Cooley Dean Does Double Duty

April 29, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Marion Hilligan thinks of a law degree as the ultimate liberal arts degree — teaching people how to think.

Hilligan, the associate dean of the Grand Rapids/WMU campus of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, said she believes a law degree can be an asset to a wide range of people, from students who want to practice law to executives of companies who want to have better understanding of the laws that affect their business.

“A law degree is a wonderful thing. It really does teach you how to think, even if you don’t want to practice law,” she said.

While liberal arts degrees are meant to expose students to a broad range of basic cultural knowledge, Hilligan said a law degree simply expands on that.

“The law does the same thing. Just because it focuses on the law doesn’t mean you don’t know about a huge slice of human experience,” she said.

A legal education would also eliminate the need to hire an attorney for a business.

“They don’t have to rely on another attorney to advise them — there’s a lot of confidence-building power in that,” she said of those in the business community with law degrees. “When you bring the legal knowledge together with some other field, you get a two-for — more bang for your buck. People are going to pay more attention to you. It’s sort of scary to people that don’t have it.”

Hilligan knows what she is talking about when she counsels nontraditional students in their 30s and 40s to go back to school.

“You’re going to be 48 anyway, you might as well have a law degree,” was Hilligan’s advice to one of the school’s potential students.

Hilligan, a Portland resident, was a nontraditional student in her late 30s when she started at Cooley in Lansing. After earning her law degree, she did pro-bono work for community organizations before she joined the Cooley staff as an adjunct professor, then worked her way to assistant dean at the Grand Rapids/WMU campus in May 2003 and became associate dean at the campus in August 2004.

While a legal education is a benefit to many, Hilligan said the law school itself is a benefit to the legal and business communities in Grand Rapids with a public law library and various education programs.

“It’s pretty expensive to maintain a book law library,” Hilligan said. “That’s a great resource that isn’t available anywhere else.”

Hilligan said she hopes the law school can provide the community a place to interact and network. By summer 2006 Cooley will have a reception area that can be used for events and activities. “We hope that we really are sort of a destination place for a lot of events,” she said.

Cooley can provide more than just education and opportunities for networking, Hilligan said. She also sees the school as one of the revitalizing forces in the Heartside District, where the building is located at 111 Commerce SW. As the winner of the 2004 Gerald R. Helmholdt Grand Prize from the Neighborhood Business Alliance, Cooley has helped bring new life to an area that previously housed empty buildings and a vacant lot. Students from the school also bring business to the area.

“They’re going to eat and shop and go to the entertainment venues in Grand Rapids,” she said. “It’s exciting to be a part of that, for me and for the school, too.

“We’re not only doing something good for the legal community and students, but we’re doing something wonderful for the entire community and ourselves in the process.”

Hilligan said her experience with economic development will benefit the area as she and the school continue to be involved in downtown Grand Rapids.

As the former mayor of Portland where she has lived for more than 30 years, Hilligan has been deeply involved in the local government of the city and is active on many committees. She is the co-chairwoman of the Portland Cool Cities Committee, chairwoman of the Organization and Finance Committee for the city’s Main Street Designation project, chairwoman of the Zoning Board of Appeals and serves on the planning commission and the Portland Community Arts Council Board of Directors.

Hilligan said she hopes to become more involved with Grand Rapids groups and organizations. Cooley already is a member of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the Heartside Business District Association.

With her many commitments, Hilligan said the hardest part is finding time to do it all. She said she hardly has time for her other interests, which include gardening and collecting antiques. Hilligan said her favorite antique piece is an 8-foot-tall cupboard she found in Maine.

“It took four people to haul it into the house, so it’s staying here forever,” she said.

Hilligan said her full schedule is satisfying and allows her to help many people, including the students at Cooley and her community in Portland.

“I just want to make sure that I’m doing the best I can for everybody,” she said.

She splits her time between Lansing and Grand Rapids, commuting to each city. Hilligan said she is looking forward to working in Grand Rapids full-time after the location gets branch campus approval from the American Bar Association, which would allow the Grand Rapids campus to offer the full 90-credit program.

“We certainly expect that in a year or so that it will be a done deal,” she said.

Though she is not sure if she will move to Grand Rapids full-time, Hilligan said she enjoys what the city has to offer.

“We think this is going to be a wonderful location for our students to be a part of that sort of city atmosphere,” she said.

Besides the improvements and construction that are going on around the Cooley campus, Hilligan said she also is excited about Grand Rapids’ restaurants.

“I just can’t get over the food most days,” she said.

Bistro Bella Vita, Tre Cugini and Black Rose Irish Pub, which is next to the campus, are some of her favorites.

“That’s really handy, especially in the wintertime,” she said of The Black Rose.

Hilligan said she went to law school because she always liked to analyze and try to find different ways to think about situations. She describes law school as a “gym for your mind.”

“It really makes you think, which can be a really fun thing,” she said.

After doing pro-bono work for community organizations and working as an adjunct professor at Cooley, Hilligan realized that teaching fit with her ideal of practicing law.

“I found that I really love teaching,” she said. “That was part of my idea of being a lawyer, that it was a way to help people.”

Hilligan said she continues to help people through her work at the Grand Rapids/WMU campus.

“The Grand Rapids campus gives the whole western side of Michigan an opportunity that they didn’t have before,” she said. “It’s really opened up opportunities for people who wanted to go to law school but didn’t think they could manage it.”

Hilligan said she loves being able to help students and owes it to others to share the gifts she has.

“I really do believe that those of us who are fortunate enough to be given the talent and the skills to be lawyers, or any kind of professionals really, do have a duty to help those who haven’t been given those skills,” she said.    

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