Cooley Law is headed to Florida

December 5, 2011
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The Thomas M. Cooley Law School is expanding out of state. Cooley, which is the nation's largest law school, is making its first venture outside of Michigan by opening a campus in Tampa Bay. Classes in the western Florida city begin in May.

How did a Michigan-based, independent, nonprofit law school that offers classes in downtown Grand Rapids and three other Michigan cities choose Tampa Bay for its initial out-of-state campus?

"Location is the number-one factor in the choice of a law school, so everything else you do is secondary to location. When you're looking at location, you can break that down into two elements. One is, are you in a location that potentially has a lot of law students? That generally means a large demographic area, particularly a large area with very little opportunity for law study," said Don LeDuc, president of Cooley Law School, from his office in Lansing.

"Second, is it an area that has name recognition and is likely to draw students to that location, even though they're not there in the first place? And Tampa Bay fit both those criteria really quite well," he added.

Tampa Bay, on Florida's Gulf Coast, sits in a metro area of roughly 4 million people and only has one law school currently serving the highly populated region. But location means more to Cooley than population and the market opportunity the city presents the school. LeDuc pointed out that Florida has the most Cooley alumni outside of Michigan: 886 graduates live in the Sunshine State and are likely to help with the school's recruitment effort.

In addition, roughly 6 percent of all Cooley applications come from students in Florida; they regularly make up 5 percent of its student population each year. In fact, LeDuc said about 80 percent of Cooley's current students are from states other than Michigan. LeDuc added that Cooley's biggest competitors — Florida Coastal School of Law and Barry University Law School — are in Florida and that will help market the general concept of attending law school.

"We weren't particularly looking at Tampa or Florida. We looked at every area in the country through the MSAs, and there was a list that had quite a few places. Tampa sort of jumped up on that list. Then when we started looking at potential sites, Tampa hit real quickly. But we didn't intend that it be Tampa, necessarily," said LeDuc, who added there were 15 cities on the Cooley list at one time.

"But we knew it had good name recognition and we also knew there is only one law school in the area. It's roughly the size of southeast Michigan and that area has three law schools, with Ann Arbor right on the border of that area. So it seemed to us that, comparatively, (Tampa) was a good choice."

In the analysis, another factor surfaced in Tampa's favor: The commute is easier than in the other markets surveyed. "Because our basic program is part time, we have a lot of commuting students, and that model works really well when the opportunities for students to commute to the campus are good," said LeDuc.

Cooley has acquired 13.5 acres for its campus on Camden Field Parkway in Riverview, which is about a 15-minute drive from downtown Tampa. The school's building is 130,000 square feet spread out over a single story and is comparable to its facility in Auburn Hills. The building, which was a call center for an insurance firm, gives Cooley enough space for classrooms that can seat more than 100 students, and the site has parking for 500 vehicles.

"It's pretty well ready to go and that was a major reason we picked the Tampa site. It's right at I-75 and Highway 301, which is on the western fringe of Tampa and is a very easy commute from I-4, which is only six or seven miles north of where we are," said LeDuc. "When I walked into the building, I said, 'This will be a great law school building.' So we made the decision pretty easily. We're still going to have to make a substantial investment in the remodeling."

Jeffrey Martlew, a former Michigan circuit court judge, will serve as associate dean for the Tampa Bay campus. In a written statement, Martlew explained the campus will cater to an underserved sector of law students — part-time and minority students — but will also offer a full-time course.

"We're going to roll out our curriculum the way we have at the other locations, which means we will start with the first term for one semester, and that's what we will have there," said LeDuc. "Then, in effect, we will double up for the second semester and so forth."

LeDuc said the faculty is set for the May classes, with most coming from Cooley's campuses in Michigan. Cooley also will hire from qualified applicants in the Tampa area.

"We want to have the same emphasis on practice there as we have here, and we think the way to do that is to hire Florida practitioners. We will hire one from the area there for that May class and then there will probably be three or four more hired for September," said LeDuc.

LeDuc said the approval process for the Tampa campus wasn't lengthier than normal, even though it was the first time Cooley had applied outside of Michigan. The law school needed ratification from the Department of Education in Florida, specifically the state's Commission for Independent Education.

"In the accreditation world, I wouldn't say it was lengthy. It took several months, but it was sort of par for the course for that," he said.

The American Bar Association and the Higher Learning Commission, better known as the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, also approved the Cooley request.

"It was a little bit more extensive because of Florida's requirements. But if we were doing an in-state alternative, it would have made no difference. It would have been the same when we opened Grand Rapids," said LeDuc.

Although its program wasn't involved in the site-selection process, Cooley already has an active externship for senior students at 160 sites in Florida, with 20 of those in the Tampa area. "So we've actually got some connections that precede our opening down there," said LeDuc.

In addition, Cooley expanded its Service to Soldiers: Legal Assistance Referral Program to Florida last January, months before the school selected Tampa for its next campus.

"We meet with units in all the different services that are scheduled to be sent overseas. We do powers of attorneys and wills through a system with volunteer lawyers; some of them are Cooley grads but not all are. Then when they come back, we do a triage because they tend to have legal problems when they return. We meet with them to give them help to reintegrate back into their civilian activities. Tampa has a huge Air Force base," said LeDuc. "So we also have some friends in the Hillsborough County Bar and in the military structure down in Florida. It's just a natural growth of connections that we already have."

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