Cooley founder and legal education pioneer Thomas Brennan dies

By Jack Crittenden

Thomas Brennan passed away on Sept. 29 at the age of 89. While he was not a household name to many, he was an innovator and pioneer, and one of the most influential people in legal education during the past 40 years.

Brennan founded Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1972 at a time when law school was still socially elitist. He stepped down as a justice from the Michigan Supreme Court to run the law school, and he wanted to create a school that would give broad access to students from working-class homes.

To bring this about, he set up Cooley Law so that it would accept a broader pool of students who otherwise might get declined for low LSAT scores.

But to stay in school, students had to work hard and prove themselves with solid grades. If not, the school would dismiss them and that meant high attrition rates.

This basic principle led to much criticism during the years. Students were upset when they were dismissed, sometimes to the point of threatening to sue. Many in legal education were equally as critical, charging Cooley Law with taking money from students who would not graduate.

But for Brennan, the point was that students were given a chance when they otherwise would have had none. And thousands took the opportunity. Cooley Law attracted students from across the nation. Eventually, it grew into the largest law school in the nation, with campuses across Michigan and one in Tampa, Florida.

Brennan’s desire to end elitism didn’t end there. In 1999, he contacted The National Jurist with the idea of publishing the National Law School Deans’ List. He felt that the largest law firms only hired from a small group of elite schools, but that there were qualified candidates at every law school.

To show that, he created the National Deans’ list, a book with profiles of the top student from each school. His idea was to send it to hiring partners to help the featured students gain a foothold into the most prestigious law firms in the U.S.

Brennan, an Irish Catholic, had graduated from University of Detroit Law School in 1952 at a time when being Catholic hurt one’s legal career. He worked his way from a small law firm to the bench, eventually being elected in 1966 to the Michigan Supreme Court. He said he founded Cooley Law because he believed that “An educated citizenry that understands the law is critical to the strength and progress of the nation.” 

In addition to a non-traditional admissions strategy, Brennan designed and instituted numerous other unprecedented innovations, including the law school’s year-round schedule that allows three new incoming classes each year.

He served as the school’s dean until 1978 and as president until 2002. After he retired, Cooley Law more than doubled in size, something that was unsustainable after applications began to fall.

Cooley Law became the target of harsh criticism for its high acceptance rate, high debt upon graduation and low employment rates. Graduates unsuccessfully sued it, claiming it misled them about employment opportunities. Media outlets like Above the Law mocked the school, its practices and its mission.

The school eventually slashed its enrollment and closed some of the satellite campuses. But despite the challenges, it never wavered from its original purpose. Brennan had created the school to be anti-elitist, and no amount of mocking from the elites and those who embrace elitism would ever faze the school, nor its founder.

As the chair of Cooley Law, Lawrence P. Nolan, stated at his passing:

“Those of us who knew Judge Brennan understood that there were no limits to his dreams. His dreams became our dreams. His dreams made it possible to dream and succeed. Tom’s greatest dreams of living a life that was full of grace, truth, and spiritual beliefs inspired all of us to become better people and live fuller lives.”

Jack Crittenden is publisher editor-in-chief of the National Jurist.







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