July 3, 2014 at 10:27 pm

Downsizing at Cooley Law raises worries

Cooley Law School in Ann Arbor (Clarence Tabb Jr / The Detroit News)

Planned staff reductions and a decision not to accept new enrollees at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Ann Arbor campus have current students concerned about the branch’s future.

The end of new admissions in Ann Arbor is part of a larger restructuring for the nation’s largest law school that will include scrutiny of facilities, programs and purchases at all five campuses, which include Auburn Hills, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Tampa, Fla.

Cooley was founded in 1972 by a group of lawyers and judges that included Thomas E. Brennan, who was then chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Well-known alumni include former Gov. John Engler, Wayne County Circuit Judge Vonda Evans and former U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak.

“We’re making this move because of an imbalance between enrollment and revenue and the costs we’ve seen in recent periods,” said Jim Robb, Cooley’s associate dean of external affairs and senior counsel. “The trend is probably the result of the economy. We felt it was time to right-size the situation by reducing expenses and preparing to move ahead in the future.”

Law schools across the country have seen declining enrollment in recent years and Cooley is no different. According to figures published by the National Jurist, Cooley has seen a 40 percent drop in enrollment — from 3,931 to 2,334 students — between 2010-11 and 2013-14.

Robb said no decision about the future of the Ann Arbor campus has been made.

But Monica Carson, a student who is finishing her first year at the school after moving from Cincinnati, said Associate Dean Joan Vestrand told her class Thursday that the campus eventually would close.

“She was telling us in class that they are slowly going to be shutting down the Ann Arbor campus,” said Carson, a member of the Student Bar Association.

In an email late Thursday, Vestrand said that’s not what she told the students.

“I did not and have not indicated to anyone that the Ann Arbor campus is closing,” the associate dean wrote. “Students this morning asked on the basis of the portal message if this was happening and I told them no such decision has been made.”

Current students likely will see no immediate impact from the cutbacks, Robb said. Those enrollees who had been accepted to Cooley for their first semester in Ann Arbor this fall will be allowed to take classes at the other four campuses.

Like Carson, Michael Taylor is a member of the Cooley Ann Arbor campus’ Student Bar Association. In an email responding to questions, he said Thursday he had not heard any school officials say the Ann Arbor campus would close, but indicated he doesn’t feel it’s far off.

“I don’t know that it’s a rumor so much as it is the logical progression of no longer taking students at this campus,” he wrote. “I can tell you that there hasn’t been an official announcement to that effect, but we are anticipating those changes.”

Taylor said he sees the changes as the cold reality of both the times and Cooley’s unique makeup.

“Multiple campuses provide more students the ability to attend law school close to home,” he wrote. “But the price is that the school’s resources are spread to five different cities. In order to keep costs, including tuition, low, the school has to make the most efficient use of its resources.

“I believe the administration at Cooley understands that law schools are currently undergoing a paradigm shift, and in turn, they are making fiscally conservative policy decisions to ensure our law school remains viable and accessible.”

Chad D. Englehardt, an Ann Arbor attorney and 2005 graduate of Cooley’s Ann Arbor campus, said he understands the reasoning behind the school’s cutbacks.

“With four campuses in Michigan and now one in Florida, it makes sense for (Cooley) to pool resources, especially if enrollment is down as it is at (law) schools nationwide,” said Englehardt, who is education chairman for the Michigan Association for Justice.

“The Ann Arbor campus has traditionally been a destination spot for out-of-state students because of the culture in Ann Arbor,” he said. “Campuses in Auburn Hills and Grand Rapids are more commuter schools. So in closing down enrollment for first-year students in Ann Arbor, it is a bit unusual.”

Englehardt, who is a regular speaker on medical negligence and litigation issues, said he and a law partner recently hired a Cooley graduate who soon will take the bar exam.

“We had other applications — UM, Wayne (State), others — but her Cooley education was as good as any of them,” he said.

Englehardt said while there may be a surplus of law school graduates looking for work, he believes that will soon change as baby-boomer age lawyers and others retire.

“As many as will be sworn in will be swearing out,” he said.

“When I’m talking with new lawyers or college students considering the field of law, I’m always being asked if the time and money spent (law school) has been a good investment,” he said. “Absolutely.”

In a press release this week, Cooley officials laid out four steps for its economic review:

■Staff reductions.

■A review of all programs for “capacity and quality.”

■Reviews of campuses and facilities to “reduce and rebalance costs.”

■Reviews of “all purchases, travel and other expenses.”

The changes at Cooley are not expected to impact the school’s affiliation agreement with Western Michigan University, which allows students to simultaneously pursue a law degree at Cooley and a business administration, public administration or social work degree at WSU.

Unlike the national trend, the University of Michigan has not experienced a decline in enrollment.

But officials decided last year to reduce the class size, from 350 to 315, because of the declining caliber of candidates, said Sarah Zearfoss, dean of law school admissions.

“We have a long history of excellence and wanted to maintain that, and that means we have to be very selective,” she said.

The job market has been more challenging for Michigan law school graduates, but Zearfoss said there are signs of that turning around.

“Everyone in the profession needs to take seriously a narrowing pipeline of great future lawyers,” she said. “This country is a nation of laws. If you don’t have strong lawyers, it will affect the economy.”

(313) 222-2034