It has been obvious for some time that Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School has been grossly violating ABA Standards. I have previously noted this and urged the ABA to take action. For example, in a post on January 26, 2016 about Cooley’s abominable admissions policies (e.g. over 100 part time students enrolled with LSATs at 137 or below, the bottom 8% of LSAT takers), I noted: “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.”
A few months later, in a July 28, 2016 column describing Cooley’s Dean and President’s opposition to the ABA’s proposed tougher bar standards – standards which Cooley was virtually guaranteed to fail – I described Cooley this way: “the least selective ABA-Accredited law school in the country -- a school with unconscionable admission practices which has generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue from federal student loans taken out by hundreds of unqualified students, leaving many of them saddled with six figure debts and worthless degrees.”
Last December 16, 2016, in a post describing the most appalling revelations in the 2016 ABA Standard 509 Reports, I noted: “Thomas Cooley has continued its exploitative admission practices, admitting 86% of its applicants and enrolling a huge class of 415 students, slightly down from last year’s class of 448, but with identical LSATs, a horrifying 147/141/138. Cooley’s bar pass rate has hovered in the low 50s for the last three years (it is actually lower, because Cooley reports only 70-71% of their students and omits results from states where they did even worse, like California, as the current ABA standard permits). Cooley has been 20 points or more below the state average since 2013 and was 16 points below the state average in 2012, so they are also out of compliance with ABA Standard 316. Expect the ABA to place Cooley on probation in the very near future.
Earlier this year, in a March 28, 2017 post about the decision to place Arizona Summit on probation, I made a prediction: “I expect the ABA to take action against other predatory schools in the near future. Thomas Cooley and Thomas Jefferson would be my candidates for the next schools most likely to be sanctioned.”
It appears that I was right on the money. Yesterday, the ABA placed Thomas Jefferson on probation. Today, courtesy of Above the Law, we learned that Thomas Cooley has also been found non-compliant with ABA Standards. I wrote recently about Thomas Jefferson’s unethical decision to keep silent regarding the ABA’s May 19, 2017, letter informing the school about the ABA’s findings of non-compliance with several standards. By failing to inform its continuing and admitted students of their non-compliance, which was of a sufficiently severe nature that it was obvious that probation in the near future was a distinct possibility, Thomas Jefferson deprived those students of an opportunity to transfer to another school, or to matriculate elsewhere or not at all. Now Thomas Cooley has done Thomas Jefferson one better. Not only is Thomas Cooley trying to keep its current and prospective students in the dark, but Thomas Cooley actually filed suit against the ABA seeking an injunction against the ABA from posting the letter on its website, as required by federal regulations. Cooley’s rationale? The letter will do immediate and irreparable harm to Cooley’s reputation. More to the point, if prospective students become aware of the contents of the letter, they might choose not to attend Cooley.
Hopefully, this outrageous gambit to keep consumers in the dark will fail. As I wrote in my last column, I believe law schools have an ethical and legal obligation to disclose any letter from the ABA finding the school in non-compliance with an important Standard. In the meantime, for those wondering what is in this letter that Thomas Cooley is so afraid will get out, there is no need to wait for the outcome of the lawsuit to find out. It just so happens that Law School Transparency managed to obtain a copy of the letter from the ABA website before it was pulled, apparently in reaction to the lawsuit, so you can read it for yourself. (Full disclosure, I am the Chair of LST’s National Advisory Council.)
For those who don’t want to wade through four single-spaced pages of accreditation-speak, here is the gist of it: Cooley was previously found in September by the Accreditation Committee of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar to be in non-compliance with ABA Standard 501b, and Interpretation 501-1. Cooley appealed this decision to the ABA Council of the Section of Legal Education and several members of Cooley’s senior leadership team made presentations at the last ABA Council meeting on November 3-4, 2017. The ABA Council rejected the appeal and affirmed its earlier finding. To state it most simply, the ABA found that Cooley is admitting applicants who do not “appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.” Among the factors the ABA considered in reaching this conclusion were the academic test credentials of the law school’s entering students, the academic attrition rate of the law school’s students, the bar passage rate of its graduates, and the effectiveness of the law school’s academic support program. Cooley was ordered to provide a highly detailed report about its admissions practices, attrition rates and recent bar passage rates, and advised that if the report does not demonstrate compliance with Standard 501b, the school will be subject to sanctions when the Committee meets next June. Based on the information already publicly available regarding Cooley’s admission practices, attrition and bar passage rates, it is hard for me to see who Cooley will be able to avoid sanctions. Whatever sanctions the ABA chooses to impose will be richly deserved, but I hope that the Committee will seriously consider the authorized sanction under Rule 16(b)(2) of “requiring that the law school refund all or part of tuition or fees paid by students” for those students that the ABA determines never should have been admitted. The forcible disgorgement of these ill-gotten gains would not only benefit those students receiving a refund, but would serve as a powerful deterrent to other law schools from engaging in exploitative admissions practices in the future.
These latest actions by the ABA continue the ABA’s recent crackdown on predatory law schools. I commend the ABA for its strong stand on this issue and urge the Council to stay the course.