Category Archives: Knowledge, Skills, Ethics

Cooley stresses legal knowledge, practice skills, and professional ethics, an approach that is the latest trend in legal education and new to most law schools, but has been in place at Cooley since its founding in 1972.
Knowledge: Master the substantive knowledge required for passage of the bar examination and admission to the bar.
Skills: Master the basic fundamentals required for the competent practice of law and representation of clients.
Ethics: Understand and embrace the legal, moral, ethical, and professional responsibilities of lawyers.

Distinguished Student and Leadership Awards Presented at Convocation

WMU- Cooley Law School’s Auburn Hills campus held its Honors Convocation recently, recognizing students for top course grades, Dean’s List and Honor Roll designations, and for leadership and skills competition achievements.

Peter Mancini and Dr. Ryan McKennon received the Distinguished Student Award for their academic success, participation and leadership in student organizations, professionalism and service to the community.

The recipients of the Leadership Achievement Award were Monica Carson, Deirdre Armstrong, and Brandon Ferguson. The award acknowledges students who have consistently, comprehensively and effectively provided leadership in a variety of capacities.

Peter Mancini receives the Distinguished Student Award.

Dr. Ryan McKennon receives the Distinguished Student Award.

Left-right: Leadership Achievement Award recipients Monica Carson, Deirdre Armstrong, Brandon Ferguson.

 

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From Pardons to Portraits: Gerald R. Ford Leadership Program Participants Wear Shoes of a Leader

Sixteen Michigan residents, including residents of Lansing, Grand Rapids, Portage, Baroda and Sidney, completed the Leadership in Times of Crisis program at the DeVos Learning Center in the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in March.  The program is a joint initiative of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and The Western Michigan University Center for the Study of Ethics in Society.

"New York, New York, USA - November 3, 2012: A close up of the front page of the The New York Times newspaper dated August 9, 1974. The New York Times reporting President Richard Nixon resigns after the Watergate scandal, Vice President Gerald Ford taking office."

The unique leadership program is not only open to enrolled law students, but to the public. Participants in one class get to take on the role of advisor to President Ford (played by Professor Devin Schindler), including arguing for and against the pardon of Richard Nixon while seated around the cabinet table in the Ford Museum.

In another session led by Professor Paul Sorenson, participants negotiated a contentious issue using procedures learned earlier that morning, experiencing in the process of how President Ford’s renowned reputation as a deal maker was due to many years of arduous, patient work.

A fascinating exploration of the relationship between healthy cities and state funding policies was led by Kalamazoo County Commissioner Kevin Wordelman.

The last class session explores the war in  Vietnam and the fall of Saigon. Participants viewed artifacts during a tour of the Museum’s collection. Artifacts included the portrait of President Ford the American ambassador removed from the wall of the embassy while fleeing Saigon and service medals thrown over the White House fence by veterans angry with President Ford’s amnesty program for men who did not honor the draft.

Guest speaker Tiennga Cao recounted the harrowing story of how she and fellow Vietnamese refugees felt at that time, adrift at sea for over two weeks before being rescued by an American naval ship. At the time of her rescue she was so weak that she could not stand on her own. She was brought to Grand Rapids, President Ford’s home town, and, in her own words, has made it her mission ever since her rescue to help people in return for God saving her life.

Leaders Program guest speaker Tiennga Cao

Leaders Program guest speaker Tiennga Cao

The Museum’s Education Director, Barbara McGregor, led a tour of Museum pieces relevant to the fall of Saigon, including the actual staircase from atop the American Embassy where many Vietnamese people began the transition from their homeland into new lives in other countries.

The program received high marks from all participants. Reservations are being accepted for the Fall 2017 session starting in September.  The program consists of four sessions, one session per month on a Saturday mornings from 9:00 a.m. to noon. The fee is $150. Participants receive a Certification of Completion bearing the name and logo of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum & Library.  For more information contact Professor Victoria Vuletich by email or by phone at (616) 301-6800, ext. 6960.

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Aaron V. Burrell: Rising to your Calling

Attorney Aaron Burrell of the Dickinson Wright law firm presented the keynote during WMU-Cooley Law School’s “Integrity in Our Communities” speaker series. Following his March 15 presentation, the law school honored him with the Integrity Award. The award is presented to legal professionals who demonstrate the highest integrity in their profession. LISTEN to or read below his talk entitled “Rising to your Calling.”

It was at Cooley that I first learned that the practice of law is more than just a job or a career.  When I decided to go to law school, I was uncertain of what kind of lawyer I wanted to be, the responsibilities of the lawyer, or what being a lawyer actually entailed.  I knew only a few things: that I wanted to seek an excellent legal education, that I wanted to provide for a future family, and that I wanted to make my family and my community proud.

When I arrived at Cooley 10 years ago, it became clear that what I was signing up for was not the chance for a good job, although that was part of it.  I realized almost immediately that becoming a lawyer is an all-encompassing transformation – the pursuit of a vocation that will intertwine itself into all aspects and areas of life.  It became quickly evident to me that the practice of law, in my estimation, is most appropriately considered a Calling – defined as a strong urge toward a particular way of life – as opposed to a career. It is almost as if becoming new person, one less interested in personal pursuits and more concerned with advancing the interests of others.

So the moment we are sworn in we assume the weight and responsibility exhaustively outlined in the lawyer’s oath; we begin a new journey, wherein our calling manifests itself in every aspect of our lives, including as a calling towards (1) the rule of law, (2) our clients, (3) our profession, and finally towards our community.

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So our first calling as lawyers is to the rule of law – which is why, not surprisingly, the first sentence of our oath mandates that we support the Constitution of the United States and the State of Michigan, and that we maintain respect to the courts of justice and judicial officers.

Our devotion to the rule of law must, therefore, take preeminent placement over and above every personal or individual interest.  I see our role as gatekeepers – ensuring both that the laws themselves are just – drafted to benefit the community upon which they govern and don’t arbitrarily identify a few selected beneficiaries; and that we also ensure that those laws are equally enforced, that no favorites are selected, and that every individual receives an equal chance in our courts.  Henry Ward Beecher said that a “law is valuable not because it is law, but because there is right in it.”  It is the lawyer’s job to ensure that every law ultimately has that “right in it.”

In everyday practice, this devotion manifests itself in a commitment to diligent research, ensuring fair and accurate interpretation of statutory and common law, and to ensuring that the parties and tribunal are appropriately apprised of the law.  In addition, I work to maintain candor with the Court – ensuring that I report honestly to the Court in all instances.

One of the most terrifying situations of my young career came at a moment when a client had failed to disclose all of the facts of a particular issue – and I in turn failed to report the full story to the Court.  If you were to describe the speed at which I worked to correct this situation as “lightning speed,” that would be an understatement.  Ultimately, the Court thoroughly appreciated my efforts to remedy the situation, and my client and I were able to achieve a good result through open and candid communication.

The rule of law is, quite honestly, paramount.  Jonathan Sacks declared that “true freedom requires the rule of law and justice, and a judicial system in which the rights of some are not secured by the denial of rights to others.” And Justice Sonia Sotomayor echoed that sentiment, observing that the rule of law is the “foundation for all of our basic rights.”

We as lawyers must constantly remind ourselves that we must rise first to our calling to protect the rule of law with every occasion, to build upon its footing with every statement of candor to the tribunal, to secure its foundations with every fair and impartial ruling, and to solidify its underpinnings by ensuring that all citizens who enter our courts experience genuine equality under the law.

Our second calling is our calling to our clients.  Since I began practicing, I have made it my goal to continually and routinely ensure that the interests of my clients enjoyed a paramount priority in my life.  Many lawyers I know are often exasperated by client demands and feel that meeting those demands can often become a hindrance – an inconvenience on personal obligations.  Although I have sometimes had to rearrange things in my personal life – I constantly remind myself that I signed up for this!  That becoming a lawyer wasn’t accepting a 9-5 position – that if I were to truly embrace the calling, I would ensure that I provided clients with excellent client service, and that I worked diligently to ensure that their needs were met.

One of the most renowned lawyers in our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln, observed in his Notes for a Law Lecture, that the “leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence.  Leave nothing for tomorrow that which can be done today.”  I try to live each day under that mantra.

The lawyer must be responsive to client needs, attentive to client concerns, and must ensure that in everything he or she does, the lawyer is acting in the client’s best interest.

In my practice, I have seen the unfortunate warring that occurs between the lawyer’s personal concerns and the lawyer’s concerns for their clients – their individual interests, competing with the interests of the client.

Indeed, when I first received my business cards at Dickinson Wright, I did not have a full appreciation for what the term “attorney and counselor” meant on the card.  The “attorney” part I understood.  “Counselor” was then unknown to me.  But as time progressed, I began to see how important we are as “counselors” to clients.  And becoming that counselor often requires us to diminish our personal concerns so that we can increase the concerns of our client.

As a younger associate, I never really knew why we would settle a case or why we would proceed to a trial. I always assumed that the lawyers on both sides were doing what was best for their respective clients.  I later realized that on occasion principle would override reason, and, sometimes even worse, greed or personal interests may override virtue and true justice.  Where the parties should have settled a case, the case continued – not for any good reason – but for the purpose of either increasing fees or settling unreasonable vendettas.

Now that I am in the position to advise clients directly, I make a conscious, unequivocal effort to place the client’s concerns above my own – to advise them that settling a case is the most appropriate course of action, will most effectively advance their interests, and most expeditiously resolve the dispute, irrespective of any competing concern.  I also attempt to serve as their counselor, helping clients to understand that the anger and resentment that informed their decision-making early in the litigation must sometimes subside to achieve the best possible outcome for all involved.

That great lawyer Abraham Lincoln said that we as attorneys should “discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man.” He promised, and I know this to be true, that “There will still be business enough” with you serving in the role as peacemaker.

It is my goal to follow this position, and, in doing so, I hope to rise ever so slightly more toward our calling to our clients.

Our third calling is our calling to our profession.  It is often said that the practice of law is a “noble profession.”  But its nobility is only maintained through the daily efforts of those who work consistently to carry that mantle.

Our calling to our profession must begin with civility to one another.  In my limited years of practice, I have too often seen lawyers who, almost as a badge of honor, enjoy belittling and ridiculing opposing counsel.  I have seen lawyers who seemingly take pride in writing the most uncaring and spiteful communications to one another, as if to do so would garner some degree of strength or competitive advantage.

I have news for lawyers who believe that the more unkind and harsh you are the better you are performing – you are not.  In contrast, you are damaging yourself personally, your client’s position, and your profession as a whole.  These are the lawyers that make all the lawyer jokes true.  One of my favorite lawyer jokes, of course, is how many lawyer jokes are there?  The answer: only three.  The rest are true stories.

But by comparison, I admire those lawyers who go to great lengths to extend professional courtesy to one another: who will grant an extension when appropriate, who will offer the services of their office to another lawyer in need, who will embrace the bar’s call for collegiality.

These are the lawyers who will lead the bar, be examples to future generations of lawyers, and leave a strong legacy.  These lawyers aspire to our true “calling” to become peacemakers, mediators; calming the fires of disputes and not enraging them with our own malevolence.

Recently, I had an opportunity to represent a neurosurgeon in a matter.  The neurosurgeon was considering leaving his present practice for another practice.  He discussed the matter with his friend, another physician, who directed him to his brother in law – an attorney.  So the neurosurgeon called the attorney, showed him what was going on, and asked him a couple of questions.  The total interaction between the two individuals was approximately 10 minutes, the neurosurgeon thanked the lawyer for his time, they briefly discussed the brother-in-law’s family, and the neurosurgeon went on about his business, thought nothing of the conversation, and never acted on the substance of the discussion.

About a month later, the neurosurgeon received a bill from the attorney for nearly $600.  The neurosurgeon was puzzled, and inquired with the lawyer regarding why he received a bill. Keep in mind, the neurosurgeon never received an engagement letter, never received any correspondence from the lawyer, and never even knew what the lawyer’s hourly rate was.

Instead of the lawyer gently addressing the neurosurgeon’s concerns and attempting to work with him about the alleged attorney client relationship, the lawyer, the individual charged with the responsibility of absolving disputes and acting in the best interests of his apparent client and the public, began a nearly year-long campaign of harassing the neurosurgeon to recover the alleged $600 he was owed.  He then proceeded to file a lawsuit to recover these alleged fees.

Thankfully, I was able to tap into their collective cooler heads and bring this matter to a resolution.  Though as I sat in the courtroom, the court was hearing arraignments on the court’s television screen.  The first arraignment was for a young woman who remained incarcerated for contempt, primarily as a result of the inability to pay fees.  Most people paid little concern to these proceedings, but as I looked at my client, the neurosurgeon, I could see that he was quite moved by this young woman’s story.

After we put the settlement on the record, I shook the other lawyer’s hand and began to walk out of the court.  But as we approached the door, the neurosurgeon asked me, “Aaron, how do I pay for that young woman’s fees?”  I was understandably puzzled by this question – this neurosurgeon had to undergo nearly a year of torment from a lawyer who constantly hassled him regarding a $600 fee that many lawyers would have quickly written off.  Yet, not only did he no longer harbor any further ill will toward the lawyer – the neurosurgeon sought to pay a complete stranger’s fees, totaling an amount over the settlement we agreed to, to assist her in being released from incarceration.

I thought to myself: “what a remarkable instance of generosity.”  But I also thought more deeply: “which of these two individuals, the attorney or the neurosurgeon, most aptly exemplified the calling of the profession – to advance the cause of justice, to be a beacon of reconciliation and forgiveness?  It certainly was not the lawyer here; it was the neurosurgeon.

Lawyers should remain cognizant of their obligations to the profession.  Our actions in all regards can have an incredible impact on not only ourselves, but also how we are perceived by the public.  It is that obligation that will build the public’s trust in our profession and endear the public to us as a body.  We should routinely remind ourselves that the way we conduct ourselves, the way we approach situations, the way we delicately navigate often thorny circumstances reflects both on us, as well as our profession.

Finally, lawyers have a calling to our community, state, and nation.  Community, in my opinion, begins with ourselves.  We have an obligation to be our best selves, to be confident in our capabilities, and to become the best individuals we can be.  Your success as a lawyer is irrevocably tied to your own efforts, your own dedication to achieving higher heights, and your own commitment to becoming the best lawyer you can be.

Lawyers must then fulfill their calling to their families, knowing that all of the success in the world as a lawyer means nothing if you are regularly failing those who are most close to you.

Lawyers must lastly fulfill their calling to the society as a whole.  We are, by our very offices, leaders.  Without our prompting, people will look to us for direction, guidance, and counsel. It is incumbent upon us to rise to that calling and be the true embodiment of what it means to be a lawyer.

Drawing back on Abraham Lincoln, he once noted that harboring individual drive and desires is okay, but it may be a good idea to have aspirations beyond that.  He said that “every man is said to have his own peculiar ambition.”  But as for him, “he had none other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”  (emphasis added).

We must, in all our actions, remember that we are working toward the lofty calling and vocation inherent in the law.  Are we perfect?  By no means. And we should accept the human fault present in all of us.  But as lawyers we are held to a higher standard, and we should work diligently to reach that standard.

Every morning as I sit at my desk, I say an affirmation from the lawyer, St. Thomas More, wherein he asked every day to be “trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, [and] ever attentive to conscious.”

He then asks that people around him find “friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duty, counsel in adversity, [and] patience in pain.”

That is the hallmark of the calling.  Working one day at a time towards the goal; seeking every day to rise just a little bit higher to the calling of the practice of law.

Thank you very much again for your time and for this wonderful honor.  I certainly appreciate it.

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Presidential Decision Will Affect American Life and Culture in Profound Ways

Anyone thinking that he or she will sit out the upcoming election (or cast a “protest vote”) might want to think again. While the media has vast swaths of the electorate distracted by such matters as Donald Trump’s testosterone levels and Hillary Clinton’s pulmonary functioning, we stand poised to make a decision that will affect American life and culture in profound ways. The Supreme Court hangs in the balance – WMU-Cooley Professor and Constitution Expert Brendan Beery

WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Brendan Beery on Bay News 9 in Tampa

WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Brendan Beery on Bay News 9 in Tampa

To illustrate the stakes, I will outline a few issues where conservatives and liberals, respectively, have enjoyed some success, and where each side stands to lose just about everything if its candidate loses.

As backdrop to this discussion, I note (even if it is a bit unseemly) that one Supreme Court seat is open (the seat once held by Antonin Scalia) and that the next president is likely to fill not only that seat, but potentially a total of two, three, or even four. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a liberal) is 83; Anthony M. Kennedy (a small-government conservative who often sides with liberals on social issues) is 80. Stephen Breyer (a liberal) is 78. The rest of the five remaining justices are 68 or younger.

Assuming that Ginsburg, Kennedy, and Breyer are the most likely candidates to retire and be replaced by the next president, one can see the trajectory of the Court. Either Clinton or Trump could replace one conservative (Scalia), the Court’s “swing vote” (Kennedy), and two liberals (Ginsburg and Breyer). Now to the issues.

Conservative Successes

  1. The Second Amendment. In two 5-4 decisions, the Court has upheld the right of the individual to bear arms (at a minimum, to possess firearms in the home for personal safety) that applies against state attempts to impose certain gun control measures. If Trump wins, these decisions become etched into our jurisprudence and likely expand – for example, to the right to bear more and larger weapons in more and varying places. A Clinton win would mean the narrowing and possible overruling of these two cases.
  2. Voting. Conservatives won the day in two cases: Citizens United (the case striking down campaign contribution limits) and Shelby County (the case striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act that protected minority voting rights). Both decisions were decided by a vote – you guessed it – of 5-4. If Trump wins, these cases remain good law; Clinton has pledged to appoint justices who would overrule them.
  3. Prayer and religion. Conservatives won one case (5-4) in which the Court allowed prayer at a city council meeting and another (again, 5-4) in which the Court upheld the right of an employer (Hobby Lobby) to refuse to provide insurance-related contraceptive coverage for employees when the employer objected on religious grounds. If Trump wins, these religion-friendly decisions are likely to remain good law for decades; if Clinton wins, they are vulnerable.
  4. The death penalty. This one is simple; most scholars say that there are four votes against the death penalty on the Court right now; four justices would hold that it violates the Eighth Amendment in all circumstances. They await a fifth vote.

Liberal Successes

  1. Abortion. Only five justices think that a woman has a right to have an abortion. If Clinton wins, abortion rights are here to stay. If Trump wins, Roe v. Wade could well be overruled.
  2. Marriage. The recent Obergefell decision (the same-sex-marriage case) was a 5-4 decision. If Clinton wins, it will be the law of the land for all time. If Trump wins, he will put justices on the Court who will be inclined to overrule Obergefell and return the marriage issue to the states, meaning that same-sex marriage will be legal in liberal states and illegal in conservative states.
  3. Affirmative action. There are five votes right now to allow public entities to establish affirmative action programs in higher education and employment. A Clinton win would keep the status quo in place; a Trump win would mean the end of government-run affirmative action programs.
  4. Public unions. The Court recently upheld the right of public unions to collect union dues from non-members. That decision, in the absence of Justice Scalia, was 4-4. A Clinton win would mean these unions could continue to finance themselves; a Trump win would likely mean the end of public-employee unions.

Of course, there are many other issues at stake as well. But again, if any of these issues is important to you, this election may be the last chance – either to cement the Court in the place where you want it or to flip the Court in the direction you’d prefer.

Professor Brendan BeeryBlog author, Constitutional Law expert and WMU-Cooley Professor Brendan Beery, illustrates the stakes for both conservatives and liberals in this coming election. Professor Beery, a summa cum laude graduate of the law school, teaches Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, and Criminal Procedure at WMU-Cooley Law School, and is a frequent legal expert in the media.

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Peacemaking Court: Restoring human relationships instead of punishment

vestrand_joanBlog author Joan Vestrand, WMU-Cooley associate dean and professor, launched a Peacemaking mediation program  in the Auburn Hills, Michigan, Avondale Public Schools.  The Peacemaking Court fosters good relations within schools and the community schools to help resolve disciplinary matters and interpersonal conflicts in a humane, supportive way.

Today, we know that the single greatest predictor of youth incarceration is a history of school discipline.  This problem has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline and blame for it is squarely placed on the Zero Tolerance school discipline policies that arose out of the Reagan-era mentality of “just say no.” These policies called for harsh discipline for perceived school misconduct. Although enacted in good intention, they backfired. They bred insidiously an outcome quite outside the goal – again, the school-to –prison pathway and this has led to a schoolhouse-to-jailhouse crisis across the nation. In fact, the United States leads the world in the percentage of citizens behind bars.

Peacemaking March 1.2

Under Zero Tolerance, what was once considered “normal” youth behavior and misbehavior, became justification to criminalize conduct and exclude noncompliant students from the school community. Such automatic harsh consequences, irrespective of the severity of the misbehavior or the circumstances involved, proved disastrous.  In enacting these policies, there was no consideration of their potential negative impact on the welfare of the offending student or on the culture of the school.

Even worse, the cost of Zero Tolerance is without benefit. No evidence emerged that zero tolerance policies made schools safer or improved student behavior. According to a 2008 Task Force Report by the American Psychological Association, Zero Tolerance policies failed to achieve the intended goal of creating an effective school discipline system. To the contrary, research repeatedly demonstrates that suspension, expulsion, and other punitive consequences are not the solution to disruptive or even dangerous student behaviors. What we now know is that dangerous students do not become less dangerous when excluded from appropriate school settings. Instead, it’s quite often the opposite – exclude and the safety risk escalates. Youth who are not in school are at exceedingly high risk of delinquency and crime which increases the danger to everyone.

And then there is the fiscal hit we take as a nation for every drop-out. Each year’s class of dropouts drains the country of more than $200 billion annually in lost earnings and taxes. Billions more are spent on welfare, health care and other social services that flow from the problem.  Prison costs are an example. In Michigan, for the year 2013, we spent approximately $40,000 per prisoner annually, compared to about $8,000 per student.  Clearly, it is much less costly and better for society to keep a student in school – to find a better way to address behavioral issues.

Peacemaking March 1.3

In part due to mounting societal pressure against harsh school discipline laws, Michigan’s Board of Education is seeing the light. In 2012, it asked districts to take a second look at their Zero Tolerance policies urging the abandonment of policies that exclude students from the educational process. Although the Department’s directive is advisory only, numerous districts have begun to replace punitive practices with restorative ones. Schools are shifting towards programs and policies that meet the developmental needs of youth. Punishment is giving way to practices that allow students to problem-solve, dialogue, and build positive relationships. We are realizing that to raise a healthy and productive member of society, we must provide meaningful, authentic opportunities for youth to be active participants in making decisions and resolving conflict.

Schools that are getting it are experiencing amazing results. Restorative justice works because these programs are centered on respect, responsibility, relationship-building, and relationship-repairing. The focus is mediation and agreement, as opposed to punishment. If a student misbehaves and a restorative justice system is in place, the offending student receives the chance to come forward and make things right.  Instead of a culture of punishment and mistrust, it’s a culture of accountability and responsibility – and training youth to be correct in their behavior.

What we now know is that positive discipline produces positive behavior. Schools that embrace restorative justice initiatives have seen suspensions decrease by 50% or more, and disrespect for teachers has declined.  Students are more focused on their studies and attend classes in greater percentage. The suspensions and expulsions which often led students to fall behind, drop-out, and enter the juvenile justice system, have subsided, putting a halt to the school-to-prison pipeline. As one educator has put it, the whole thing boils down to a shift in perspective.  It’s seeing the truth that “My student is not giving me a hard time – my student is having a hard time.” Marvin Berkowitz, the Director for the National Center for Character Education preaches to teachers all over the country that “we can’t teach through a rat.” Personal turmoil, problems at home, lack of support, abuse, and neglect – these rats come right into the school with the child. Berkowitz says that to get anywhere with a youth, we must first address the rats.  To ignore them is solid barrier to success. For change to take place, root issues must be exposed and dealt with.

Peacemaking March 1

Here at WMU Cooley, we are helping in this.  A few years back, we designed a high school Peacemaking Court that has our students supervising high school students in resolving peer conflict and other misbehavior in a positive way – one which avoids punishment. The project, in place at Avondale High School in north Oakland County, is a partnership with our Auburn Hills campus.  In the program, adults stand down.  Instead, high school students (the peacemakers) trained and supervised by law students, work with their peer to correct behavior and repair any harm. Using a circle process and a talking piece, the students work to build trust with their peer and to create a safe place for honest dialogue.  In other words, they give gentle nudge towards introspection and amends.

What typically begins as an intervention involving a closed-off, un-invested classmate, peer-to-peer, transforms into something very special. Typically, by mid-proceeding, comes recognition by the classmate that the care and support is genuine and the classmate starts to open up.  It’s like the budding of a flower. Demeanor changes and the classmate is now leaning into the circle and making eye contact. Responses grow considered and thoughtful. There begins the hint of a smile and more smiles, and laughter often erupts as bonds develop. The armor loosens and the guard comes down.

With this transformation, the real work – the heart work – can begin. Tender inquiries probe for root issues and solutions, including what needs to happen to repair any harm. The kids who spin this gold? Again, their one very special qualification is their co-peer status and with it their ability to identify –truly identify with their classmate. They, too, are works in progress – far from perfect with many mistakes of their own – and a personal character still very much under development. Often they have experienced similar problems. They can relate and can empathize.  By the same token, they can get very real very quickly and see past the malarkey. They have an uncanny knack for holding their peer accountable and for helping their classmate realize the errors in their ways and the harm not just to others, but themselves.  It is peer-generated tough love at its finest. The cheering and support upon pivotal insights, and recognition, and oftentimes tough reality checks, come from the heart.  And, from the smile on the classmate’s face, they are received in the same way. In these moments, hearts are expanding all around, in benefit of everyone. It’s the power of love – the true antithesis to exclusion and best remedy for broken soul.

Again, with peer peacemaking, what begins at opening ceremony as dubiousness and mistrust gives way to  a kind of evident joy that only comes from being basked in the care and support of others. For every case we’ve held, the tide has turned for the classmate involved. Troubling history of suspensions and in-school detentions for defiant and insubordinate behavior, have resolved themselves into new friendships,(the peacemakers)and better choices – ones that are kinder to self and more respectful of others.

Perhaps best of all –every student that is the subject of peacemaking, becomes a peacemaker, paying it forward. One such student, who came into the peacemaking process with a terrible attitude and two year record of discipline to show for it, and who was referred because the school had exhausted all other options, was so changed by the experience that he advocates peacemaking as first stop for every struggling student. He feels that had this happened for him, things would have been different, much sooner.  The high school is listening.  Thrilled with the results of the program, they would like to have peacemaking available every day of the week and we’ll work hard to make that happen.

It’s been a terrific community partnership with what are actually unsurprising but extremely gratifying results, for all concerned. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. The law students are learning to question the effectiveness of a punishment-based system in favor of a more humane approach – one that actually seeks to change behavior and repair relationships.  This s far cry from the law’s traditional focus on the offense, only, in disregard for any emotional factors involved.

The high school peacemakers are learning the same thing – that dispute resolution, in order to be effective, must be positive. Equally significant, in recognition that the role of peacemaker is an important one, which holds them out as an example, they have stepped up their own character accordingly.  They have strived to become what they stand for. Their personal growth is also product of the trust placed in them by the school.  After all, this program gives them a stake in their own school community – which in the past has been a rare, if not unheard of opportunity.  It empowers them with a voice and a role in what happens with their peers. They feel important and valued to have this responsibility – all very good and very necessary stuff for best school culture. There is a third aspect to their growth – one that at first blush might come as surprise, but not when we think it through: the peacemakers are helped by their classmate. It’s like the bumper sticker about rescue dogs that wisely poses the question: “Who rescued who?” Take the time to help someone else – and your own heart expands. Look what it did for the Grinch: his heart grew three sizes the day he finally put others first. A program like this helps to build empathy and respect, extremely important traits for assurance of a successful democracy in a country that embraces capitalism.

For the classmate who is the subject of peacemaking, the impact of this program is first seen on their face, and then in their change. Another benefit, though, is that upon successful completion of any amends, no record is kept of the incident.  This is how true second chances look.  No baggage, no stigma, and no scarlet letter; just reacceptance and a fresh start.  Equally beneficial, the classmate becomes part of the solution – serving as a peacemaker in future cases.

COA and Peacemakers

Our program has garnered both local and national attention and accolades.  It received the 2012 Eastern Leaders Group Leadership Award and was the subject of lectures and instruction at the St. Louis, Missouri National Center for Character and Citizenship as part of their Carnegie Project for Social Justice.  In addition, by request we have presented on the project at Native American Peacemaking conferences held in northern Michigan, sharing the information so that others may replicate the work.  Next January, we will be presenting on the project at a national conference of special education administrators in California.

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Law School Transforms into Actual Court: Students Get to Listen and Learn

Western Michigan University Cooley Law Tampa Bay recently got to host, for the second time, the Second District Court of Appeals. “It is a rare and amazing opportunity for students to see an actual Appellate court session with working attorneys offering oral arguments and those attorneys being asked questions by the judges,” exclaimed WMU-Cooley student Kimberly Canals Simpson.  

In fact, she felt that students and faculty alike were riveted for hours listening to the three arguments, which included two criminal cases and one civil cases. The cases were heard by Judge Edward C. LaRose, Judge Samuel J. Salario, Jr., and Judge Daniel H. Sleet.

The 120 person Courtroom Classroom at WMU-Cooley was packed with law students and local attorneys. All there to listen and learn. The three judges agreed. This is exactly the kind of opportunity every law student should experience before they ever graduate.

After the conclusion of the court session, the three judges came back into the Appellate Courtroom without their robes and allowed the Cooley students to ask any questions they had about the appellate process, what judges are looking for in an intern and many other subjects.  It was a great day to observe the Second DCA’s docket and as a fantastic opportunity to educate and train law students in court procedure.

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This is the third time in the last two year that the Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal held oral arguments at WMU-Cooley Law School’s Tampa Bay campus. The law school’s state-of-the-art courtrooms transform easily into a court site for students, attorneys, and other members of the public.

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Blue Jeans Brunch Promotes Women Empowerment and Encourages Women to “Strike a Pose”

Over 60 WMU-Cooley Law School women dressed up in their best blue jeans and braved the rain on Saturday, March 19 to join up with WMU-Cooley Professor Karen Fultz for her 2nd Annual Blue Jeans Brunch in honor of Women’s History month. The event was held in Ulele’s 2,100-square-foot spring brewery. Women enjoyed native Floridian fare as they mixed and mingled. The casual, fun gathering in downtown Tampa was designed to bring women together to network with their colleagues and to meet other women professionals in the community.

“The kick is, you have to wear blue jeans,” smiled Professor Fultz. “In order for you to feel comfortable and to get to know other women in the legal community. This is for my female students – for them to come and meet judges and lawyers in the legal community and learn how to socialize and network as they endeavor into their legal career.”

The conversation started with a robust game of Getting To Know You Bingo, and continued with a number of inspiring women speakers sharing their ideas, thoughts and words of wisdom.

Judge Claudia Isom was energized to be part of WMU-Cooley’s Blue Jeans Brunch and to see so many woman embarking on a legal career. “I am so happy to be here today because Cooley has helped make history for women in the Tampa Bay area,” proclaimed Judge Isom. “Cooley has  enabled women to go to law school and have the ultimate empowerment of being attorneys.”

Keynote speaker, Amy Reagan, associate attorney at DLA Piper, shared with the women her “Five Golden Nuggets” on how to build your brand in the legal profession. They especially liked hearing her explain why “Striking a Pose” helps put your best self forward to be poised for success.

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The word WOMAN stands for Wonderful, Outstanding, Marvelous, Adorable, and Nice female law students according to Professor Fultz. By the end of event, the rain turned to sun, and every woman was feeling every letter of that word.

Kimlyn Walker, a second-career law student at WMU-Cooley, was feeling wonderful and outstanding at the brunch as well. She was thrilled to know so many other nice women and thankful for the chance at a second career in the law.

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