Monday, December 06, 2004

What is it like to go to Thomas M. Cooley Law School?

Part 1 of ?

What Thomas M. Cooley law school is like for a married-with-children student is the purpose of this posting. I’ll be revising this posting from time to time in the interest of posterity and other unfortunate souls contemplating law school.

My reasons for choosing Thomas Cooley were pretty simple: they offered me a partial scholarship; I could attend classes on weekends, weekdays or a mix of both; and it has a non-elitist, no-bullshit approach to law (or so I thought).

Cooley is ranked near the bottom of all ABA law schools by US News and World Reports, yet the school cranks out lawyers literally by the thousands and has one of the most diverse student bodies of any law school in the US. It also has one of the largest African-American student populations in terms of numbers and is in the top-10 with respect to raw percentages. However, this large and diverse student body was not formed by “affirmative-action”, rather the school operates on a simple principle of having a big front door and a very small back door. This wide net catches everyone regardless of race, ethnicity or economic background.

The attrition rate at Cooley is roughly 48% range and this high rate of attrition is one of the elements that contributes to Cooley’s low ranking. The other being that it admits a lot of students and “exclusivity/elitism” is the single biggest weighing factor in the USNWR ranking system. It should come as no surprise that the top schools have low admit-ratios and the bottom tier tend to have higher admission ratios. Therefore, Cooley suffers in large measure from its philosophy of letting lots of people have a shot at law school, but as a result lots students also flunkout hence driving up the Cooley attrition rate.

Facilities and Orientation
The facilities are by and large excellent and the law library is one of the largest in the country. Do not be fooled by its low rank into assuming that its facilities are in disrepair. I visited several “top-tier” law schools and several of them would be unable to hold a candle to the facilities that Cooley provides. The school is well maintained in terms of books, infrastructure and creature comforts. For whatever reasons, the ABA has standards for this type of thing and Cooley easily exceeds those standards.

The orientation period is quite long and can span over a week in terms of events, required seminars and so on. The sheer volume of entering students (about 900 in my case) can make for a dizzying, hectic yet fun orientation. Entering students are initially herded into the main auditorium and then fan out for mini-seminars at different times of the day across campus. Most of these mini-seminars are on how to use Cooley facilities, getting your student ID, Westlaw accounts, and so on.

Cooley does a great job “packaging” the orientation process. If you didn’t know better, you would get the impression that law school is going to be one of the most pleasant yet intellectually stimulating experiences of your life. Reality will quickly rear its ugly head by the first week of actual classes, but I give Cooley an A with Honors for how well they package orientation. The food they serve during orientation is also surprisingly decent, especially the lunch/dinner provided when you meet your “academic advisor” – a person you will never, ever see again. For at least one week you will truly believe not only that you are going to survive law school, but that you are going to graduate top of your class and later enter into the world as a great jurist ready and able to set the world straight. It’s a nice feeling and it will last about one week.

Class Mix
Because I was in both the weekend/weekday mix section, the students I interacted with spanned the gambit. My weekday experience reflected a student body that probably had a median age of around 23. The weekend students, on the other hand, were definitely older (I would guess the median age at around 31) and tended to be the typical non-traditional/working adult student. Just about everyone in my seating area is either married, has children, working, or some combination of the above. If you are envisioning undergraduate-degrees of hookup potential… the weekend section will probably keep you single and/or celibate.

A great upside to Cooley is that the sheer number of incoming students tends to keep the backstabbing/competitiveness that you hear about at other schools to a minimum. This tends to give Cooley a much more egalitarian student atmosphere wherein it’s you vs. the professor rather than you vs. your fellow students.

Teaching Quality
The quality of my professor’s spans from “needs work” to “excellent.” I encountered this at the undergraduate level and it is no different with Cooley. You will have professors that are exceptional and make the material come alive, and you will have professors that you wish you didn’t have to deal with. Some stick doggedly close to the Socratic method, others feel it’s bullshit and think the best way to teach is to deliver the material with a touch of Q&A to make things interesting. My Criminal Law professor is a good example of the latter. He is a sitting circuit judge and by and large this is my favorite class. Because of his background he is able to make the material meaningful while at the same time only resorts to the Socratic method on an as-need basis. What I take from this particular class will no doubt be memorable, regardless of how I end up performing on the final exam.

Some students dread the prospect of getting called upon in class. I never really took it personally, even if or when I would get something wrong. That’s not the idea of the Socratic method; at least not among the Cooley professors I’ve had thus far. Although just about every professor’s syllabus instructs you “to stand” when called on, after several weeks no one stands and the professor doesn’t seem to care either way. Where things CAN get painful is if you are called on and you haven’t prepared or read the material – my Contracts professor has probably made more than a few students squirm when he nails an unprepared student with his standing-dead silence to non-answers. He’s always let them off the hook, but only after he’s had them swing in the breeze in front of the rest of the class to serve as an example of how uncomfortable things can be when you don’t prepare (or seem prepared).

At Cooley you don’t get to “pass” when called on. I know students at other law schools get to use a “pass” – such a luxury does not exist (in so far as I know) at Cooley. You can, however, write a note to your professor telling him you are unprepared for class, but the ramifications of doing so range from professor to professor. Thus far every professor I’ve had seem ultimately fair, reasonable and approachable outside of classroom hours, although without a doubt some are much more interactive than others.

Intro to Law
This is a class that is required for all Cooley 1L’s. It will take up a great deal of time during your first term and get in the way of your regular studies if you are not careful, and if you are like me you will hate this class with considerable passion. You will also in the end discover how much good it did for you and come to appreciate it later, but initially you will curse it. Every law school seems to have some variation of this class. I’ve heard it call “Legal Studies” and some call it “Legal Writing: Issue Spotting.” At Cooley, it’s called “Intro to Law” and there is no way around this class other than going through it.

It is in this class that you will learn (among other things) something called “IRAC” – Issue, Reasoning, Analysis and Conclusion. They will drill into your head about how you have to “IRAC” the exam. IRAC, IRAC, IRAC. What it’s really about is getting you to think in a very narrow way and is part of the famous process of getting you to “think like a lawyer.”

You can take your final exams on a laptop or write them by hand in your “blue books.”

Cooley 1L’s do NOT have:

1) open-book exams;
2) take-home exams;
3) and you do NOT get to take anything into your exams with you. No notes, no outlines, zip, nada. It is just you, a hundred other students, your pen and your exam (along with some scratch paper). That’s it. You get 2 hours and 45 minutes to avoid being a complete failure.

I’ve been shocked to learn how other students, especially at the upper tier schools, have everything from take-home exams to getting to bring their outlines with them into finals. These crutches are not available to Cooley students – although I wish they were.

Depending on your overall class schedule for the term, it is possible to have your last class one day and your first final exam a few days later. There is no time-off to cram. For example, my last review class is Sunday and my first exam is the following Thursday. Exams also tend to be back to back i.e. I have one exam on Thursday, another Friday, and another Saturday, and so on until my entire battery is complete.

Exam with Laptop
A limited number of seats are made available to students who want to take their exams using a laptop. The exam program itself is pretty straightforward. Think of it as if the only program you were allowed to use on your laptop was Microsoft Notepad – that would give you the software experience of taking your exam at Cooley on a laptop.

High Rate of Failure
Your odds of failing at Cooley are very high – in fact higher than almost any other ABA law school in the country. “Look to your left, look to your right – one of you won’t be here next term let alone next year” is still valid at Cooley. We haven’t even got to finals yet and people are dropping like flies, and no doubt finals will shake out the remaining budding wannabe lawyers.

It’s one thing to have a fresh crop of 980 students every 4 months, and another to have 180 new admits once per year. An upper-tier school with low numbers of incoming students can’t afford to have a high rate of attrition, but Cooley has new blood flowing into it every semester. This is why Cooley is able to have a horrific rate of attrition while at the same time grow and prosper. It’s a mixed blessing, because it gives lots of people a shot at law school, but likewise crushes a lot of students and sours them on jurisprudence.


At Monday, December 06, 2004 5:17:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Does Cooley have a forced curve that includes a percentage of D/E/F grades?
Is it policy to fail half the class via the curve, or does half the class just fail to perform?
I guess I could understand the later, but the former is just not right.

At Monday, December 06, 2004 9:37:00 PM, Blogger MajQa' said...

I have seen classes where the lowest grade was a D (not a single person failed), so the notion that someone must fail at Cooley for someone to succeed is not entirely accurate. However, odds are every class is going to have a handful of F's and a handful of A's with everyone else ending up somewhere in the middle.

To tell you the truth...I still have no precise idea how the curve works at Cooley. All I know is that I've seen classes that didn't have a single F on the roster, and I've seen classes that have had a frightening number of F's as well. This leads me to believe that if one truly knows the material they can survive at Cooley. If they don't... truck driving school is always an option.


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