Aug. 28 2013 12:00 AM

Cooley Law School shrinks - but casts a long shadow


You’re kicking back with a beer and some friends at the Nuthouse, the Tin Can or some other downtown Lansing bar. One member of your party somehow manages to laugh at every joke and keep up the drinking without lifting her nose from a very thick book with no pictures and lots of Latin in it.

Chances are, that person is a student at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, the law school with the common touch, where generously broad admission standards funnel into a tough winnowing machine that demands — and rewards — diligence.

Founded in 1972 by Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas E. Brennan, Cooley Law School is still a fairly well kept Lansing secret, despite its surprising size. Enrollment is down from its 2010 peak of 4,000- plus, owing to a glut in law school graduates, but the school is still a force to reckon with, with campuses in Lansing, Auburn Hills, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and a new campus in Tampa Bay, Fla.

Cooley boasts the nation´s largest Juris Doctor program, with over 3,000 students, about one-third of whom are minority students, and the nation’s most comprehensive accredited part-time legal education program in the United States. Last fall, about 1,300 students were enrolled at Cooley’s Lansing campus, down from about 2,900 in 2006.

Thomas M. Cooley (1824-1898) was the ideal person to name a plucky college after: a little guy who worked hard and became a Michigan Supreme Court Justice, a scholar who made his name by compiling all the laws of Michigan in one year. Here’s hoping his friends took him to the bar anyway, books and all.

He’s about to get some company on the school’s letterhead. Last month, Cooley announced that it will become Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School, owing to an affiliation agreement approved by WMU trustees July 18.

Cooley is a major presence in Lansing’s downtown, from the Roman columns of one of its main buildings on Capitol Avenue to the airy new Thomas E. Brennan Law Library a block away. (The library is so good that researchers from the nearby Michigan Supreme Court use it.) Cooley Law School Stadium, just around the corner on Michigan Avenue, is one of the school’s many links to the community. How many law schools underwrite a minor league baseball park?

Cooley is no ivy tower of theoretical debate. Students can get externships in more than 3,000 clinics, projects and firms around the world. There are several specializations, including homeland and national security. The emphasis on real practice and professional standards dovetails with its diverse and international student body and fair admission standards. True to its real-world bent, the school also offers a lot of scheduling flexibility. Students can start the traditional way, come Michaelmas term (Anglophile lawspeak for fall), or start in January or May. About 80 percent of the students are part time. Just don’t fall behind on the course work. The entrance at Cooley is greased, but so is the exit. Don’t look up from that book while studying at the bar — er, for the Bar.