'Like a death in the family' Cooley Law School closes on December 31

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 By Jo Mathis

Legal News
 
For the first time since it opened on Plymouth Road five years ago, there is now plentiful parking at the Ann Arbor campus of Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
Amidst declining enrollment and revenues, WMU Cooley recently announced that it will close its Ann Arbor campus on December 31, subject to the approval of the Higher Learning Commission and ABA.
“People are shocked and upset,” said student Donna Cody, who was studying in the nearly vacant library. “But we have six-week midterms and finals and so all that has to be put aside.  They’re good lawyers. They will be good lawyers. They put their personal agendas aside, and focus on the law and the task at hand. We’ve been trained to do that.”
Students and staff were prepared for the news considering the July announcement of faculty and staff reductions at all five Cooley campuses, and the startling fact that Cooley Ann Arbor would not accept incoming first-year students for the fall. 
Of the 187 students currently enrolled at the Ann Arbor campus, about 130 J.D. students and 10 LL.M. students will be continuing their studies at another campus starting January, according to James D. Robb, WMU Cooley’s associate dean of external affairs and senior counsel. Most of the others are set to graduate in December and won’t be affected by the closure.
Cody, who lives in Saline, will spend her final year in law school in Auburn Hills—an hour-long trip at best. And that means no morning classes to accommodate the commute.
Cody said the Ann Arbor campus was not only convenient for her, but it opened up so many opportunities for internships and externships and getting to know local judges and lawyers on a first-name basis.
But as hard as the transition will be for her, she says the local area will miss Cooley’s presence here the most because of the pro bono work and special projects students and faculty did, particularly with high school students.
“A lot of these students are just getting out of college, and they got real-life, hands-on experiences here,” said Cody, who was a research scientist until she decided to make law her second career. “They’re going to make themselves really good lawyers, because  (Cooley professors) don’t just focus on the books. They focus on the person.”
Student Rabih Hamawi said the recent news was not a complete surprise because Cooley President Don LeDuc came to the campus in July to talk about a transition plan in case the campus was in fact closed at the end of the semester.
He has several friends who predicted the campus would close when the first round of cutbacks was announced in July, and did not want to have to make a move in the wintertime.
So they’ve already transferred.
“It was hard for a lot of people—especially those who had to rearrange their leases mid-term,” he said. “It affected their finances, the way they have to structure things, their commute time back and forth.”
Many had specifically chosen Ann Arbor for a reason, and it has taken some time to adjust to the new campusses. 
Still, he said law students are particularly well equipped to face problems and address them in the most sensible way possible. 
“This doesn’t feel like a campus—it just feels like one huge house with a lot of rooms,” he said. “And now you walk in one of those rooms and it’s empty. It’s like one of your family is gone. It’s very personal.”
“It’s like a death in the family. No matter how much you love the house you’re living in, it’s nothing without the people in it.”
Hamawi knows he’s one of the lucky ones. Not only was he thrilled to recently become a legal intern at the United States Attorney's Office in Detroit, but he is set to graduate from WSU Cooley Ann Arbor just days before the campus closes.
In the meantime, he said it has been very hard this semester to see the empty halls and realize how many professors were no longer there.
He praised the administrators and faculty who took such a personal interest in him, and regrets that some of his favorite professors now teach only on an adjunct basis, if at all.
Cooley graduates include many prominent judges and attorneys in southeast Michigan.
Ann Arbor attorney Chad Engelhardt, a 2005 graduate of Cooley’s Lansing campus, said the area will miss the good works the school has done over the years, including legal clinics, community outreach and charitable events.
“Under Joan Vestrand’s leadership, the Ann Arbor campus had quickly become an integral partner in our legal community, hosting bar activities and continuing legal education opportunities,” he said. “The Ann Arbor campus served as a launching pad for student involvement with practicing attorneys, judges and agencies.”
He said the decision was likely very difficult, but ultimately fiscally responsible and forward-looking, and one that was needed for WMU Cooley to be able to continue its mission. 
Cooley Ann Arbor students are being given stipends to help cover the expense of transferring to another campus.
Students at the Ann Arbor campus may be eligible for a “closed school discharge” to eliminate their student debt, but their credits could not then transfer to another Cooley branch or law school.
 According to Jan Kruse of the National Consumer Law Center, the rules governing school loan debt depend on what type of loans they’ve taken out, and differ from state to state.
Graham Ward has been an adjunct professor at one Cooley campus or another for 10 years, and says he will miss his six-hour round-trip commute once a week to teach his two classes in Ann Arbor.
“I feel the way an awful lot of people here feel,” he said. “We understand why the decision was made, but this is very much a family. It’s a shame to see a number of faculty affected by this, and I know it’s a significant burden on a number of students.”
Ward said he’s talked to a number of his students, and about half are transferring to Lansing, while the others have are heading north to Auburn Hills. Some are car-pooling.
He has taught in both cities, and hopes to continue.
Ward said it usually takes some time, but people do adjust to life-changing episodes.
“I’m sure the students will do just fine,” he said. “And I suspect the faculty will, also. Life goes on.”

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