Law Schools

Cooley Law School complaint demands 'fair and transparent' ABA accreditation proceedings

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WMU Cooley

The ABA needs more transparency when making accreditation determinations for law schools, and it illegally posted a letter to its website regarding Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School's compliance with an admissions standard, the school argues in an amended complaint filed Jan. 29.

The council of the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar in November 2017 posted the letter, which detailed an accreditation committee appeal brought by Cooley and heard by the section’s council. The letter stated that the council upheld a September 2017 accreditation committee finding that the school was not in compliance with Standard 501(b), which focuses on admissions, and Interpretation 501-1, which discusses factors to consider in admissions.

Also, the council adopted the accreditation committee recommendation to defer a major change request made by Cooley until the law school could demonstrate that it is in compliance with each accreditation standard. The request reportedly was for acquiescence to open a separate location on the main campus of Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, which would offer up to 60 credit hours of the school’s 90-hour JD program.

Cooley’s original complaint was filed against the ABA on Nov. 14. It alleged due process violations and sought a temporary restraining order to prohibit the ABA from publishing the letter. The TRO motion was denied by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in December.

Besides alleging due process violations, Cooley’s amended complaint argues that the ABA illegally sent the letter to state education and accreditation agencies. It asks the court to order that the letter be removed from all ABA “publications, postings and the like.”

Additionally, the filing asks that the court orders the ABA to be “fair and transparent” in its accreditation proceedings, processes, decisions and actions. It also asks that the court order the ABA to grant the acquiescence for a Kalamazoo campus, and stop interim and future monitoring until the ABA defines what it means by “appear capable” to pass a bar exam.

The term is used in Standard 501(b), which states that accredited law schools should not admit applicants who don’t appear capable of completing the program and being admitted to a bar.

“The monitoring process is entirely done in secret, according to secret triggering language (flags), whose internal evaluation is never made available to the school under review, decided under no identified evidentiary standard of proof, and concluded without explanatory reasoning or justification for its conclusion and without articulation of the meaning of key words, in this case the meaning of ‘appear capable,’ ” states the amended complaint, which seeks unspecified damages.

Out of 83 Cooley graduates who took the Michigan state bar for the first time in July 2017, just 53 percent passed, according to data from the Michigan Supreme Court’s Board of Law Examiners. The state’s first-time pass rate for July 2017 was 77 percent. The law school’s median LSAT score is 142, and its median GPA is 2.94, according to its Standard 509 Information Report for 2017.

Cooley’s first-time bar exam pass rate has dropped from 76 percent to 48 percent over a seven-year period, according to the ABA’s summary judgment motion, filed Jan. 8. It also asserts that the percentage of entering students with LSAT scores of 143 or less more than doubled over a six-year period.

For the years of 2009 to 2015, the passing rate for all of Cooley’s bar exam takers was 59 percent for first-time test takers and 87 percent “for those test takers who persisted,” according to the law school’s amended complaint. Among graduates with LSAT scores below 141 during that same time period, there was a 32 percent pass rate for first-time test takers, and 72 percent for “those test takers who persisted.”

Much of Cooley’s argument centers on what does it mean to appear capable of success, says Kyle McEntee, executive director and co founder of Law School Transparency. He mentions employment rates of Cooley graduates. According to the law school’s most recent employment summary, the school had 462 graduates in 2016, and 141 of them had full-time, long-term jobs that required a law degree. 80 had full-time, long-term, JD advantage jobs.

“If you want to be a lawyer, a less than 50 percent chance of getting a job is not a great scenario, especially when loans are due six months after graduating, regardless of whether you passed the bar or have a job,” says McEntee, whose organization focuses on law school reform.

He also questions the law school’s use of the term “transparent” in the amended complaint.

“Cooley is not asking for the process to be open to the public, they’re asking for an interim monitoring process so they can stop the finding of non-compliance. That’s very different than advocating for transparency. That’s advocating for an opportunity to stop the ABA from doing its job,” McEntee says.

Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education, was not available for comment. James D. Robb, Cooley’s associate dean of external affairs and general counsel, claims that the ABA has “flat-out bias against schools like ours, with an access mission.”

“We know of no other law school that has been given notice of non-compliance solely with the ‘appear capable’ standard,” he wrote in an email to the ABA Journal.

Between May and December 2017, Legal Ed has posted out-of-compliance letters for seven law schools, including Cooley. Six of those those letters addressed compliance with Standard 501.

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