Higher Education and Law

Cooley law grads lose appeal over tuition refund

July 30, 2013
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Cooley law grads lose appeal over tuition refund
Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Cooley Temple Conference Center is in an old Masonic temple in Lansing. Photo via commons.wikimedia.org

DETROIT — Today's lesson: Are graduates of the largest Michigan law school entitled to a tuition refund if they don't find satisfactory jobs? No, according to a federal appeals court.

The court ruled Tuesday in a case involving a dozen unhappy graduates from Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which has campuses across Michigan, including Grand Rapids, and in Tampa, Fla.

The graduates claimed they were fooled by rosy employment statistics published by the school.

The appeals court, however, said Michigan's consumer protection law doesn't apply, and the graduates put too much reliance on Cooley's job survey of other graduates.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, affirmed, 3-0, a similar decision by a federal judge in Grand Rapids.

"Our survey was reported accurately, not fraudulently. That's the bottom line of the case," said James Thelen, Cooley's general counsel.

Jobs breakdown

The graduates who sued Cooley said they had difficulty finding full-time, paid jobs.

Shane Hobbs of Pennsylvania graduated in 2010, but has worked as a substitute teacher and at a golf course. Danny Wakefield of Utah graduated in 2007, but ended up managing the delivery of phone books, according to the 6th Circuit decision.

The Cooley graduates accused the school of fraud by reporting in 2010 that 76 percent of graduates were employed within nine months.

The graduates claimed that should be interpreted as full-time positions requiring a law degree. But it actually included jobs outside law.

The appeals court said it wasn't fraud, because it wasn't false. The survey listed the number of graduates in private law practice, government, academia and business.

"I completely disagree that we were painting a rosy picture," Thelen said. "They never bothered to call us and ask what the 76 percent meant."

“Value of a law degree”

Cooley's tuition ranges from $34,800 a year for 24 credits to $43,500 for 30 credits. It's slightly less expensive after the first 30 credits. Ninety credits are needed for graduation.

“From its start, this case, and others like it, has been nothing more than a misguided crusade, brought by lawyers who had to search for their clients on social media, to shift blame onto law schools for the difficulty of finding jobs in a recessionary economy,” said Don LeDuc, Cooley’s president and dean. “And, yet, the legal profession always has been, and remains, one of the most resilient professions with one of the lowest unemployment rates of any profession.”

Despite the defeat, an attorney who represented the graduates, Jesse Strauss, believes the lawsuit and similar ones against other schools have improved how job surveys are reported to students.

The American Bar Association, for example, has told schools to provide more information about how many graduates are in jobs that require a law degree.

"There's been a general discussion about the value of a law degree. That discussion wasn't in the mainstream before," Strauss said.

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