Cooley Law Downsizes To The Extreme

4371273_8f8af36d37_zThomas M. Cooley Law School, notorious for being sued by its former students, just did some serious cutting–but not on the tuition front. The school announced Wednesday (July 2) that it will let go of faculty and staff—and hold off on enrolling the Ann Arbor campus’s entire fall class of 2014. James Robb, Cooley’s associate dean of external affairs, told The Wall Street Journal that he has “no sense” of whether the campus will enroll first-term students in 2015.

Cooley is the largest law school in the country, and it likely expanded too quickly for its own good. In 2012, when the law school crisis was already well underway, the school opened its fifth campus right outside of Tampa, Florida. Nonetheless, just last year, Cooley’s first-year enrollment took a 35% nosedive, the worst experienced by all but four of the 200 ABA-accredited law schools. By that December, Standard & Poor’s Rating Services slapped Cooley with a BBB-minus rating. It noted that Cooley’s expansion into Florida carried an “execution risk,” and that declining enrollment and dependence on student tuition was not a healthy combination. 

Above The Law broke the news with what can only be called glee:

“If you’ve managed to jump onto the speeding ‘now is a great time to apply to law school’ train, then you might want to fling yourself onto the tracks, because that thing is about to derail . . . . If you thought things were bad for law schools, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The legal academy has been waiting with bated breath for something like this to happen, and now it finally has. A law school is cutting an entire class year from its enrollment logs at one campus and laying off faculty and staff—all at the same time.”

The metaphorical train Above The Law referred to a number of people and publications that have encouraged law school hopefuls to take advantage of shrunken law school classes. Last month, Slate outlined the argument in an article titled “Apply to Law School Now!” (It’s telling that those words alone delivered shock value). The idea is that since the number of JDs expected to graduate in 2016 is 23% lower than the number that graduated in 2013, newly minted grads will face far less competition for jobs, even if the legal market doesn’t grow over the next two years.

But in a weird (and clairvoyant?) coincidence, that same article singled out Cooley as a school to avoid like the plague: “Rather than hire from notoriously problematic institutions like Golden Gate University or Thomas M. Cooley Law School, some employers might choose to hire underemployed attorneys who graduated into rougher job markets over the past couple of years.” Cooley’s recent track record hasn’t been great; 40% of the class of 2012 was employed nine months after graduation, according to U.S. News

We’re reached the point in the law school crisis where institutions must sink or swim. Cooley is clearly struggling to stay afloat. Downsizing might keep it running for now, but for how long will that work? It’s entirely possible that the United States simply has more law schools than it needs. 

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