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The Thomas M. Cooley Law School has been a fixture in the media spotlight in recent weeks. First, the nation’s largest law school sued New York firm Kurzon Strauss, claiming the firm defamed it in online posts advertising a potential class action against the school. Then, on Aug. 8, Cooley announced plans to open a new campus in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area in 2012. Cooley already has four campuses throughout Michigan and an annual enrollment of close to 4,000 students, but the new campus would be its first outside the state. The news was criticized by some bloggers, who likened the school to a degree mill that produces far more attorneys than can find legal work. Cooley released its own report on the state of the lawyer employment market, citing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that lawyers have one of the lowest unemployment rates among white-collar occupations. The school also cited a large alumni network in Florida as a reason to open a campus in the state, where it eventually plans to enroll 700 students. Two days after announcing the new campus, Kurzon Strauss filed the expected class action against Cooley and New York Law School on behalf of students and graduates, claiming that both schools inflated graduate employment rates and salaries. The National Law Journal spoke with Cooley President and Dean Don DeLuc about the dueling lawsuits and the school’s decision to expand beyond Michigan. His answers have been edited for length. National Law Journal: Let’s talk first about the new Florida campus. I think this announcement caught a lot of people by surprise, given that the job market for new lawyers has been pretty tough these past few years. Some people have said on the Internet that it’s downright irresponsible to open a new campus. Why expand now? Don LeDuc: The timing is not necessarily for the right now. Anything that has to do with the selection and placement of a campus is done with a long-term perspective, rather than a short-term one. This actually was underway for a long period of time — for years looking at other locations. From our perspective, you’re always doing offense and defense. Obviously, we want to attract new people, but we also want to protect the enrollment levels we have. The economy in Michigan is worse than elsewhere, so we were looking at a way to take our program to a location where students are, rather than try to entice students to come to Michigan where the economy is below par. It’s not strictly a growth thing. NLJ: There are 11 ABA-accredited law schools in Florida. Is this really an underserved market? D.L.: Florida is probably average for law school enrollment based on its population. It’s 80% bigger than Michigan, but it doesn’t have 80% more law school seats. The major demographic factor we look for is a large urban area with a relatively low number of law school seats. The Tampa-St. Petersburg area fits that. It’s a little over 4 million people and has one law school. As a result, it’s a much better market than almost any other place in the country at this time. How many law schools there are in the state is significant, but it’s not an overriding factor. NLJ: Lets move on to Cooley’s suit against Kurzon Strauss. Why did the administration decide to file a preemptive suit? Kurzon Strauss contends it was meant to intimidate them out of suing. D.L.: Another major factor in law school selection is reputation. Clearly what was said by them was impugning our reputation. It wasn’t just, “We don’t think it’s a very good law school,” kind of stuff. It was specific allegations of fact that were wrong. When they started trolling for clients on Craigslist and Facebook and put out a draft complaint, we just felt like we couldn’t sit by and let that happen. The motivation for filing that lawsuit was simply [that] they were preparing to file a lawsuit and it looked very obvious that they were soliciting clients who weren’t looking for them. If it hadn’t gone out as a draft complaint, we probably would have handled it a somewhat different way. NLJ: The Kurzon Strauss suit against Cooley has been covered heavily in the media. What response have you received from students and potential students? Has it impacted the number of student enrolling in the incoming class? Do you think it will make recruiting more difficult for the new campus? D.L.: It’s pretty hard to say. Like with anything else, you hear the people who feel like talking and you don’t really know what people are thinking in the middle. We look at it like, “Allegations are allegations.” With our litigation, we feel like we have a legitimate claim. We looked at what’s in the complaint filed against us, and basically there isn’t much about Cooley in the complaint. It’s much more broadly structured. We’ve been sort of picked out as the school they chose as a target. In effect, without commenting on the merits overall of what they said, they could have said what they said about the practices undertaken by any law school in the United States. The mystery is why they have picked us and New York Law School as targets. When people start saying you are doing things that are fraudulent, you are either going to just take it or you are going to confront it. I think our attitude was, “We just don’t think we should allow our reputation to be impugned without anybody bearing responsibility for it.” There may some short-term negatives, but I think that’s relatively temporary. In the long term, I’d rather be thought of the school that was willing to defend its reputation and fight back when people say false things about you. NLJ: The Kurzon Strauss suit basically says Cooley cooked the employment statistics books. Has it? D.L.: It’s very interesting. There aren’t any allegations in the complaint about us. There’s a generalized opinion that we do that, but there’s actually not anything in there that you could really respond to. Without going into the details, because we haven’t filed an answer to this yet, what we will be saying is that we are doing exactly what everybody else does. We fill out the questionnaires that come from NALP. We fill out the questionnaires that come from the American Bar Association. The only publication we do is of the data that’s consistent with the ways in which those organizations ask you to report on placement of your recent graduates. The numbers we use are those numbers. Are we falsifying the data we send to the ABA or NALP? The answer to that is no. We are not, and we never have. Karen Sloan can be contacted at [email protected].

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