Jesse Strauss of Strauss Law had two goals when he filed a fraud suit on behalf of 12 graduates of Thomas M. Cooley Law School. The first was to win compensation for the Cooley grads, who had paid tens of thousands of dollars of tuition in the misguided expectation that a Cooley law degree would lead to a full-time legal career. The second, he told me, was to dispel similar misguided expectations by anyone else considering enrollment at Cooley. A ruling Tuesday by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals will probably spell the end of the hope that Cooley graduates can get any of their money back from the school, but it should also expose the law school as a highly questionable investment for prospective lawyers.
“Based on my clients’ reactions, everyone is proud of their involvement in this suit,” Strauss said. “We’ve done real justice.”
The Cooley suit, like 14 other class actions Strauss and co-counsel have filed against law schools that purportedly misrepresented employment and salary data about their graduates, claimed that the school deceived prospective students about their future job prospects. In reporting on the job status of its graduates, the grads alleged, Cooley failed to distinguish between those with legal careers and those with other kinds of jobs; a graduate working at Starbucks, for instance, would be counted in Cooley’s survey as employed in business. The school also claimed that its salary data was an average of all graduates’ incomes, but as the 6th Circuit noted, the reported number was actually an average of the salaries of graduates who responded to the law school’s survey.
The 6th Circuit panel – Judges Boyce Martin and Deborah Cook and U.S. District Judge James Graham, sitting by designation – did not dispute the Cooley students’ allegations, but nevertheless agreed with the district court that they do not have a cause of action. They can’t make claims under Michigan consumer laws because they bought their business education for the business purpose of attaining a full-time legal job. And they can’t make fraudulent misrepresentation claims because Cooley’s report on the percentage of graduates with jobs is not objectively false. The graduates also couldn’t show that they reasonably relied on Cooley’s statements, according to the 6th Circuit.
But the opinion, written by Judge Martin, is unstinting about the career prospects of Cooley graduates, which it describes as “dismal.” The 6th Circuit outlines the school’s loose admissions standards – the lowest in the country, with an acceptance rate 15 percent higher than the second-least selective law school – and high drop-out rates. Cooley enrolls 4,000 students at the school’s four campuses in Michigan (with another 700-student satellite campus planned for Florida) and charges full-timers $36,750 a year in tuition. According to the 6th Circuit, Cooley’s dean is one of the highest-paid law school deans in the country, earning more than $500,000 a year in 2008 and 2009 – almost ten times the average graduate salary Cooley reported