Aug. 20 2014 12:00 AM

While law schools enrollments throughout the country are off significantly, the decline has been devastating for Lansing´s Cooley law school.

An analysis published in February by The National Jurist magazine quantified the collapse when it reported:

“Eighteen law schools saw enrollment drop by more than 30 percent, led by University of La Verne (down 66.2 percent) and Thomas M. Cooley Law School (down 40.6 percent). Cooley Law School, with five campuses in Michigan and Florida, dropped from 3,931 students in 2010-2011 to 2,334 students in 2013-2014, the single largest drop in raw numbers.”

To address the declines, Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, as it has renamed itself, is cutting faculty and staff, ending incoming enrollments at its Ann Arbor campus and restructuring its finances. No doubt, it will balance its books. Expense cuts for a product as broad and ranging as legal education give a law school lots of wiggle room. But it will be a very different organization.

There are about 200 law schools in the United States, and according to an analysis by Cooley founder Thomas E. Brennan and the school´s president, Don LeDuc, Cooley is ranked second among them, just behind Harvard. Cooley´s exulted position, based on an analysis of enrollment, applications, faculty and other statistics, is derided by many in the legal profession. There are statistics provided to the American Bar Association by all schools that offer some perspective, and perhaps explain why Cooley´s enrollment is off.

Here is the short version: Tuition at Cooley is expensive. Moreover, in 2013 only a third of graduates got jobs requiring that they pass a bar exam. In fact, many were unemployed. Compared with other law schools in the state — notably, Michigan State University College of Law and the University of Michigan —Cooley´s ABA report card is weak. But where U of M positions itself among the nation´s elite law schools, and the MSU College of Law aspires to a loftier perch, Cooley has built its franchise on a law education for most of those who apply for enrollment. That is, when they apply.

Here is how the three law schools compare.

It´s a given that most students at law schools want to be lawyers and most want to practice law. For students with Cooley degrees, this is a challenge. Its employment summary for 2013 graduates tracked 1,143 students. Of those, just 332 reported that they had jobs that required passage of a bar exam. Of those 332, 46 said they worked at solo law firms. Essentially, they were selfemployed.

Another 171 graduates reported they had jobs where a law degree was considered an advantage, but not a requirement, positions like corporate contract administrators, FBI agents or law school admissions officers. Of the class, 319 said they were unemployed but seeking work. There were another 68 whose employment status was unknown.

For MSU, of the 301 students in its 2013 class, 143 has jobs that required passage of a bar exam and only three worked solo. Another 100 had JD advantage jobs and 21 were unemployed.

U of M
According to its 2012 report, 320 of its 388 graduates had a bar-exam-required job, 16 had JD advantage jobs and 16 were unemployed. From that class, 109 students reported that they were employed by law firms with 501 or more lawyers. These are often the most coveted entry-level jobs.

All three of the law schools provide grants and scholarships. But a law school degree still leaves many graduates with large debts.

At Cooley, tuition and fees for the 2013 academic year were $43,540, with estimated off-campus living expense of $17,584. At MSU tuition and fees were $35,844, with campus or off-campus living expenses of $15,426. Michigan´s tuition/fees were $49,784 with off-campus living expenses of $18,700. So it costs about $50,000 a year at MSU, about $68,000 at U of M, and about $61,000 at Cooley.

Here is where the three schools also show their differences. At Cooley, befitting its everyman admissions strategy, the median GPA was 2.96. At MSU, it´s 3.52 and at U of M, 3.71. LSAT scores are skewed similarly.

The dropout rate at Cooley is high — 10.7 percent in 2012 for freshmen. Eight percent of students dropped out in the second year and just a half percent in the third year. Very few freshmen drop out at MSU or U of M — 2.4 percent and 1.7 percent respectively. At Cooley far more students transfer out than transfer in. It´s the reverse at the other schools.

The job outlook for graduates everywhere is bleak. For the 2013 class, the ABA reported that 57 percent of 46,776 graduates (the largest law class ever) had bar passage jobs, with another 10 percent holding JD advantage jobs. That still leaves a lot of potential lawyers out of work in a field where growth is only projected to be average for the rest of the decade.

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