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Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Cooley can't expand campuses

Bar association has the right to cap offerings by law school due to poor performance, judge rules

By David Shepardson /

The Detroit News

ROCHESTER, MI - Thomas M. Cooley Law School has lost a federal court battle to expand its courses at campuses in Oakland and Kent counties.

The nation's largest law school filed suit in U.S. District Court against the American Bar Association, which repeatedly has rejected the Lansing school's plans to expand its offerings because of "serious doubt" about student performance on the state bar examination.

On June 9, U.S. District Judge David McKeague ruled that the bar association, which has the authority to certify law schools, can move forward in sanctioning Cooley by denying it the ability to expand until at least July 2006.

The decision means students can take only 15 out of the 90 credits required to graduate at the satellite campuses, said James Robb, an associate dean and the school's general counsel. They'll have to finish their coursework in Lansing, which for many students will mean a longer commute or a move, he said.

Jeff Cuthbertson, 30, lives in Rochester, just 10 minutes from the Oakland campus. He makes the 90-minute commute to Lansing at least twice a week and stays in a hotel on Thursday nights for Friday classes.

Being able to take classes closer to home "would offer my life balance," said Cuthbertson, who left a job in supply chain consulting to start law school last May.

Cooley, with 2,800 students, still hopes to have 800 law students taking classes in Rochester and 600 in Grand Rapids - ideally being able to complete their entire degrees at those campuses without having to take any classes in Lansing.

The American Bar Association's Accreditation Committee rejected the expansion plan in part because of the performance of Cooley's students, especially on the Michigan State Bar examination, according to court documents. Passage of the bar exam is a requirement before law school graduates can practice law in Michigan.

Cooley had a passing rate of 52 percent on the state bar exam in July 2002 - compared with a 75 percent passing rate by all test-takers in Michigan.

In February 2004, 47 percent of Cooley students passed the bar, while statewide, 54 percent passed the test.

Cooley students have generally performed worse on out-of-state bar exams than on the Michigan bar. A majority of Cooley law students are from out of state.

Cooley has posted the association's critical letters about exam results on its Web site and says its students are improving. It offers a series of programs to help improve performance, like BarStart and Bar Plus - a program geared toward graduates with low grade point averages identified as at higher risk of failing the exam.

More than 70 percent of students who took the classes passed the bar exam, according to Cooley officials.

"We have tried everything we can think of to convince our students to voluntarily take advantage of these courses," Cooley President Don LeDuc wrote in a letter to the bar association last July. LeDuc asked the association to bend its rules and allow Cooley to make the classes mandatory.

Cooley has tangled with the bar association before. In 1997, it was sanctioned for offering a "major change" - weekend classes - without obtaining prior approval by the association.