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There are now hundreds of news articles and entire blogs devoted to warning potential students of the perils of attending a low-ranked, high-cost law school.

We’re positive people here at Lawschooli, so we typically try and keep our message positive and upbeat. But sometimes we see things happening in the legal education industry that we simply can’t ignore. Today we’re going to talk about the dark side of the industry.

Admissions standards have been in a free fall at Tier 4 law schools over the past few years. One school, in particular, has sunk so low that we felt compelled to announce our pick for…

The Worst Law School in America

Most of our readers are very conscientious. Most of you take the LSAT very seriously. Over 300,000 of you have read Josh’s post on how he got a 177 on the LSAT, tens of thousands of you have followed his LSAT prep book recommendations, thousands of you follow our LSAT study schedules every year, and hundreds of you have joined the LSAT Mastermind Group.

In spite of our best efforts to convince people to take their LSAT prep seriously, our message doesn’t reach everyone. Every year I encounter scores of the uninitiated. They didn’t take the LSAT seriously, got a low score, and are ready to run head-long into a costly and potentially disastrous career choice by attending any law school that’ll take them. As a new law school admissions cycle approaches, it is worth a reminder why the advice to avoid certain schools is more apt than ever.

…and the loser is: Thomas M. Cooley Law School

Why pick on Cooley? There are a lot of terrible law schools out there, certainly. Cooley Law, however, has secured a deserved reputation as the worst of the worst, churning out scores of the most uncompetitive graduates into an extremely competitive profession that has nowhere near the ability to absorb them all. Cost of education is extremely high relative to expected salaries. Many graduates struggle to even pass the bar. Cooley has even been sued for inflating salary data.

By any reputable method of ranking ABA law schools, they would appear near the very bottom. Famously, however, for many years they tried to counter this by publishing their own rankings based on silly metrics such as total volumes in the library, law school square footage, and incoming class size. In their own estimation, they ranked 2nd, just behind Harvard!

As the recession hit and the legal market shrank, law schools have had a choice about how to handle it. Fewer good candidates are applying to law school now. In response, either you shrink class size and retain your standards, keeping incoming students GPA and LSAT numbers where they used to be, or you lower your admissions standards. Cooley has made some very, very bad choices. Here is a comparison of 2014 admissions data with 2015.

GPA25th %ileMedian75th %ile
20142.532.903.28
20152.512.853.19
 LSAT25th %ileMedian75th %ile
2014141145149
2015138141147

For those who aren’t familiar with law school admissions, I’ll tell you: this is extremely, extremely bad. Cooley was making a surprising good faith effort to keep their numbers from falling through the floor, but now they have, as one legal blogger put it, “abandoned all pretense of maintaining sound admission policies.” It might be more accurate to say that they’ve abandoned the pretense of having any standards whatsoever.

The 25th percentile at Cooley is now a shocking 138. Ninety percent of LSAT takers perform better on the test. Given that even very low ranked schools generally try to take only students that perform better than average (about a 152), you can see how Cooley has committed themselves to scraping the very bottom of the applicant pool.

It’s this recent move, combined with their commitment to keeping a huge class in spite of offering very poor job prospects, that earns Cooley the distinction of being the very worst law school in America.

If you want to find some truly harsh invective about Cooley and schools like it, it will just take a little googling. People feel strongly enough about trashing these schools that they have compiled accurate school profiles and decorated them with pictures of cow dung.

Instead of going off on a self-indulgent rant, I want to simply present the facts, as near as we have them, about Cooley Law.

Bear in mind that Cooley and schools like it do nearly everything in their power to obscure data about how poor employment prospects are for their graduates. Thanks to the efforts of those pushing for more transparency, only recently have we been able to get a somewhat clearer picture of how these graduates really fare. Let’s take a look at this and some other vital statistics on the worst law school in America.

Cooley Law Job Prospects

Here is the salient figure, which alone should scare any reasonably rational person out of attending Cooley: 

25.9%

That is the percentage of Cooley’s 871 graduates who were able to secure full-time legal employment by one year after graduation. (Source: Law School Transparency)

In case you are wondering, close to 100% of those who attend law school want to secure full-time legal work. Even at top five law schools where there are potentially many other desirable options, some 95% of graduates go on to do full-time legal work that requires bar passage. By contrast, Cooley grads spend 3 years in law school, putting in a gargantuan effort on their part to secure a job as an attorney, but nearly 75% of them are unable to land themselves a law job.

In fact, with an employment rate of just 49.40% 9 months after graduation, chances are better than ever that you will end up completely unemployed if you happen to be one of the poor souls graduating from Cooley Law. It is a little hard to interpret this figure since most anything counts as “employment.”

Most of those that do not secure full-time legal employment are likely still looking or are forced to begin practice on their own, “hanging out a shingle,” as it is known in the legal world. Trust those who have done it: starting your own private practice is nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds.

Many more Cooley grads, burdened with a mountain of non-dischargeable debt and no prospect of securing legal work, simply give up the hope of practicing law and move on to other things.

Cooley Law Graduate Salaries

US News lists the following salary data for Cooley:

Median private sector starting salary: $45,000

Median public service starting salary: $47,916

It is worth remembering that a median gives you very little information. Of those relatively few students who secured private sector work, at least half make 45K or more.

While these figures are about expected for a low ranked law school, they seem especially low given the debt Cooley grads are likely to carry.

Cost of Attendance

Cooley’s costs, while a shade lower than those of the highest ranked schools, are still enormously high. Full-time tuition in 2015 was $47,890 per year (estimated total with cost of living: $65,474).

cooley-cost-of-attendance

Average Indebtedness

Unlike most law schools, Cooley does not always reliably publish their average student indebtedness. For the last year I can find it, 2013, it was a whopping $122,395.

Take it from my own experience and those of my classmates at a high ranked school: $122K is hard to pay off when you are making $160K your first year. At $45k and lower, expect to be burdened indefinitely.

Admissions Statistics

applicantsoffersmatriculants
Class of 20181,2221,072448
25th %ileMedian75th %ile
GPA2.512.853.19
LSAT138141147

Cooley’s LSAT numbers are well below the average for test takers overall, which is about a 152 (on a 120-180 scale). With close to a 90% acceptance rate, Cooley has effectively an open admissions policy.

Bar Passage

Only 38% of Cooley Grads who took the Michigan bar exam in July 2018 got a passing score.

2018 Michigan BarCooleyEveryone ElseTotal
Pass148 (44%)529 (72%)677 (63%)
Fail189 (56%)204 (28%)393 (37%)
Total3377331070

These pass rates are pretty shocking. Only 41% of Cooley grads passed the Michigan Bar, compared to a 74% pass rate for grads from other law schools.

And here’s the REALLY scary thing. These bar pass rates are from 2016, which means that these students were accepted back when Cooley’s median LSAT score was a 145. When their median LSAT score dropped 1 point from 146 to 145, their bar pass rate dropped by a few percentage points. This does not bode well for the class of 2018, whose median LSAT score is a shockingly low 141.

I can only imagine how bad things are going to get in a few years when these students graduate. If things are already this bleak for the class of 2015, we’re going to see some truly awful outcomes for the Cooley Law School class of 2018 (which is “statistically the worst entering class of law students in the history of American legal education at an ABA-Accredited law school.”)

LSATGPABar
25th50th75th25th50th75thPass%
Class of 20201391421462.592.943.27?
Class of 20191381411472.602.903.20?
Class of 20181381411472.512.853.19?
Class of 20171411451492.532.93.28?
Class of 20161411451502.492.963.3241%
Class of 20151421451512.573.023.3639%
Class of 20141431461512.613.023.3544%
Class of 20131441461512.612.993.3544%

Given that students with an LSAT below 155 are often considered at-risk for being unable to pass the bar, these stats are perhaps unsurprising.

By any plain reading, it seems that Cooley is running afoul of the ABA requirement that “a school shall not admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.”

It is honestly shocking that the ABA has allowed Cooley to keep its accreditation with bar passage rates as low as they already are. Now that Cooley has hit a new low in admissions standards for the Class of 2018, they are almost begging the ABA to pull their accreditation.

…To Sum Up

This seems to be the beginning of the end for Cooley Law School. 1L enrollment has tumbled from 1583 in Fall 2010, down to 445 in Fall 2014. Now that they appear to be unwilling to lower enrollment any further, they’ve resorted to slashing admissions standards, doing whatever it takes to fill those 450 seats.

Now they’ve got a ticking time bomb on their hands. Cooley already has a hard time attracting qualified students because of their miserable bar passage & employment rates. When this new crop of students graduate in 2018, its going to be a bloodbath. Cooley’s (already low) bar passage & employment rates are going to drop considerably lower once the 2018 numbers come out, making it even more difficult to attract even the most minimally qualified students.

I don’t see an easy way out of the downward spiral Cooley has leaped into.

LSATLSATLSATGPAGPAGPAEnrollment
25th50th75th25th50th75th# of 1Ls
Fall 20101441461512.612.993.351583
Fall 20111431461512.613.023.351161
Fall 20121421451512.573.023.36897
Fall 20131411451502.492.963.32582
Fall 20141411451492.532.93.28445
Fall 20151381411472.512.853.19448

The best thing that could happen to you if you attend Cooley is failing out before you run up a tremendous amount of debt. Around 20% do make the decision to drop out. The most likely outcome, however, for those who finish: you end up having significant debt, have difficultly passing the bar, and are unable to find a legal job of any kind whatsoever.

Plainly, you are simply better off not attending Cooley. I repeat: it is just not worth it. Save yourself the heartache and only attend law school under much much better circumstances. If you are thinking of attending Cooley, I’m willing to personally try to talk you out of it.

If you’re just starting to think about law school, the best way to avoid this fate is to crush the LSAT. I’ve spoken to thousands of students over the past couple years & I’ve never heard of anyone who has followed one of our LSAT study schedules & still ended up with an LSAT score so low that they couldn’t get into a better law school than Cooley.

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81 Comments

  1. I currently attend Cooley. I know the reputation and I am worried about passing the bar the first time. My LSAT Score was a 153 but my score came in July. That late in the process Cooley was the only school who admitted me for a fall start. I am considering transferring and would interested to know what the outlook is for someone who starts there but finishes elsewhere.

    • I graduated in the late 90s studied my ass off for the bar and passed on the first time. It doesn’t matter where you go to school as long as you pass the bar. Yes I still have debt but I’m working on paying it off. I’m glad I got the chance to go to law school even though people bad mouth the school continually.

  2. Dear Evan Jones,

    I saw that your article, “The Worst Law School in America,” was recently updated on June 23 2021, which identifies us – WMU Cooley – as the title holder. I am not sure what was actually updated on June 23, 2021, but many of the statistics listed are rather old, making some of the statements in the article untrue. I would like you to know that in the past two years we have increased our admissions selectivity significantly, lowered our tuition, and our first time bar pass rate has improved. I would not expect you to accept statistics from me showing our progress, but am happy to share them with you if you wish. Most of this information is available from the ABA’s website in the public 509 and bar pass reports, and in other public records.

    You may know that we are currently out of compliance with ABA Standard 316 – the bar pass standard. Standard 316 was revised recently, shortening the time for which law school graduates must pass a bar exam post-graduation. The new standard became effective immediately upon passage. Many schools, like ours had admitted students based upon the former standard. These students will finish their degrees and and take a bar exam for quite a few years to come, making immediate compliance difficult, for us and other schools in the interim. I personally think that this new standard is reasonable, however, I believe that the immediate implementation was not. Nevertheless, we are working diligently to meet this new standard.

    I recently appeared at a hearing before the ABA Council on Legal Education to detail our efforts and plans to return to compliance. The Council had many options in responding to our work for returning to compliance, including: directing us to take certain actions, imposing sanctions, or even taking away our accreditation. They chose instead no action – in effect finding that our actions were appropriate for returning to compliance. We remain fully accredited and will continue to improve and regain full compliance.

    Our school has long had a mission of access to the legal profession. A great majority of our students attend part time, as we offer flexible scheduling that permits people with complicated lives to realize their dream of becoming lawyers. Our many scheduling options attract many second career applicants, single parents and others who cannot follow a traditional law school schedule. We are doubling down on this history of access while ensuring admission of students capable of completing a rigorous legal education and passing a bar exam under the new standard. I hope that you will consider updating your article to include more recent statistics that more accurately represent who we are now. You may find that we are still in your opinion, “The Worst Law School in America,” but know that we are working diligently to lose that title as soon as practical.

    Feel free to write or call if I can clarify any of this.

    James McGrath
    Professor of Law

    President and Dean
    Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School
    300 S. Capitol Avenue
    Lansing, MI 48933
    (517) 371-5140, Ext. 2012
    FAX (517) 334-5752
    mcgrathj@cooley.edu

    he/him/his (Why am I identifying my pronouns?)

    If you are experiencing distress/mental health issues related to COVID-19, you can contact the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990, or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a crisis counselor for free confidential crisis support.

    • I went to Cooley, it’s a great school! The professors are very good and so are the school’s facilities. Top notch! They give everyone a fair shot. It’s up to you. I practice criminal defense, and make more than 95% of all Attorneys in the country.

  3. Jeff Kennelly on

    Cool numbers, Evan. There are a lot of bitter people out there about Cooley High. For me, it was a launchpad. I had a very successful career – based on me, not the school. Say all you wish. i took the bar exam 1x in 1993 and never looked back. People who matriculated there knew or should have known it was a shit school. I did. And I believed I could achieve after I left. I’m not a big fan of whiners.

  4. Cooley had a poor reputation in the eighties when I applied, and I knew it. Being a terrible test taker, I could not get into other schools. I really wanted to study law and Cooley gave me that opportunity. We can examine all the parts and find fault, or we can be grateful for the overall broadening of intellectual development and life experience. Who wouldn’t choose the latter?

  5. I went to Cooley in the 1980’s after working in Investment Banking.
    I wanted to do something more meaningful than just making money.
    I graduated on time and passed the PA bar exam on my first try at it.
    Although I was accepted at other similar Law Schools…
    Cooley was then the most affordable for me.
    Since I got in-state tuition and Lansing’s lower cost of living.
    Back then Cooley had an arrangement with the State for Michigan residents.
    And at the end of my 3 years my total student debt was just $15,000.00.
    What attracted me to Cooley besides affordability was its mission statement.
    Which was to prepare graduates for a solo or small firm practice of law.
    It was no secret then that few Cooley grads ever got hired at large law firms.
    But that was ok with me since I didn’t want to work for a large law firm.
    Moreover, most of my evening classmates already had professional jobs.
    Two of my classmates were practicing Physicians and another was a Veterinarian.
    Many were just looking to augment the credentials they already had.
    As such, Cooley was a good fit for mature working-class law students in central Michigan.
    And the Faculty was on the whole sound and the physical plant ample.
    Cooley’s law library alone was about the same size as all of New England Law School.
    Where Cooley failed in my opinion was having poor management.
    For instance, they admitted large classes and had high attrition rates.
    All the while denying they had imposed a downward grading scale policy.
    Until of course some insider leaked an internal memo which proved their policy.
    This created a lot of angst, turmoil and ill will among the students to this day.
    Which may explain why few alumnae make any meaningful contributions.
    And now Western Michigan (like Michigan State did) has ended their affiliation with Cooley.
    All of which could have been avoided in my opinion.
    Because rather than close down their Grand Rapids, Oakland and Ann Arbor campuses…
    They could have sought out having affiliations or mergers with area State colleges.
    Such as with Grand Valley State, Eastern Michigan and Oakland Universities.
    Because by becoming State institutions they could keep tuition lower.
    Thereby living up to their mission of providing working class people access to the law.
    Because if I had to pay $200,000 to go to Cooley – I wouldn’t.
    But I wouldn’t pay that to go to Harvard or Yale either.

    • I went to law school at Temple. I now run an agency with over 60 employees. We are considered the premier legal agency in our state. We are celebrated for our legal work in both the trial and appellate court exclusively in the federal arena. Our most celebrated attorney went to Cooley. He is the second in command and always ready to take the helm. He is the go to person for legal advice at the trial and appellate level. He is paid the second highest income in the agency , Right below mine. He has just turned 40. Yet, he got his position when he was 35. One of our worst employees, we had to let go, was a Harvard graduate. Go to the best law school you can but don’t worry if you don’t get into an Ivy League. I don’t know anything about Cooley. But I do know our best attorney went there. It is silly to think that a law school is going to make you great. It will merely help you get your first job. I am celebrated for the work that our office does. I hire fantastic people. I don’t care where you went to school. I care who you are and what your potential is. This tortured discussion of best and worst schools is silly. It shows how narrowminded and blind the author is. If an employer is equally blind and ignorant don’t work for them.

  6. Anthony Fazioli on

    I attended Michigan State University and graduated in 2001. I lived in a house while attending law school with 4 Cooley Law students. After graduating, I went back to my home state of NJ and take the bar.

    To this day, I keep in touch with my law school buddies and they are all doing great. In fact, NJ has a great deal of Cooley Law alumni as members of the bar. Those lawyers are excellent at what they do.

    I will never judge anyone on which law school they attended. The key is what you can do with that law degree.

    If you attend Cooley Law, you will succeed if you wish. It’s not about the school you attended, it’s about how you use the degree.

  7. Glad I read this blog since I am helping my grandson gather intel about law schools.
    BTW, many years ago a fellow who worked for me was having trouble passing the bar exam. So I took a stab at an old practice exam. Passed it having only taken only a contract law course while working on a master’s degree in engineering from George Washington University. Don’t know what this means. Certainly hope I couldn’t do this t