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How Obscure Law School
Places Grads at Top Firms

May 23, 2007; Page B1

Wall Street Journal

Law students starting summer jobs at the New York office of a prominent national law firm come largely from the usual places: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, New York University and some local schools. Then there's Keith Marlowe of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

Last fall, Mr. Marlowe applied for summer work at 110 U.S. firms and got no offers. But the Calgary, Alberta, native had an ace in the hole: private interviews, arranged by his law school, with some of the country's biggest firms, including Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, which offered the 25-year-old a job paying about $3,000 a week.

In the stratified world of law, educational pedigree largely dictates where students will get a look. Firms want to signal to clients and colleagues that they only hire the best. As firms have grown and competition for junior lawyers has intensified, some firms have dipped below the Ivies and their equivalents. Nonetheless, a student from a school like Detroit Mercy -- firmly in the cellar of U.S. News & World Report's rankings of 184 accredited law schools -- hasn't stood a chance at the fancy firms.

The Mercy School of Law in Detroit

But thanks to some masterful marketing by Detroit Mercy's dean, Mark C. Gordon, top students at the school are now gaining entree to the big leagues. In the last two years, a half-dozen students have been hired for summer or full-time jobs at firms like Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw LLP. Firms such as Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP now include Detroit Mercy in their select on-campus interview circuit.

A first-time dean and Harvard Law grad, Mr. Gordon got his school on the radar of the top-tier firms by enlisting a stable of big-time private-practice lawyers to join an advisory board that's now some 60 members strong. His pitch: Help Detroit Mercy improve its third-year curriculum by creating a required set of courses that simulate real-life practice.

Attorneys quickly suited up for the cause. When they arrived in Detroit for twice-a-year meetings, starting in 2005, Mr. Gordon made sure they not only helped remake the school's coursework but also inspected his top second-year students during private interviews, as well as others who were trotted out to give presentations on everything from trial advocacy to interpreting statutes. After last month's meeting, about 40 first-year students, handpicked by professors, were allowed to mingle with the board.

The idea of focusing the curriculum on practice resonated with the lawyers. In fact, many have long complained that law school devotes too much attention to theory and leaves students unprepared to practice, even as the market demands that firms pay new hires high salaries from day one. Many students are also no fans of the third year of school, feeling it's a repeat of the same kind of work analyzing cases that they did in the first two years.

Students "arrive and they don't know where they fit in, how to draft an escrow, a merger agreement," says Jonathan J. Lerner, a corporate partner at Skadden Arps who is on the Detroit Mercy board.

While some schools, like Columbia Law School, have coursework oriented to law-firm practice, it's generally not required. Stanford Law School offers a few elective "deals"-type courses, but the school is emphasizing new joint J.D.-master's degrees in which a law student, for example, would also study bioengineering. Transaction-simulation classes are an "inefficient way to learn content" says Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer, who recommends students take no more than one or two of them.

[Mark Gordon]

From Mr. Gordon's vantage point, if the practical coursework and advisory board help his students get a top job, it's fine with him.

"It's one thing to come out of Harvard, Yale, Stanford and be going to some of these firms, and it's another to come out of a school that doesn't have that pedigree," says Allan B. Moore, a partner at Covington & Burling who recently joined the Detroit Mercy board. "Mark is taking the ivory tower out of it."

Founded in 1912 and located in a three-story building across from General Motors headquarters, Detroit Mercy has an entering class of 265 students and is sponsored by two Roman Catholic groups, the Society of Jesus and the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. Most graduates go into private practice primarily in the greater Detroit area.

The 46-year-old Mr. Gordon, raised in White Plains, N.Y., never expected to be a dean. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1990, he worked at New York law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP and later at the Department of Housing and Urban Development before teaching public affairs for six years at Columbia University.

In late 2000, on a flight to Maine to visit his grandmother, Mr. Gordon started talking with the director of a public-policy institute at the University of Southern Maine who was seated next to him. By the end of the flight she had encouraged him to apply to be dean of the university's public-policy school. He didn't get the job, but the idea intrigued him. He applied to a handful of public-policy and law schools that had openings, and, in 2001, he got a callback from Detroit Mercy.

The idea of going to work at a low-ranked school "was a positive factor," he says. "It's the schools that are not as well known that are most open to change."

Mr. Gordon and his wife, a structural engineer, bought a red-brick Colonial-style home two blocks past the Detroit city line, in Grosse Pointe, and moved there with their two young sons in 2002.

The new dean wanted to "integrate the realities of law practice in the classroom" and developed the idea further with faculty. He also called more than 100 alumni and practicing Detroit lawyers to ask their opinions about what the school should be doing. Through in-house lawyers at auto maker DaimlerChrysler and auto-parts company Delphi, Mr. Gordon contacted partners at prominent national firms -- most of whom had never heard of the school -- and reached out to a handful of Harvard Law School classmates to set up his board.

After receiving an unexpected call from Mr. Gordon last year, Thomas E. Kruger, a partner at Paul Hastings, agreed to meet the dean for breakfast near his law office in midtown Manhattan, convinced he would say "no" to whatever Mr. Gordon was asking for. Instead, a half-hour meeting turned into an hour and a half, and the partner signed on to the advisory board.

Mr. Kruger is now in charge of providing documents from actual cases (redacted) for use in the new curriculum, known as the Law Firm program, which lets students handle a complex case or transaction as if they were part of a large law firm. Each course focuses on a different department in a typical corporate firm, such as real estate, intellectual property, white-collar crime or antitrust law. After a pilot program this past semester, all third-year students will be required to take at least two courses in the program.

Prior to joining the board, Mr. Kruger had personally recruited only at Harvard, his alma mater; now he has added Detroit Mercy as a second stop. Having nine top national firms conduct on-campus interviews at Detroit Mercy is a coup for the school and a critical step toward building an institutional pipeline into the firms.

So far Detroit Mercy's successes haven't raised its stock in the U.S. News rankings, which weigh such factors as percentage of graduates employed after graduation, scores on the Law School Admission Test and the bar-exam passage rate. The Michigan bar-exam passage rate for Detroit Mercy students was below the state average for the 2005 summer exam, but last summer it rose to the average for the state.

"We were in the fourth tier before I was hired, and that's where we've remained," Mr. Gordon says. He adds that he's more concerned about the students' education and job prospects.

Placing students at high-paying jobs in the top firms can do more than add prestige to a school like Detroit Mercy. Later in life, successful graduates may be able to afford to give back. Says Ken Hemler, a 25-year-old Detroit Mercy law student from Warren, Mich., who got a job starting in the fall at Shearman & Sterling LLP in New York: "I plan on being on the hall-of-fame-donors list... if they have one."