Cooley celebrates 35 years of transformation

October 3, 2008
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Thomas M. Cooley Law School celebrated its 35 anniversary Tuesday, receiving both accolades and proclamations in its honor from the city of Grand Rapids, Kent County, the State Bar of Michigan and the Grand Rapids Bar Association.

Cooley founder and former Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court Thomas Brennan was a special guest at the event and spoke about Cooley’s early days and its transformation over the years into the nation’s largest law school.

Brennan, along with a group of lawyers and judges, established Cooley in 1972, and the law school held its first class in 1973. Brennan resigned from the state Supreme Court to serve as Cooley’s first dean.

“It has been my experience that nothing I ever accomplished has come easy or was done without a quick dose of flip-flopping. I needed a lot of help from other people,” Brennan said.

“My instinct has always been to forge ahead, ready or not. I’m the poster boy for rushing ahead. I confess to you this afternoon in all candidness that the secret to my success has been to undertake great enterprises with vigor, passion and unjustified optimism — and with such obvious ineptitude as to invoke sympathy,” he said in jest.

Today, Cooley has more than 3,800 students across its three campuses in Lansing, Grand Rapids and Auburn Hills and boasts the highest number of African-American students and foreign national students of any U.S. law school.

Don LeDuc, president and dean of Cooley, has been with the school for 34 of its 35 years. He served as dean from 1982 to 1987 and from 1992 to present. He was named president of Cooley in 2002. That same year, Cooley began offering classes on the campus of Oakland University in Auburn Hills, and the following year began offering classes on the Grand Rapids campus of Western Michigan University.

Cooley opened its five-story, 100,000-square-foot law center at 111 Commerce Ave. in Grand Rapids in 2004. A 67,000-square-foot addition to the Auburn Hills campus is slated for completion this January.

As LeDuc recalled, Brennan wanted Cooley Law School to be “good, big and cheap.” He said in those early days, nobody could imagine what Cooley would become or where it would be after 35 years. 

“Tom instilled in all of us a sense of vision,” LeDuc said. “He made it possible for us to see.”

Brennan said Cooley’s 35th anniversary celebration is as much a tribute to Don LeDuc as it is to the many people who helped launch the law school, because LeDuc guided Cooley into its present position of largest law school in the nation. He joked about how he recruited LeDuc in a cocktail lounge at a Washington, D.C., hotel.

On a more serious note, Brennan said he is “eternally grateful” that LeDuc agreed to come on board.

“I’ve long believed that the first quality of a leader is the ability and willingness to grab the brass ring — reach for the mantel of leadership, step up to the plate,” Brennan remarked. “Don always had the disposition, confidence and determination to lead. As a matter of fact, he grabbed that brass ring even when I was still trying to hold on to it, so I had to admire him,” Brennan added lightheartedly.

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