Collateral Damage: How A Flagging Law School Hurts Community

Collateral Damage: How A Flagging Law School Hurts Community

cooley blueAbove the Law hasn’t been kind to the Thomas M. Cooley Law School over the years. It’s not that the school hasn’t put out good lawyers and hockey coaches over the years, it’s that a solidly mediocre school tried to dupe impressionable students with facially ridiculous stunts like proclaiming itself second only to Harvard. All while charging top-flight prices for lackluster employment scores.

Cooley Law became an avatar for the failure of the law school model. Its appetite for tuition dollars made it the biggest law school in America before the bottom fell out of the market. Then when times got rough, Cooley was at the forefront of lowering admission standards to keep the gravy train running. After all, they had a baseball team to support.

In 2010, the school had almost 4,000 students. This year the school boasts around 1,300. Revenues have roughly halved in that period.

But this isn’t a story about Cooley per se, as much as it’s a story about what Cooley’s precipitous decline has done to the local economy. A report in the Lansing State Journal focuses on the city that got left behind when the law school began to struggle:

Cooley’s freefall came with consequences for downtown. Several watering holes frequented by law school students dried up. Landlords looked to young professionals to fill the gaps left by fewer law school students downtown. Washington Square hasn’t recovered.

“I think nightlife and weekends were quite dependent on thousands of bodies from Cooley Law School,” Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, said. “They simply aren’t there right now.”

Even when we think of law schools as a business, we rarely consider them forming the hub of a web of industry. Most big law schools come attached to a much larger educational institution — no bar or apartment complex in Tempe lives and dies off ASU’s law students. But an independent law school — and, yes, Cooley has a quasi-affiliation with Western Michigan, but Kalamazoo is over an hour away, which is a long way to Row Your Boat — with 4,000 students draws a lot of water in a town. And when it falls off, businesses can’t keep up:

Brannigan Brothers used to be a favored watering hole among Cooley students. When Doug Nylander took over the bar’s license in 2011, more than half of its business came from law students, he said.

“We had good numbers at that point with a good following among Cooley students,” Nylander said.

The bar closed in 2015. The declining student numbers weren’t the only reason. There was a murder trial involving a man who had worked there as a bouncer and multiple name changes besides. But it was a factor. Nylander sold the building last summer.

Not to stand up for Cooley, but that murder trial seems like a pretty big problem for Brannigan Brothers. “The local McHammy’s went out of business after the school’s admissions bottomed out… also they were serving rat meat.”

Cooley’s peak also came as a boon to local landlords like Richard Karp, owner of the Arbaugh building in downtown Lansing. In 2009, around nine out of every 10 of his tenants were Cooley students. Today, it’s less than two in 10. Cooley’s presence helped fill the building, Karp said, but its attractive location kept it from falling to the wayside when Cooley’s enrollment slid.

Pat Gillespie saw similar declines with his properties near downtown. His Prudden Place complex boasted around 40% Cooley student occupancy between 2008 and 2013. It’s just a handful today. Those students did more than pay rent and spend their nights studying for the bar.

“Cooley students were pedestrians downtown after 5 p.m.,” Gilespie said. “It felt more alive downtown, but that’s the impact when you lose a couple thousand people.”

What does the future hold for downtown Lansing? It’s hard to say. Perhaps the law school bubble will reassert itself and students will flock back to Cooley’s waiting coffers arms. But one has to think the school’s hurt its own reputation so badly over the last eight years or so that it’s not going to rebound to anything close to its old numbers.

By the way, the naming rights for the Lansing Lugnuts’ stadium are up in 2021. I think it’s safe to assume they’ll be looking for a new sponsor.

Where did all the Cooley students go? [Lansing State Journal]

Earlier: Cooley Law Is A Great Place To Learn To Coach Hockey
Latest Cooley Law School Rankings Achieve New Heights of Intellectual Dishonesty
Cooley Law School Stadium: The House That Broken Dreams Built

HeadshotJoe Patrice is an editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news.


Published at Fri, 07 Apr 2017 23:32:09 +0000

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