Trump’s Lawyer Went to the Worst Law School in America
The roster of the school’s graduates includes federal and state judges, two members of Congress and several high-profile courtroom lawyers and business leaders.
But whatever the accomplishments of its most distinguished alumni, the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan, once the largest law school in the U.S., does not have a reputation to match. And it never has
Cooley may be, by some measurements, the worst law school in America. And its standing has not been enhanced by a flood of publicity about the quality of the legal work of its best known and, increasingly, most notorious alum: Michael D. Cohen, class of 1991, President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and the target of a federal criminal investigation in New York that has clearly rattled Trump.
The school is sensitive to the headlines: “In light of the current publicity about Mr. Michael Cohen, one of our graduates, it is disappointing to see all the gratuitous negative comments about our law school from people who know nothing about us,” the school’s general counsel, James Robb, said in an impassioned written statement to Politico. “What I am seeing is incivility and bullying by people who truly know little about legal education—and especially about our fine law school.”
Bullies, however, are not responsible for the troubling statistics that Cooley discloses to applicants on its own website.
The school accepts almost anyone who can pay the $51,000 annual tuition bill—more than 85 percent of its applicants were admitted last year. Fewer than half of its graduates manage to pass a bar exam on their first try; among all law school graduates in the country, about 75 percent pass on their first attempt. The 46-year-old school has had to go to court over the past year to fight for its accreditation from the American Bar Association, which found that the school was out of compliance on basic admission standards for a time. Last year, the National Advisory Council for Law School Transparency gave Cooley a ranking no school wants: It was No. 1 on the group’s list of “the 10 least selective law schools in the country.”
The school’s reputation has long been battered back home in Michigan in the face of plunging enrollment, as well as those court fights with the ABA. But thanks to Cohen, it is now being ridiculed before a national audience.
A law school would normally take pride in a graduate who went on to represent no less a client than the current occupant of the White House. Not so for the 51-year-old Cohen, whose home, office and safety-deposit box were raided by the FBI last month.
“His legal career is flushing down the toilet,” American Lawyer magazine declared in a columnist’s profile of Cohen that mocked his affiliation with Cooley—“often cited as one of the worst law schools in the nation.” After the FBI raids, television comedian Samantha Bee took a swipe at Cooley on her cable program “Full Frontal,” asking why rich, powerful figures like Trump would retain “a graduate of the actual worst law school in the country?” She described Cohen as “a guy whose whole business model seems to be built around blackmailing mistresses.”
For Cooley, it is bad enough that Cohen is under criminal investigation. Worse is the fact that so much of Cohen’s basic competence as a lawyer—what he learned back at Cooley—is under scrutiny. That begins with his role in drafting a legal agreement before the 2016 election to pay $130,000 in hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels after she alleged a sexual encounter with Trump. (This week, Trump finally acknowledged that he had reimbursed the money to Cohen, even as the president continues to deny the encounter with Daniels.) It was later revealed that Cohen had drafted a similar agreement in 2017—using identical pseudonyms for the opposing parties—on behalf of a Trump fundraiser who wanted to silence a former Playboy playmate after she claimed to be pregnant with his child. The playmate received $1.6 million for her silence.
If nothing else, Cohen failed in the central mission of keeping the agreements confidential. He also failed to protect the anonymity of another of his high-profile clients, Fox News star Sean Hannity, whose name was revealed during an April court hearing related to the FBI raids.
Comments ridiculing Cooley and Cohen have deluged Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, many of them posted by Midwesterners acquainted with the school’s checkered reputation. A typical recent tweet, this one from a private lawyer in Illinois: “Just found out that Michael Cohen is a Cooley Law graduate. Trump’s doomed!”
Several tweets connect Cohen and the school to embarrassing headlines about another Cooley alum—Pennsylvania state judge Elizabeth Beckley, who graduated a year after Cohen. Recent news reports revealed that Beckley, asked to preside over a marriage late last year, instead called in federal immigration agents because she suspected the Guatemala-born groom was in the United States illegally. The 22-year-old groom, who had in fact been a legal resident of the U.S. since his adoption by an American couple when he was eight months old, was fingerprinted and faced with arrest by immigration agents on what was supposed to be his wedding day.
Beckley did not respond to requests for an interview. And Cohen’s Washington-based lawyer, Stephen M. Ryan, had no comment for this article.
Robb, the Cooley spokesman, said the school is being held to a higher standard than other law schools that produced graduates who went on to become controversial in legal and political careers: “I wonder whether the ‘commentators’ would say the same thing about the University of Alabama in light of Judge Roy Moore; about Columbia [University] in light of Roy Cohn, who also represented Donald Trump; about Duke [University] in light of Richard Nixon; about [the University of] Baltimore in light of Spiro Agnew; about Harvard in light of Alger Hiss, or Yale in light of William Clinton. I think not.”
The school’s critics, he said, were “elitists who do not appreciate, or do not care about, the opportunity to succeed.” He said that Cooley takes pride in its willingness to admit students, including many from minority groups, who would have trouble being accepted at other schools because of their relatively low test scores and educational backgrounds: “Our law school was founded on the premise that all qualified applicants should be given a chance.” About 35 percent of Cooley’s recent graduates identify themselves as members of minority groups.
Jerome Abood, a Michigan lawyer who graduated with Cohen in the class of 1991, said he believed Cooley had always offered a fine legal education—and that, once students were admitted, the standards were high. “It was always known as a school that was very easy to get into but very hard to stay in,” he said in an interview. “Your education is up to you.”
He recalled that many of his classmates had come from the East Coast and that Cohen, a Long Island native who received an undergraduate degree at The American University in Washington, D.C., had attended Cooley along with a cousin and a group of friends. Cohen had “stood out” for his intelligence, Abood said. “He was somebody you could tell was very serious about getting his law degree.”
Cooley, named for a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court in Michigan, was founded in 1974 and grew rapidly until, by 2010, it had several campuses, annual revenue of $123 million and a student body of 3,900, making it at the time the largest law school in the country. But overall enrollment at the nation’s laws schools has fallen sharply since then, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. And the drop-off has been even sharper at Cooley, where enrollment has plummeted more than 60 percent in recent years, forcing the school to close one of its campuses and lay off or otherwise lose more than half its full-time faculty.
David Frakt, a Florida lawyer who is chair of the National Advisory Council for Law School Transparency, the group that released the “10 least-selective law school list,” said he chuckled when he learned that Cohen had attended Cooley.
In an interview, he wondered why Trump, who so often promotes his own Ivy League credentials as a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, would have chosen, as his personal attorney, the product of a law school that has long been known as “the place for people who can’t get in anywhere else—a school of last resort.”
“I would think there would be very few billionaires in New York who would hire a graduate of the Thomas Cooley Law School as his personal lawyer,” he said. “It tells you a lot about Trump’s values. He clearly was not valuing the intellectual firepower of his lawyers.”
Cooley, he said, is typical of schools that engage in “predatory admissions”—enticing students to enroll who will never manage to graduate, much less pass a bar examination and become practicing lawyers. “They’ve been admitting grossly unqualified students for several years,” he said. “I’m not saying the education is bad or the teaching is bad,” he said. “But the admissions policies are highly questionable. The point is massive profit for the ownership.”
Despite its plummeting enrollment, Cooley, which identifies itself a nonprofit institution, has continued to pay handsome salaries to some administrators and faculty members.
Recent, publicly available tax records show that the school’s president, Don P. DeLuc was paid $432,000 in 2016. His daughter Laura is one of the school’s associate deans. (The school would not provide the current salary figures for either President DeLuc or his daughter, nor make either of them available for interviews.) The recent tax records show that school’s 88-year-old founder, Thomas Brennan, a former Michigan state Supreme Court justice who stepped down as Cooley’s president in 2002, has continued to be paid more than $329,000 a year as an emeritus professor even though he works only five hours a week. An audit released last year revealed that under his contract, Brennan is entitled to receive a salary “based on two times the salary of a Michigan Supreme Court Justice, plus certain other benefits, until his death.”
The school said Brennan was also unavailable for an interview. He has continued to speak out publicly, however, through his “Old Judge Says” blog, in which he offers commentary that might easily be perceived as anti-Islamic, homophobic and radically insensitive. In a 2016 post, he remembered with affection the blackface minstrel shows of his youth. He recalled how he and his brother performed in local minstrel shows in the Detroit area, “our faces blacked to the teeth.”
“In these days of political correctness, the whole idea of minstrelsy seems preposterous,” he wrote. “But the truth is that minstrelsy was fun.”
Other blog posts have criticized the move in Southern states to remove the statues of Confederate Army generals from public spaces. “Political correctness is running amuck,” he wrote. “The Civil War did in fact occur. And there were good people on both sides.” He has labeled Islam “a primitive belief system which comingles [sic] religious doctrine with civil law.” He described the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed the right to same-sex marriage as “evil.” The decision, he said, meant that “our beloved nation will slide further toward Armageddon.”
In a post written immediately after Trump’s election in 2016, Brennan, an avid Trump supporter, noted with pleasure that the president-elect’s lawyer, Cohen, had graduated from Cooley. “So he is, I am proud to say, one of over 20,000 lawyers who boast a diploma over my signature, from the law school I was privileged to launch,” Brennan wrote. He then reprinted an email he had sent to Cohen to congratulate him on Trump’s victory: “It is certainly a credit to Mr. Trump’s egalitarian spirit that he does not limit his recruiting to the blossoms of the Ivy League.”