for the good; that bring such motivated young people together under the teaching, guidance, and formation of top-caliber legal scholars.

This may be the perspective of those aware of Ave Maria School of Law at its five-year mark. But once upon a not-too-distant time, that vision of legal education was not found among educators at all Catholic law schools. It was, however, an idea shared by a certain group of Catholic thinkers. And a unique set of circumstances — and the prompting of the Holy Spirit - would create the conditions in which the idea could gain substance.

Seeds of Reform

It's no secret that the practice of law is urgently in need of a facelift. The typical TV representation of lawyers as greedy, grasping, competitive and totally focused on winning merely puts an inelegant face on a legal system where courts are frequently viewed as too quick to sever the tie between judgment and truth, where standards of right appear to have little value when weighed against the influence of money and politics.

In the mid '90s, this situation prompted Franciscan University of Steubenville to consider establishing a law school in which the seeds of reform might be nurtured by traditional Catholic teaching about Natural Law, the dignity of the human person, and the values of community solidarity. A study was commissioned to identify the academic, institutional, and financial resources needed to launch such a school. The university's board of trustees examined the findings with great care, and a group of selected legal scholars contributed their thoughts and suggestions.

Catholic entrepreneur, Thomas Monaghan, then chairman of Domino's Pizza, the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based, food franchise company he had founded, was a member of the Franciscan board. Among the scholars consulted were several faculty members at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, plus the dean of the law school at Catholic University of America. These individuals were taken by the possibilities presented by a new Catholic law school, even after FUS decided not to pursue the plan.

The idea flickered with particular tenacity in the brain of Monaghan, who was giving thought to a post-Domino's life centered on the Catholic causes in which he was increasingly involving himself. He had already established Legatus, the Catholic business leaders fraternal organization, started a group of private schools and a regional Catholic communications apostolate, was an investor in a short-lived national Catholic radio network, and had given support to various Church projects and overseas missions. He had even launched an educational institute that would become a new Catholic college. In 1998, Domino's received an offer from Bain Capital, a business-development firm on the acquisition trail. A deal was struck that would free Monaghan from the pizza business and provide him with a substantial pot of money to pursue his philanthropic interests full-time.

Meanwhile, a controversy was brewing at the University of Detroit Mercy. Catholic academics across the country had been taking sides on various contentious issues (most pressing among them, abortion), as well as over the Vatican's effort to apply guidelines for Catholic colleges and universities based on Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Church's constitution on Catholic higher education. At U of D Mercy Law, the faculty divided along especially sharp lines. Most members weren't Catholic, and so backed an institutional identity more loosely tied to the university's Catholic roots. Another faction - a much smaller group — called for a vigorous assertion of the school's Catholicity and active adherence to the moral teaching and intellectual traditions of the Church.

A parting of the ways came at the end of 1998, after a demonstration erupted over the prominent involvement of a pro-choice figure in a key school program, bringing UDM some negative publicity. Five professors - Joseph Falvey, Laura Hirschfeld, Mollie Murphy, Richard Myers, and Stephen Safranek - left UDM along with Assistant Dean of Admissions Michael Kenney (Falvey had written part of the study developed for Franciscan University during its law school exploration, and Kenney and Safranek had provided advice). With their views about Catholic legal education challenged and their futures now up in the air, the six discussed several options, among them the possibility of approaching another law school about setting up a satellite campus or starting some sort of legal institute.

Monaghan was mulling his own thoughts about legal reform, and in fact, was in the process of organizing a Catholic, public-interest law firm, the Thomas More Center for Law and Justice,* to be run by former Oakland County, Michigan, prosecutor Richard Thompson (who had gained attention pursuing euthanasia activist, Jack Kevorkian, the notorious "Dr. Death"). Thompson happened to speak with Falvey and Safranek at a law conference, becoming aware of the turmoil at UDM. He informed Monaghan, who (still intrigued by the Franciscan proposal) saw implications for the establishment of a new Catholic law school.

Several weeks of correspondence and telephone conversations ensued between Thompson and the group, as Falvey and Safranek roughed out their ideas for a new school, in consultation with their four UDM colleagues, while conducting a 54-day novena to St. Thomas More. Finally in late October, Monaghan and Thompson received their suggestions. The faculty members underscored their seriousness by pledging $100,000 of their own money to set up a special fund that would underwrite a scholarly lecture series. Many details still had to be addressed to arrive at a feasible plan for a new school, but it was obvious there had been a basic meeting of the minds.

Vision and Gravitas

One critical question was who would lead this proposed institution. Several legal experts suggested Bernard Dobranski, dean of the law school at Catholic University, former dean at UDM, and another consultor in the Franciscan proposal. Dobranski was a distinguished legal scholar and proponent of traditional Catholic education, well known as a supporter of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. By coincidence, Monaghan's daughter had been a UDM law student during Dobranski's tenure there, and Monaghan himself had been on CU's board when Dobranski moved over from Detroit. Monaghan and Dobranski had even shared observations about the current state of the law on various social occasions.

The UDM group was also enthusiastic about Dobranski, since while he was dean, he had hired all five of the former professors. They were convinced that his association with the project would vastly increase the new school's chances for success. One of their primary concerns was the necessity of gaining accreditation from the American Bar Association, and Dobranski had a high degree of expertise in what makes a law school eligible (he was, at that time, serving on the ABA's accreditation committee). Beyond that, there was the essential vision and personal gravitas that came with having already run two major law schools.

Monaghan and Dobranski engaged in a series of phone conversations in the weeks before Thanksgiving. The timing was fortuitous, since the dean's contract at Catholic U was about to be renewed (it subsequently was), and Dobranski found the idea of directing a new school worth pondering. But experience had made him all too aware of the fiscal demands of an educational institution equipped to compete with the leading schools in the country. He wanted to be certain Monaghan understood the extent of the commitment required to create a law school as strong in its academic resources as in its Catholicity. Monaghan made a pledge of cash and a concrete job offer. But Dobranski wanted time to consult his wife and seek the advice of a close friend, Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.

After Thanksgiving weekend, Dobranski called Monaghan to indicate his strong interest in the job (though numerous particulars would be worked out over several months). In early December, the UDM group met with Monaghan, and arrangements were made for the five professors to become associated with the Thomas More Center until the new school could be organized. At Dobranski's insistence, Michael Kenney, the admissions specialist, was hired to begin planning for student recruitment and develop promotional materials. A series of meetings was held with various legal experts (including Justice Scalia) to firm up the vision of a national law school that would have a distinct and explicit Catholic identity, as well as to take the first steps toward designing a curriculum and identify what was needed to make the entire concept tangible, practical and marketable.

All this planning, which involved meetings at different locations around the country, was conducted discreetly. The only person at Catholic U whom Dobranski had apprised of his situation was the university president. Dobranski completed his tasks and fulfilled his CU contract, and Ave Maria School of Law was announced in April of 1999.

A Serious Undertaking

The first order of business in establishing the new school was convincing the legal profession, particularly the ABA accreditors, that this was a serious undertaking. Even Monaghan's commitment of $50 million (a significant chunk of his pizza fortune) wasn't sufficient, in itself, to do that. The key was demonstrating that the project could count on active involvement from people with professional credentials and institutional affiliations that gave them substance, visibility, and prestige. Accordingly, care was taken in selecting noteworthy individuals to invite as members of the school's board of governors. It was a major coup when Dobranski was able to assemble a group of 11 distinguished Catholic leaders to join Monaghan in serving on the founding board:

- Helen M. Alvaré, Director of Planning and Information for Pro-Life Activities at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops;

- Gerard V. Bradley, Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame and Co-Editor of the American Journal of Jurisprudence;

- Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. CAP., Archbishop of Denver;

- Hon. William P. Clark, Senior Counsel to the law firm of Clark, Cali and Negranti, and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior;

- Fr. Joseph D. Fessio, S.J., Founder and Editor of Ignatius Press;

- Robert P. George, holder of the McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence at Princeton University;

- Rep. Henry Hyde, U.S. Congressman from the Sixth District of Illinois;

- John Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop of New York;

- Charles E. Rice, Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame;

- Hon. James L. Ryan, Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit;

  1. -Fr. Michael Scanlan, TOR, President of Franciscan University of Steubenville.

  2. -

The board members brought a high degree of credibility to the new endeavor through their recognized accomplishments in business, communication, and government, as well as in the critical areas of law and the Church. Eight were themselves attorneys.

With the combination of a strong board of governors, along with Dobranski's reputation in legal education, the capabilities and motivation of the original faculty members, and the ample resources guaranteed by Monaghan, it wasn't long before word reached the legal profession, and the public in general, that something interesting was afoot in Ann Arbor.

Early News Coverage

Associated Press, Catholic News Service, and other secular and religious media reported the announcement of Ave Maria School of Law, with their dispatches running in newspapers and magazines across the country. Even the local Ann Arbor News story was picked up by Religion News Service, and carried in papers as far away as Dallas. Most early coverage focused on the novelty of a former pizza man disbursing his fortune in such an unexpected manner. Many of the stories were heavy on puns about Monaghan's "dough," his "recipe for giving," or how he'd found a "slice" of heaven and a new way to keep on "delivering."

While most coverage was positive, some reservations did crop up. It seemed that the need for another law school was not uniformly obvious — particularly the need for a Catholic law school, of which there were already 25 in the U.S. A statement from Monaghan had cast those 25 schools against a Catholic population of 60 million, suggesting that the market for Catholic law schools was underserved. He also insisted that the "moral crisis this country is facing" made the need for enhanced legal instruction "abundantly clear," and stressed his feelings about the importance of a "top-tier legal education that integrates the teachings of the Catholic faith." But not everyone was convinced.

Commentaries and letters to the editor appeared around the country questioning why Monaghan had chosen to start an entire new law school, rather than supporting some institution that had a track record and might benefit from a fresh infusion of cash. Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame scored Monaghan for what he saw as the clear implication that "existing Catholic universities, like Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Boston College (all of whose law schools are nationally ranked) are not doing the job."

The late Most Rev. Rembert Weakland, then Archbishop of Milwaukee, charged that the new school would be "isolationist." And Catholic writer, Fr. Thomas Reese, then editor of the Jesuit magazine, America, observed that while he was pleased at Monaghan's financial contribution to Catholic education, he was concerned that the new law school was "being presented as somehow more Catholic than the existing Catholic schools, which have decades of tradition and experience."

Some critics suspected a political (specifically anti-abortion) agenda. Word that onetime Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert Bork had agreed to join the faculty prompted suspicions that the law school was merely an expression of Monaghan's conservative leanings. Interestingly, that line of criticism brought forth some unexpected support for the new school. Wayne State University Law Professor Robert Sedler, who had long been an advocate for liberal causes, told the Associated Press that he had no problem with Ave Maria having a political perspective.

"What's wrong with that?" he said. "Lawyers like myself advocate civil rights, antiwar, equality. Lawyers do this - they practice to advocate their causes. I have the greatest respect for Mr. Monaghan. He made his fortune, and he's using his fortune to advance causes he believes in."

Sedler's dean, Joan Mahoney, was also supportive, telling the Oakland Press that she expected Ave Maria to gain credibility quickly, and that she didn't see the school's Catholic emphasis as an impediment to developing a strong law school curriculum. And David Link, then dean of Notre Dame's law school, went even farther, noting to the South Bend Tribune that he welcomed a new Catholic entry into the field of legal education.

Ave Maria board member Robert George crystallized the conflict in views. "We have a number of Catholic law schools already, so there's nothing wrong with asking if we really need another one," he observed to the higher education journal, Lingua Franca. "But frankly, I don't think we've reached the stage where we've got all the institutions we need. Now is a time when there's a certain identity crisis at Catholic universities."

Board member Gerard Bradley was more explicit, telling the Ann Arbor News that he had specifically advised Monaghan not to donate to existing Catholic law schools. "Most simply do not hire faculty with a view of Catholic character in mind," he said.

A Leap of Faith

The opening of the school was projected for the 2000-2001 academic year, and there were many tasks to accomplish in time to meet that deadline - basic among them, identifying additional potential faculty and staff, finding and equipping a building suitable to house a first-class school, obtaining licensure from the State Board of Education, and finding top students for an institution which, in the spring of 1999, was really little more than a set of hopes and good intentions.

One property that seemed appropriate was the National Sanitation Foundation* building, located in northeast Ann Arbor about a half mile from Domino's Farms, the office park Monaghan had developed to house the world headquarters of Domino's Pizza (and which he still owned after selling his major interest in the company). NSF had moved to a new site nearby, and the 84,000-square-foot brick and glass structure was available, though there was some question as to whether a location zoned for research could be used for educational purposes. Monaghan saw the NSF building as a good interim solution. With an entrepreneur's optimism, he anticipated that the law school would outgrow that facility, and his ultimate goal was to include it on the permanent campus of what he envisioned as Ave Maria University.

The designation "interim" stirred anxiety among some nearby residents, who feared that if the 11-acre NSF property were rezoned, it might be opened to higher-density development, if and when the law school moved on to Monaghan's imagined university campus. The local neighborhood association expressed some resistance to any rezoning attempt. There was no objection to Ave Maria School of Law. Rather, the group urged that restrictions on educational functions in research areas be challenged, to avoid risking any unintended consequences of a rezoning.

The school eventually brought that challenge, and it proved successful. The property was leased, and an extensive renovation begun with an initial budget of $4 million (eventually reaching $12.5 million), to convert NSF's laboratories and offices into lecture halls, meeting rooms, a moot court, student life areas, faculty and administrative offices, an extensive library, research and study complex, and other law school amenities.

Meanwhile, a promotional brochure titled "Truth is Timeless" came off press, and Kenney hit the road to recruit the first class of law students. That was no easy task, because anyone coming to Ave Maria School of Law faced a huge career risk. In spite of Monaghan's optimistic projections, there was no guarantee that there would be a completed building in which to hold classes when students arrived, or a fully developed faculty to teach them. Even less so was there any assurance that the school would ever receive ABA accreditation - without which graduates wouldn't be qualified to sit for the Bar Exam. Indeed, becoming associated with Ave Maria involved something of a leap of faith.

That risk was not lost on some critics in legal education circles. Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan of Georgetown University Law Center dismissed Ave Maria as a long shot at best, because the school had been started without a university affiliation. "That's an essential requisite for any law school if it wants to be taken seriously in the academic world," Drinan wrote in the National Catholic Reporter. "It would be nice if Catholic legal educators could welcome Ave Maria to their ranks. That will not happen."

And yet, inquiries from prospective students started arriving almost immediately after the announcement of the school, and they increased steadily. Job inquiries from faculty members at other institutions came in as well. Word was getting around, and people were intrigued.

One of the most potent appeals was financial. With higher education costs spiraling, Monaghan and Dobranski had been advised by several law school experts that the greatest competitive advantage any institution could enjoy in attracting students was affordability. Tuition was set at $19,750 per year, about mid-range for private law schools and higher than most other Michigan law schools. To offset that bite, Ave Maria announced a $5,125,000 fund from which scholarships would be awarded covering as much as 75 to 100 percent of tuition.

Dobranski explained that the intention was to create a generous scholarship program that would attract "the finest students from across the country as well as abroad." The key, he told the Ann Arbor-area Catholic weekly, Credo, was to assure "that qualified students can attend and not be discouraged by financial limitations." Surprisingly, the scholarship program drew criticism. Georgetown's Drinan derided the Ave Maria financial aid package as an attempt to "buy talent with money from its billionaire patron [Monaghan]." But reacting to Drinan's complaint, the Catholic journal First Things countered that Monaghan's entire $50 million dollar commitment to the school was "but a pittance, compared with the funds available to, for instance, Georgetown."

As renovation of the NSF building proceeded, curriculum plans took shape, and students were being courted with the prospect of abundant scholarship assistance (a nice enhancement to the attractiveness of the school's basic mission), Dobranski turned his attention to one of the most basic of any law school's concerns, establishing an adequate law library. Both the American Bar Association and the American Association of Law Schools have stiff requirements for scholarly resources, and meeting their expectations is no easy task. Consequently, one of the first priorities was hiring a library director. Early in 2000, Mitchell Counts joined the law school faculty (after serving as director of the law library at Baylor University School of Law in Waco, Texas), and began the arduous process of acquiring materials and building an information technology infrastructure.

Counts set a long-term goal of 500,000 volumes, more than half of which (both books and microform equivalents) would be accumulated within two years. During that time, construction proceeded on the library physical plant, yielding a 27,500-square-foot facility with seating for 281 and numerous distinctive features. The library design included 22 computer terminals located in two computer labs, one of which is a training lab where students can become acquainted with techniques of computer-assisted legal research. In addition, all tables and study carrels were to be wired for direct access to both the school's internal network and the World Wide Web, allowing students to use their own portable devices. Several of the soft-seating areas also permit direct network connections for those seated on the stuffed chairs and couches. And there are rooms for group projects and collaborative work. (The library and information-technology staff would eventually consist of nine, four of whom hold Juris Doctor degrees.)

The law library received gifts of several significant collections, including a complete set of United States Reports, the official record of all cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court throughout the history of the nation. The volumes were donated by Judge Robert Bork as a token of his pleasure at teaching the Moral Foundations of the Law course, a requirement for all first-year Ave Maria students.

With Bork's gift and other donations, Dobranski was able to issue a March 2001 announcement noting that Ave Maria's library collection "already rivals that of many long established law schools." Later noteworthy acquisitions would include a rare, 45-volume collection of Canon Law books dating back to 1645, donated by Edward Cardinal Egan, Archbishop of New York (who joined the board of governors in 2003).

Fides et Ratio

Meanwhile, the new school also undertook an outreach effort aimed at reinforcing its credibility in academic and legal circles: establishment of the Ave Maria Lecture Series. Funded with the gift from the original faculty members, these programs were intended to bring leading figures from the worlds of law, academe, government, and the Church to Ann Arbor to speak on vital topics of legal and moral concern. The school reached high to secure its first lecturer, Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who launched the series in November 1999.

The Ave Maria Lectures were part of an array of major presentations, scholarly symposia, and casual talks (held both on and off the law school campus) that would give expression to the school's motto and founding principle, "Fides et Ratio" (the linking of faith and reason advocated in Pope John Paul II's famous document, Fides et Ratio). That intention was most explicitly embodied in the (eponymous) Fides et Ratio Conference, focusing on excellence and innovation in legal teaching.

At the same time, efforts were made to have Ave Maria School of Law represented at important academic and professional programs and in legal publications across the country. Dobranski and his faculty members participated in numerous conferences and panel discussions, and courted opportunities for interviews and article submissions - all directed at raising the profile of the new school and highlighting the idea of "Fides et Ratio."

While Ave Maria was gaining visibility through such active outreach efforts, considerable progress was being made toward acquiring official recognition. A report laying out the academic plan for the new school (using ABA standards as guidelines) was prepared and submitted to the Michigan Board of Education in October 1999. State regulators appointed a committee of scholars that reviewed the proposal and made a site visit the following January. Committee members met with the dean and his small faculty, then toured the school's new building (where renovation work was in progress). By the end of the day, the group offered a very atypical unanimous endorsement of the law school project. The state's official confirmation, which came in February, authorized Ave Maria to grant academic degrees within Michigan.

Overcoming Challenges

The idea of infusing a law school curriculum with Catholic moral teaching and all of the developmental progress being reported in the continuing media coverage may have stirred interest among prospective students. But even if Ave Maria appealed to a certain kind of motivated individual seeking a career with potential for humane service, the practical concerns of recruiting presented a formidable challenge.

The first impediment presented by the school's lack of accreditation was not being permitted to participate in the Law School Forums held around the country by the Law School Admission Council. These are educational "fairs" where students considering legal careers can meet with law school representatives and obtain the information they need to determine where they might want to apply. Held eight times a year, the forums are considered essential recruiting venues - the "mother lode" of student prospects with up to 40,000 attending - and new law schools are excluded for three years.

Facing such an obstacle, Kenney, Ave Maria's admission specialist, concentrated on media advertising to supplement the basic awareness generated by the initial burst of publicity. Space was purchased in publications (National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, National Review, Weekly Standard, and others) assumed to reach an audience of thoughtful Catholics who might be interested in the law as a moral calling.

Kenney traveled widely, visiting college campuses, and begging for permission to set up his table in student centers and cafeterias. Several faculty members made similar visits, and a small direct-mail campaign was mounted, using a list of prospects acquired from the Law School Admission Council. The conversational springboard Kenney used on his campus treks was an offer of advice on how to take the LSAT, the qualifying exam faced by everyone applying to law school. Once he'd gotten a student chatting about the LSAT, Kenney would steer the conversation around to why Ave Maria was a viable option for serious Catholics considering careers in the law. To ease the recruiting process and provide added incentive, the application form was simplified and reduced to two pages, and the application fee was waived.

Not knowing how Ave Maria would be received, and mindful of the risk which students would face in attending a school with no accreditation, Dobranski set a goal of 40 students for the initial class - which he considered modest and realistically achievable. It was a shock to everyone when inquiries exceeded 700. The 40 slots projected for the first class filled quickly, with some entrants turning down acceptances at other, well established institutions in favor of Ave Maria. And the 2000-2001 academic year began with an actual enrollment of 75.

As the Associated Press reported, the median LSAT score for those students was 158, "on par with many of the law schools ranked among the nation's top 50 by U.S. News and World Report." The enrollment profile was virtually identical to that of the University of Iowa College of Law, then ranked 18th in the nation. Dobranski would later elaborate on the significance of those LSAT scores. Quoted in the law school's magazine, Advocate, he pointed out that a quarter of the class placed "in the top 14 percent" of all LSAT participants, and half "scored in the top 22 percent."

There was no dearth of quality applicants for faculty and staff jobs either, with highly experienced people willing to leave even tenure-track positions to be pioneers in Ann Arbor. The faculty has grown steadily, and currently numbers 20, with an additional six legal research and writing lecturers, plus several adjunct instructors. The professional support and administrative staff has more than 30.

State licensure and the actual start of classes were major milestones. But the ultimate prize for a new law school - ABA accreditation - still remained a distant goal. Georgetown's Drinan had predicted that Ave Maria "will have to struggle for accreditation from the American Bar Association and then from the American Association of Law Schools. It will not be easy." There were many who agreed.

Dobranski and his crew undertook to prove the doubters wrong, putting all the institutional pieces in place, providing the necessary documentation, and slowly demonstrating that Ave Maria School of Law was a reality on the legal-education scene, and was not going to evaporate. The quest for complete, official recognition began earnestly in April 2001, when a mock accreditation team came to Ann Arbor to help prepare the Ave Maria faculty and staff for ABA site visits that fall and a year later.*

Despite the skepticism about Ave Maria's prospects expressed after the announcement of the new school, the ABA House of Delegates granted provisional accreditation in August 2002. A final site visit in Fall 2004 was followed by the awarding of full accreditation in August 2005.

The little Catholic law school in Ann Arbor was on the map - an idea whose time had come.

• • •

Institutional Documentation

and Fund Raising

Mid ‘00s

Long extract from a booklet recounting the launch of Ave Maria School of Law, directed at prospective students and potential donors, distributed on the occasion of the school’s fifth-anniversary celebration

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