Higher Education, Law, and Nonprofits

Schools propose 'Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School'

April 3, 2013
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School leaders propose 'Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School'
Students on Western Michigan University’s main campus in Kalamazoo, near the Chemistry Building. Photo via fb.com

As Jim Halpert of NBC’s “The Office” knows, when someone asks, “Do you want to form an alliance with me?” the response should always be, “Absolutely, I do.”

This is exactly the mindset held between long-term collaborators Western Michigan University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School, both of which have recently been chatting about establishing a formal affiliation between the Kalamazoo based public university and the Lansing based independent, nonprofit law school.

WMU President John Dunn said although they have toyed with the idea for years, ground finally broke when the boards and leaders from both schools held informal meetings about the subject in December.

Next steps

Both sides agreed this winter to begin taking progressive steps by reviewing their own organizations and projecting what impact a possible alliance would have on each school’s stakeholders, accreditation, growth potential and finances.

Dunn said using the proposed affiliation model, Cooley would be renamed Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School, but still continue to run as an independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity.

A proposal for the model would need to be approved by the Higher Learning Commission and the American Bar Association and both school boards, he said, and could be before them as early as this summer.

With WMU’s growth pattern, including the recent development of a medical school, the time to achieve the long-term goal of adding a law school could finally be here.

“We’ve always had thoughts since the 1970s about having a law school at WMU, but, today, the idea of creating a law school would not be the best investment for long-term resources,” Dunn said. “The levels of their independence we would respect, not unlike those with the Detroit College of Law and their association with Michigan State University. . . . We’re not modeling it after that, but it caught our attention in terms of structure.”

Cooley would not form any merger or shared governance with WMU, but remain independent, said James Robb, Cooley’s associate dean for external affairs and senior counsel.

No financial trades would need to be made for a deeper affiliation with WMU, he said, but both schools would benefit by possibly attracting more students and enhancing the two schools’ services to the community.

“We expect to improve the bottom line student recruitment. It’s a good time to go to law school,” Robb said. 

Update: The paragraph below clairfies students' job prospects

Enrollments are down, graduating classes are much smaller and with the increasing demand for lawyers — and anticipated improvement of the economy — job prospects for students graduating in 2016 or 2017 will be improved, according to Robb.

Both Robb and Dunn also discussed their hopes to develop a “3+3 education program,” which would allow students to get their undergraduate degree in three years and then get their law degree in three years, saving students a year of extra study, tuition and living costs.

“I expect we will stay in the same locations, but it’s conceivable we could offer more campuses in WMU’s Kalamazoo location, and professors would drive out there,” Robb said. “The agreement that’s being considered is really a structure, but the details would be filled in later. I can envision some co-listed courses, where students would be eligible to take classes at both schools.”

The existing WMU-Cooley partnership

WMU and Cooley have been collaborators since 2002, when WMU and Cooley birthed a partnership by announcing plans to open a $1.6 million Cooley branch in downtown Grand Rapids close to the WMU Graduate Center in the Arena District.

That same year, the schools also launched a joint juris doctor and master of public administration degree program.

In 2008, they announced a second joint degree in the form of a doctor and master of business administration degree program.

In 2011, a third joint degree, the juris doctor and master of social work degree program, was launched, the first of its kind in West Michigan.

Both Dunn and Robb expressed how the close the schools’ collaboration has been over the years, saying they have each received positive reactions from staff and alumni on this next move in their ongoing relationship.

“This is an evolutionary state,” Dunn said. “Clearly, I think many in the state at all levels have articulated the value and importance of having relationships between entities that manage the public that we serve. This provides a great opportunity to offer a greater service to Michiganders and beyond.”

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