The ABA Standard 509 reports came out a few weeks ago, and there are many alarming statistics in them, but none quite so disturbing as the admissions information from Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School. The class that Cooley admitted in 2015 is statistically the worst entering class of law students in the history of American legal education at an ABA-Accredited law school, and that is saying something.
Just last year, Cooley, for many years the easiest law school to get into in America, was winning praise for not following many of its competitor schools and dramatically lowering their admission standards. (Continued below the fold)
Thomas M. Cooley Law School – the largest law school in the country – is known for admitting students other law schools would not touch. The reputation is increasingly inaccurate. Last fall, seven law schools had entering classes with lower median LSAT scores than Cooley’s.
Rivard noted that holding the line on admissions had a huge impact on Cooley:
Because it has not lowered its admissions standards, Cooley has taken quite a hit. Its first-year class had 1,161 students in 2011. This year’s incoming class was about 60 percent smaller – just 445 students. As a result of the enrollment losses, Cooley is working to close one of its five campuses.
Cooley’s President took credit for acting responsibly despite “facing more competition for students with an LSAT score of around 145.”
Don LeDuc, the president and dean of Cooley, said the school’s level student profile is a result but not the intent of admissions policies that have remained virtually unchanged despite the shocks in the market.
President LeDuc claimed that their admissions polices were calibrated to meet ABA standard 501 “a school shall not admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.” According to LeDuc:
Cooley uses a predictive model to tell all students their chances of success based on their GPA and LSAT. The school doesn’t admit anyone with less than a two-thirds chance of succeeding.
Cooley’s recent bar results have cast some doubt on President LeDuc’s claims, as noted in this article in Above the Law. According to its 509 report, the school’s overall first time pass rate was 55% in 2012, 51% in 2013 and 52% in 2014, despite significant levels of attrition. Nevertheless, at least as of last year, Cooley could plausibly claim to be meeting ABA Standard 501. That is no longer the case.
In 2015, Cooley abandoned all pretense of maintaining sound admission policies, significantly lowering its LSAT and GPA standards across the board, as can be seen by comparing their 2014 and 2015 matriculating student credentials.
GPA/LSAT 75th 50th 25th # of Students
2014 3.28/149 2.90/145 2.53/141 445
2015 3.19/147 2.85/141 2.51/138 448
Once again in 2015, Cooley was faced with a choice – shrink the entering class, or lower standards, or some combination of the two. After four years of shrinking its class, Cooley abandoned that approach and simply lowered its already rock-bottom standards.
The credentials of the part-time entering class, which makes up 90% of admitted students were even more appalling:
2014 3.27/148 2.89/144 2.52/140 407
2015 3.19/146 2.84/141 2.50/137 407
In percentile terms, this means that Cooley matriculated over 100 part-time students with LSATs of 137 or below, comprising the bottom 8% of LSAT-takers. While there may be very rare exceptions, there is simply no evidence to support a belief that a student with a 137 or lower LSAT and mediocre or worse college grades has a reasonable prospect of becoming a lawyer. The average MBE score for a student with a 137 LSAT is approximately 128. The average state bar exam cut score, including in Michigan (where most Cooley graduates take the bar) is 135.
The bottom line is that Cooley has once again regained its rightful place as the law school of last resort, surpassing even the InfiLaw schools in the race to the bottom. In fact, Cooley is perilously close to having an open admissions policy. In 2015, Cooley admitted 88% of applicants, up from 85% in 2014.
Why did Cooley abandon its commitment to semi-defensible admissions policies? The answer seems obvious – they needed the money to stay in business.
The more interesting question is this: Why does Cooley think it can get away with it? The unfortunate answer is that the leadership of the ABA Council of the Section of Legal Education has strongly signaled that the Council is very unlikely to take action against a school simply for dropping admission standards. (See my prior post on this topic here.) Because Cooley had an ABA site visit in 2013-14, and are not due for another site visit until the 2020-2021 school year, Cooley is clearly gambling that they can weather the downturn in applications by lowering their standards without jeopardizing their accreditation. The ABA Council on Legal Education, if it is to maintain any credibility at all, should not allow Cooley to get away with it.