Thomas Cooley to open Florida campus, despite recent class action lawsuit

Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which already has four campuses in Michigan, is opening its fifth location — this time in Florida. The nation’s largest law school recently purchased a facility in Riverview, a Tampa suburb that it is currently renovating.

The ABA acquiesced to Cooley’s request to open the campus, and officials expect to start classes in May 2012.

“Part of our strategic plan is to make legal education available to people who want it, and to underserved areas,” said Associate Dean Jeffrey Martlew, who was recently appointed as head of the new campus after six years on the faculty at Cooley. 

The decision to open the campus signals the school is undeterred by critics who claim it attracts students who pay too much tuition and will graduate with too few employment opportunities when they’re done.

A New York law firm filed a class action lawsuit against the school earlier this week, claiming it misled students about employment chances by deliberately fudging its employment statistics. A Cooley representative has said the claims are baseless.

Cooley had already sued the law firm behind the suit for defamation. It also recently issued a press release that uses U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics to show that the job market for lawyers is strong. According to the 2010 data, the unemployment rate for lawyers was only 1.5 percent, while the rate for all occupations was 9.6 percent.

Martlew said the school works hard to keep tuition reasonable, within the bottom 10 percent of other private law schools and bottom 25 percent of public schools, and that it fills an important role in offering opportunities who might not otherwise be able to attend law school.

“Obviously our enrollment stands are lower, but we don’t just let anyone walk in the doors either,” Martlew said. “You have to demonstrate that you have the work ethic, moral ethics, and intelligence to be a good productive lawyer.”

Martlew said that he sees Cooley as a place that allows people to live out their dreams, but only to the extent the students wants to make it work for him or herself. He points to himself as an example of just one of Cooley’s success stories, a graduate who spent 22 years as a Michigan state court judge before moving fulltime to the Cooley faculty.

Cooley was founded thirty-five years ago is already is home to 3,727 students. Martlew said the school studied several different areas, and decided on the Tampa Bay area, which is home to 4 million people and only one law school.

Martlew explained that the percentage of minority lawyers was nowhere close to the percentage of minorities in the community, and also that the one law school in the area, Stetson University, only enrolls 60 students part time.

“At Cooley we have traditionally appealed to both of those groups — minorities and those that want to enroll part time,” Martlew said. “It was a kind of a natural base for us, with a large under-served population that would be attracted by having a school here.”

The board also began seeking faculty members who would be willing and able to make the move to Florida. When Cooley opens a new campus, the school likes to start with a core number of administration and faculty, Martlew said.

“We try to start with a base of people who are familiar with the school and its philosophy,” he said.

The school hopes to reach a target enrollment of 700 students.

“Our mission is knowledge, skills and ethics,” Martlew said. “We do a real good job preparing law students to practice law. That’s our niche in the legal education community. That’s what will make us attractive to students in the Tampa area.”