Law school takes pride in its growth, reputation

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Tucked neatly along one of the city's industrial boulevards, the Auburn Hills Campus of Thomas M. Cooley Law School hardly screams for attention from passing motorists. But the third of four campuses for the little law school that could is making a splash being heard, and felt, all across the state.

And its biggest advocate is John Nussbaumer, dean of the Auburn Hills Campus of Cooley. He points to several factors that show the Auburn Hills Campus is a major player among all Michigan law schools--it's enrollment, growth, diversity, low cost and successful pass rates for graduates on the Michigan Bar examination.

The school was founded in 1972 by a group of lawyers and judges, led by Thomas E. Brennan, a Michigan Supreme Court justice, and named for Thomas M. Cooley, a Michigan legal scholar and state Supreme Court justice who is widely recognized with three fellow justices for developing the foundation of Michigan law.

Brennan also designed the law school's year-round system with a mission to prepare graduates for the legal profession and provide broad access to its school but adhering to rigorous academic standards.

"He thought there ought to be a law school in Michigan that was an extension of the bench, and the bar, for training judges and lawyers," Nussbaumer said.

Cooley, known then as a regional law school, has grown from that first campus in Lansing. Branches opened in Grand Rapids in 2003 and Ann Arbor in 2009. The school partnered with Oakland University in 2002 and started there with 28 students. It's grown into the Auburn Hills Campus in 2008, and now has 870 students.

Nussbaumer cited figures that compare that number of students to those attending law schools at the University of Detroit Mercy (730) and Wayne State University (569), and said the student population places the Auburn Hills Campus among the Top 50 American Bar Association-approved schools in the county.

But growth there was always expected, Nussbaumer said. In earlier demographic studies, officials found that the area encompassing Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties was one of the most under-served law school markets in the country, particularly for part-time students, such as those who worked or had families.

Oakland and Macomb counties had the largest population in America's midsection that did not even have a law school then, Nussbaumer said. Even adding Wayne County in that mix only added two law schools--Wayne State University and University of Detroit Mercy--but still fell short of what would be expected in a population area that large.

"We thought there was an unmet need here, and I think our projections turned out right," he said.

They expected to attract 790 students, but have nearly one hundred more. Nussbaumer said the growth at the Auburn Hills Campus shows "we're doing something right."

"Word is getting around to prospective students that we offer a quality program in a quality facility."

Diversity among students is also a bragging point. He said entering classes over the past four years have ranged about 12 to 13 percent African-Americans, topping figures from Wayne and the University of Detroit. And the fall class at Auburn Hills stands at 16 percent "which places us in the Top 20 law schools in the country in percentage of African-Americans," Nussbaumer said.

The State Bar of Michigan is unveiling a new diversity pledge and asking law schools, law firms, government agencies, individual attorneys and judges to commit to an increase of diversity in the legal profession. Nussbaumer said that's important because the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that, by 2042, a majority of America will be populated by people of color. He said only about 10 percent of attorneys nationwide now are minorities.

"And if we don't get moving to turn that around, we face the very real prospect of a legal profession that is predominately white and a citizenry that's predominately people of color."

"And having a profession 90 percent white and a citizenry that's predominantly people of color raises issues about democracy and equality," Nussbaumer said.

Nussbaumer also points to Cooley's Auburn Hills Campus as being the least expensive of all unsubsidized private schools in Michigan. While the University of Michigan, the University of Detroit Mercy and Michigan State University also fall into that group, Wayne State being the only exception, Nussbaumer said Cooley is able to keep tuition lower because all four campuses operate under a central administrative support system.

"That largeness gives us the ability to do more for less," he said, noting that the campus offers more than $5 million in tuition merit scholarships. "So we start out less expensive to begin with, and on top of that we provide a large amount in scholarships."

Finally, Nussbaumer points to the campus as having the highest first-time pass rates among the three metro-Detroit law schools on each of the past three Michigan Bar exams. For tests conducted this past February, and tests in July and February 2009, the campus had pass rates of 87, 91, and 92 percent, respectively. In that same period, Wayne State's rates were 83, 90, and 83 percent, while the University of Detroit Mercy had 86, 89, and 90 percent.

Nussbaumer said it all points up to a quality education in an affordable, diverse law school.

"Even though we might not have the elitist reputations that other schools might have, if you look at an objective measure we hold our own or lead the pack," he said.

"And even though we have more generous entrance requirements, the academic rigors of our program results in graduates who are very well prepared to take the bar and very well prepared to actually practice law."

Many Cooley graduates are now practicing law in firms or independently, in prosecutor's offices, and serving as judges in various state courts.

He said that all ties back to Brennan's original vision of a lawyers and judges law school.

"We've done what we've set out to do...and we've been very successful."

Published: Fri, Oct 15, 2010