Category Archives: The Value of a Legal Education

Highlights the value and benefits of a legal education at Cooley Law School. Cooley’s rigorous program of legal instruction taught by experienced practitioners equips its students with the knowledge, skills, and ethics needed to practice law competently and effectively.

Contracts quintessential first-year course: Law school professor makes his case

WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Otto StockmeyerBlog author WMU-Cooley Distinguished Professor Emeritus Otto Stockmeyer presented a paper at the 2017 annual conference of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts & Letters, held March 10, 2017, on the campus of Western Michigan University. He titled his presentation “Reflections on Teaching the First Day of Contracts Class.” Professor Stockmeyer offered his thoughts on why he believes Contracts is the most significant course in the first-year curriculum, why the study of contract law should begin with the subject of remedies, and why Hawkins v. McGee (the “hairy hand” case made famous by the book and movie versions of The Paper Chase) makes an ideal starting point.

In my view, Contracts is the quintessential first-year course. It presents an excellent introduction to the common law and legal reasoning. The course is foundational to several upper-level courses, and the best predictor of law school success.  Lawyers have reported that they use Contracts in their practice almost twice as much as any other law school subject.

Although traditionalists begin the course with offer and acceptance, there are both pedagogical and practical reasons to start with remedies. Studying remedies is not easy going for beginning students, who tend to hate working with numbers. But they tell me that they like difficult topics placed early in the term so they have longer to process the material.

The most important reason to start with remedies is the opportunity to begin the first day’s class with Hawkins v. McGee.

Here are my Top Ten reasons why:

10. The opinion immediately demonstrates to beginning students their need for a law dictionary. The first paragraph alone contains five legal terms.

9. The opinion shows how judges sometimes load their opinions with empty overstatements, such as “clearly” and “obviously” when the facts were neither.

8. The opinion demonstrates the process of analysis that courts employ when direct legal authority is lacking.

7. The opinion allows an early exploration of some distinctions between tort (medical malpractice) and contract (promise of 100 percent success) in a context readily understood by beginning students.

6. The opinion revolves around two of the central themes in Contract law: the objective theory of assent and the expectation objective of contract remedies.

5. The opinion is an excellent introduction to remedies and the difference between tort and contract damages.

4. The opinion illustrates that general principles are easier to state than to apply.

3. The opinion has more poignancy than the commercial disputes that will follow.

2. The case has a rich subsequent history that can be explored as time permits.

1. Three words: The Paper Chase. Many students will have read the book or rented the movie. They expect Contracts to begin with a study of the “hairy hand” case. Disappoint them the first day and they may question their choice of law schools.

The Paper Chase

The movie version of this law school classic contains two scenes that I’ve used in my class. The first is Professor Kingsfield’s ‘skull full of mush’ explanation of why law schools use the Socratic method. That needs to be addressed the first day.

The second is Kingsfield’s encounter with a student, Mr. Hart. After recapping the facts of Hawkins v. McGee, Kingsfield asks, ‘Now Mr. Hart, what sort of damages do you think the doctor should pay?’

I then would call on several students and ask whether Mr. Hart gave the right answer (no, he didn’t). The ice having been broken, another term of Contracts has been successfully launched.

Read the full text of Professor Stockmeyer’s paper on the Social Science Research Network.

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So, You Want to Be a Criminal Lawyer? Seven Things Your Law School Should Offer

krause-phelan_tonyaBlog author WMU-Cooley Law School Auxiliary Dean and Professor Tonya Krause-Phelan teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Defending Battered Women, Criminal Sentencing, and Ethics in Criminal Cases. She coaches national mock trial and moot court teams with the West Michigan Defenders Clinic and frequently appears as a commentator on numerous radio, television, print, and internet media sources regarding criminal law and procedure issues.

When I attended law school in the late ’80s, becoming a criminal practitioner was probably the least desired career choice a law student could make. At that time, many law students, law professors, and practitioners alike thought that the only people who would “settle” for a job as a public defender or as a prosecutor were those who could not get a job with a mega-firm or as in-house counsel for a Fortune 500 company.

Because I knew when I went to law school I wanted to be a public defender, I followed my passion instead of conventional wisdom. I was fortunate enough to land a job right out of law school as a public defender.  Eventually, I went into private practice, where I specialized in criminal defense. But, I never gave up my passion for indigent defense, and as a result, I continued to accept court-appointed cases. Throughout my many years of practice, criminal practitioners continued to be viewed as a sub-category of lawyers.

But, nothing could be further from the truth. Criminal practitioners are some of the most passionate, dedicated, and talented lawyers in the profession. After all, practicing in the area of criminal law is not for the faint of heart; it is one of the most demanding, challenging, and specialized areas of practice with clients’ lives and liberty literally hanging in the balance. With everything known today about DNA exoneration cases, mistaken identification cases, police shootings, and other systemic and ethical challenges facing the criminal justice system, people have changed their minds about public defenders, criminal defense lawyers, and prosecutors. Today people are actually deciding to attend law school for the specific purpose of becoming a criminal practitioner.

For those who want to become a criminal practitioner, they should look for a law school that does everything possible to adequately prepare its students for the rigors of a criminal practice. Whether a law school advertises itself as a “practice ready” school or not, several factors foretell a school’s pledge to preparing its students for criminal practice. Prospective law students interested in practicing criminal law should consider the following factors:

  1. Experienced Faculty: Professors who have practiced in the field are uniquely qualified to provide students with a practical context in which to learn substantive criminal law. Learn whether the professors who teach Criminal Law and Procedure practiced criminal law prior to becoming full-time faculty members.  Also, determine whether the school’s adjunct faculty are criminal practitioners. By hiring criminal law practitioners to serve as adjunct faculty, a law school demonstrates its dedication to keeping its curriculum current and relevant.
  2. Criminal Law-based Clinics: Ensure the law school hosts a clinic that focuses on criminal law, usually public defender or prosecutor clinics. Because many states allow students to work under the direct supervision of a licensed attorney, this type of clinical experience provides students with the ability to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned in the classroom to real-life, real-time clients.
  3. Innocence Project: Several law schools run Innocence Project programs. In these programs students have the responsibility to investigate and process cases for individuals who have been wrongfully convicted. Nothing speaks louder about a law school’s commitment to the efficacy of the criminal justice system than its commitment to representing individuals who should not have been convicted and need assistance in gaining their freedom.
  4. A Strong Skills-based Program: Law schools that are committed to developing strong criminal practitioners will also have a strong skills-based program. Look at the classes the law school requires students to complete. A curriculum that requires several research and writing, trial and appellate advocacy, and other skills-based courses demonstrates that the school is preparing its students for practice.
  5. Community Collaboration and Engagement: Look to see if the law school regularly engages with community organizations and events.   By hosting and participating in events that foster interaction with community organizations, local leaders, and members of the criminal justice system, a law school demonstrates a strong responsibility to fostering and improving an ethical and dedicated criminal justice system.  Look to see if the law school has hosted or participated in round-table and panel discussions, town hall-style meetings, and lecture series that include such people as police officers, judges, criminal practitioners, and experts within the criminal justice system.
  6. Proximity to Local Courthouses, Legal Community, and Organizations: If a law school is close to courthouses, law firms, and other legal entities, law students will more likely augment their educational opportunities by visiting local courthouse, watching trials and other legal proceedings, connect with members of the bar, and become student members of local bar organizations, events, and public service opportunities.  Observing how lawyers conduct cases helps students develop their own skills.
  7. Strong Alumni Base: Finally, many law schools provide prospective students with a list of alumni. Ask the law school to provide you with a list of alumni who are practicing criminal law and contact them. Not only can alumni answer questions about practicing criminal law, they can discuss whether the school adequately prepared them for criminal practice.  Ask their advice regarding which elective classes to take, clinics or externships to apply for, and which extra-curricular activities most adequately prepared them for criminal practice.

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Military Feature Brent Geers: Problem Solver at Heart

WMU-Cooley, as a military friendly and designated Yellow Ribbon School, talks to its military students, faculty and graduates about their journey from the military to law school and about their career goals. This month’s feature is WMU-Cooley graduate Brent Geers, a U.S. Army Sergeant and Police Team Leader who was awarded the Combat Action Badge, and is a four-time recipient of the Army Commendation Medal.

Military rank and title: SGT (E-5), U.S. Army, Military Police Team Leader/Patrol Supervisor

Why did you decide to go to law school: I’ve always been intrigued with the law in the sense that it’s a puzzle, and I like putting puzzles together. At its best, you get five out of the six pieces you need to complete the puzzle; you – the lawyer – get to create that sixth piece. I consider myself a problem solver at heart. WMU-Cooley presented the perfect opportunity to study law while working and being home to take care of family. Additionally, the courses and professionals provided exposure to real-world law from Day One, something that as an independent attorney, is something I greatly appreciate.

Tell us about your military experience: I served on active duty for five years in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps. My duty placed me in Baumholder, Germany and Fort Knox, Kentucky, with deployments to Iraq from 2003-2004 and Afghanistan from 2005-2006. My military honors include the Valorous Unit Award as part of the 527th Military Police Company for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy, and the Griffin Award as part of the 92nd Military Police Company for being the best MP unit in the U.S. Army – Europe command. I was awarded the Combat Action Badge, and am a four-time recipient of the Army Commendation Medal. While my initial intent for joining the Army was to become a CID Warrant Office, my first four years saw me assigned to what are called field MP units – convoy escorts, EPW operations, perimeter security, etc. – and so I did very little traditional law enforcement. That all changed when I arrived at Fort Knox as a twice-deployed Sergeant. Fort Knox was a training post, and the MPs assigned there did nothing but traditional law enforcement. I immediately was assigned to be a Patrol Supervisor – the equivalent of a shift supervisor – and was responsible for up to five patrols per shift. Like the police we see out here, we were “the law” at Fort Knox, responding to everything from domestic violence incidents to suicides and medical assists 24 hours a day.

Career and future goals: Long term, I want to be a district court judge. I see the district court as the place to make the most positive impact on people. District court judges have a lot more tools at their disposal to help people besides straight punishment. For now, and for the duration of my career, I enjoy helping people empower those they trust, and help them provide for those they love; specifically through estate planning. I am also focused on building a thriving criminal appellate practice.

Tell us a little about you:  I am the father to my 14-month-old daughter Marlena, and husband to my wife of almost five years, Ronda. I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and am a proud product of the Grand Rapids Public Schools (Creston High School). I graduated from the University of Michigan as a first-generation college student, earning a B.A. in American Culture, with a minor in African American Studies. I also spent a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer working locally on adult literacy and neighborhood improvement issues before joining the U.S. Army.

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Weekend Program student Jake Dawson: Preparation. Provided. Perfect.

2016 WMU-Cooley Law School graduate and Weekend student Jake Dawson talks about his time at WMU-Cooley and how the weekend option and his extership experience in Missouri made all the difference in a challenging and rewarding career working in the family firm of Dawson Law Office in El Dorado Springs, Missouri.
Jacob Dawson from Dawson Law Office

I came to WMU-Cooley for one reason, and one reason only – the Weekend Program.

I got accepted to a lot of schools in my area, but the thought of being unemployed scared me, so when I found out that WMU-Cooley offered a weekend program, I jumped on it.

Fast forward, after graduating from WMU-Cooley Law School in 2016, I took the Missouri Bar Exam. I am proud to say that I passed that bar on my first try with an extremely high score. I was able to start my career immediately, and in less than a year, I can also say that I have been extremely busy, and enjoying every minute of it.
I decided when I graduated that I wanted to work in small town Southern Missouri, despite the fact that several large firms in the area approached me with job opportunities.

The law school’s national Externship Program was invaluable to me, plus I was able to do my externship in my home state of Missouri. I worked with a circuit court judge there and it was the best experience ever. I figure I received 10 job opportunities just from that experience alone! I have to say that the combination of the real world experience I received in my externship and the networking opportunities are exactly what students need in law school. The jobs are out there, and I appreciated all the help WMU-Cooley provides its students.

Easily, I know that I would not be at the level I am right out of law school if not for the education I received at WMU-Cooley. The focus on preparation was exactly what is needed in practice. Despite the fact that I’ve only been working for 90 days, I feel I am significantly more prepared than any of my colleagues who have been practicing much longer. I owe that to the law school’s rigorous curriculum and training. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to take a trial skills class or participate in mock trial. I feel students should take advantage of all they can during law school to give them an advantage going forward.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the faculty. They were great in the classroom and one-on-one. I can still reach out to them now as a graduate. In fact, I have had some extremely complex issues arise where I needed a theoretical academic opinion. Gracious faculty made themselves available and promptly and thoughtfully answered my questions. The character and integrity of the faculty should be commended. To have an academic, theoretical discussion with me speaks volume, especially since I’m no longer a student or preparing for the bar.

I thank WMU-Cooley for giving a non-traditional weekend student like me the opportunity to go to such an exceptional law school, all while I continue to work. The curriculum and faculty at WMU-Cooley Law School, in my opinion, rank right up there with any law school in the country.

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Success as a New Solo – Five Essentials!

Professor Gary Bauer

WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Gary Bauer, a recent ABA Solo and Small Firm Trainer award winner, teaches Estate Planning to third-year law students and a directed study class he created called Solo By Design.

His blog, sololawyerbydesign.com, provides law students, recent solo practitioners, and seasoned professionals who wish to go solo, with information and resources to be successful in the legal business. This blog was first published on Feb. 16, 2017 at sololawyerbydesign.com.

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

You just passed the Bar and now you have a license to practice law. If you want long term success, here are what I believe are the top five essential ingredients for a successful practice.

First, Find Where Your Passion and Excitement Intersect with the Economic Realities You Will Face.

It is not enough alone to want to change the world by defending the oppressed. You need to connect that passion with a way to manage student debt and put food on the table. If you can live off what you produce in your practice – fine. But, if your passion includes supporting a family and ultimately planning for your retirement, passion and excitement alone are not enough. It is a good start, but the graveyard of exhausted and disheartened former lawyers is full of those who failed to weigh and balance their passion with the other demands and realities of their lives. The best way to guarantee professional success is to do what you enjoy doing the most that allows you to make a good living.

Second, Limit Your Scope of Practice to Maximize Your Efficiency and Competence.

Too many new lawyers take whatever comes through their door. Niche practice is not just trendy. It is commonplace these days because the competitive nature of legal practice no longer mitigates in favor of generalized legal practice. It is nearly impossible to stay abreast of all the developments in the law in such broad areas of practice as family law, bankruptcy, estate planning, debt collection and landlord-tenant law. Yet you will find attorneys who advertise for all of these areas of practice and more. Thirty years ago you could open a practice and compete offering services in all of those areas. But those times are gone. Now, you compete on the internet with services that appear to have all the benefits of compilation and advice without the high cost of seeking professional services from a lawyer. In addition, you are competing more and more with other specialists. If you were seeking a divorce and given the choice between someone who advertises practice expertise in six or eight areas of law including family law and someone who advertises services only for males seeking divorce; as a male seeking a divorce who would you contact?

When marketing your firm as a general practitioner, who is your potential audience? It is true, this expands your potential area of influence. But, omit those who would choose a specialist when given the chance. Also, when you find you have a medical condition and your health is at stake, wouldn’t you seek the opinion of a specialist? If the opinion you got was from a general practitioner, how much would you be willing to pay compared to a specialist? The same is true of a general practice lawyer. The expectation is that, since you don’t specialize your fees should be less. Counting yourself among all the other general practice lawyers also means that, unless you can distinguish yourself from your competition, you will not be able to charge any more than the competitors down the street. And as a general practice lawyer, you will not be able to distinguish yourself in every area of practice that you offer your clients.

When advertising, as someone who specializes, you can tailor your message to address the pain points of your clients in unique and targeted ways. You can find publications or websites that draw the specific type of person you wish to reach with a message tailored to meet those individuals needs. When you reach them with your tailored message, they will be drawn to you for your unique skills and not by price alone. As a result, you are no longer competing with every other attorney in your area on price alone.

Third, Find the Identity and Brand That Fits You.

Too many attorneys have no brand at all or a brand that does not suit their personality or style of practice. Ask any court clerk about any attorney and they will tell you how their characteristics play out in reality. If you want to know your brand, first be yourself and not in the style of what you perceive to be the norm for a lawyer. Too many new grads assume the persona of how they believe someone with a law degree should interact with others. And too often, it means that they are aggressive, impolite and demanding. They do this because their law school professors projected that persona in law school and demonstrated a demanding and aggressive style while using the Socratic method of teaching.

Step back and evaluate yourself before law school. Find the real you. When you do, display that thoughtful, caring persona out as you engage clients, opponents, judges and, yes, court clerks. You know how confused and worried you were when you first started law school? Now that you are out in the field practicing law, it is OK to tell others that you don’t know all the answers. In fact, you know very few of the answers when you first start out. You will continue to learn each day that you practice. Every day will present new challenges with legal concepts or applications of the law that you had never considered before.

Finding your brand is like trying on different suits until you find one that feels right to you – but most important, feels right to your clients. How do you know if you have found it? If you are true to yourself and candid about your insecurities (at the appropriate times), the real you will come out. Ask the court clerk what they find most appealing about your personality? How would they describe you to a potential client? That is your brand – become aware of it and sell it.

Fourth, Produce High Quality Legal Work and Bill Accordingly.

If you feel you can just get by practicing law on the margins – you are right! We see it every day in the courts or when opposing counsel calls us clearly unaware of how the law works in their case. They find the judges telling them what to do in court or pointing out the legal or procedural mistakes they made in pursuit of their client’s objectives. Often their clients stand by their sides unaware of the very real damage that their lawyer did by missing deadlines or misunderstanding the law. The level of professionalism in the courts is quite diverse and often discouraging to someone like myself who trains law students how to practice law. Yet, many of those attorneys who are producing unsatisfactory legal work still find themselves fully booked with clients in spite of their inadequacies. That is not to say that they are highly successful. Many times, these are the lawyers who are struggling financially and end up being sanctioned by the state bar or sued for malpractice.

If you apply yourself, obtain good mentorship, communicate often and competently with your clients, and pay attention to business management principles, you will set yourself apart from those who practice on the margins. Your client base will continue to increase every year and you will not have to attract clients by pricing yourself below the competition. Survival will not be your goal and minimal competence will not be your standard if you work hard to do well. There are no short cuts.

Fifth, Keep Your Expenses Low, but Don’t Be Afraid to Spend Money to make Money.

Opening a law office can be very stressful, but don’t make the mistake of substituting STUFF for why the client comes to see you. Once in your office and your counseling session begins, all that stuff around you disappears. The focus is on you, not your stuff. That means that if you can get by with a laptop computer that you used in law school to do your work initially, then don’t buy a new one. If you can find someone to give you a broom closet for your office at low cost when you start out, then make the best of it.  Case management software isn’t going to help you make money when you first start out, but down the road as your client base expands and tracking a lot of open files in various states of development may require that you spend the money to access that resource to be able to use your time more efficiently billing for legal work and less on administrative work – which leads to hiring someone to help you. Resist at all costs hiring a full time employee until you absolutely need one. When you find you are spending hours doing what a high school student can do instead of billable work for your clients – it may be time to consider hiring someone and spending the money to make more money.

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New Zealand Land, Culture & People True Adventure

WMU-Cooley law students have jumped into their study abroad experience with both feet, warmly embracing this special land. Nothing short of an adventure, New Zealand’s changeable landscapes and experiences have been life changing. The challenging international courses have been enlightening and the world down under breathtaking with the richness of its oceans, mountains, ferns, and its multi-cultural, open and friendly citizenry.

Students were based in Hamilton, New Zealand, on the campus of the University of Waikato for their classroom experience, but their educational experience traveled far and wide.

Students compared Chinese & New Zealand law and New Zealand International Trade. They learned about the United Nations and Indigenous Rights. By the end of the term, they were making presentations in the state-of-the-art courtroom in the new law building. But that was just the start of their adventure in learning.

Travels included trips to the world-famous Raglan beach, Mount Manganui, touring the Marlborough wine region, absailing into Waitomo Caves, bungy jumping in Queenstown. It took their breath away!

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Students learned about Maori culture and legal systems. They were invited onto the Kirrikirriroa Marae, where they were formally welcomed and allowed to participate in part of an alternative sentencing workshop with criminal offenders. They visited the Maori Land Court, where they shared Hongi and tea with Court staff and Judge Stephanie Milroy.

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Students visited law firm McCaw Lewis, where they shared a meal with attorneys. They even learned to play cricket. During their last week, Dean Wayne Rumbles hosted a BBQ for the WMU-Cooley students at his home, where he cooked for the students and shared laughter and fellowship.

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Aeoteara/New Zealand will stay in the hearts of WMU-Cooley students and faculty as they move on to Melbourne for more adventure!

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PricewaterhouseCoopers Puts WMU-Cooley Grads to Good Work

From offices towering more than 30 floors above the heart of downtown Detroit, four WMU-Cooley Law School graduates practice their skills at the second largest professional services firm in the world, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). READ MORE in the Winter 2016 Benchmark Alumni Magazine (pages 8-11). 

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PwC is a network of firms in 157 countries with more than 200,000 employees. In Michigan, PwC has over 800 employees working in three core lines of service: tax, assurance, and advisory. When PwC’s Detroit office needs to fill the ranks in its tax division, Tim Pratcshler, principal in PwC’s state and local tax group, focuses his attention on recruiting top talent from colleges and universities, including law schools.

Tim Pratcshler, principal in PwC’s state and local tax group, talks about the qualities he looks for when hiring an attorney.

Justin Call (Coleman Class, 2009), Andrew Lane (Sharpe Class, 2008), Jennifer Paillon (Trimble Class, 2015), and Albert (A.J.) Robison (Johnson Class, 2013) are among the nearly 200 professionals who make up PwC’s tax practice for the company’s greater Michigan market.

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Justin Call (Coleman Class, 2009), talks about WMU-Cooley’s rigorous, but confidence building, legal education.

Andrew Lane (Sharpe Class, 2008), talks about the experience and quality of the professors.

Jennifer Paillon (Trimble Class, 2015), talks about the non-traditional path she took before she was able to fulfill her dream of being an attorney.

Albert (A.J.) Robison (Johnson Class, 2013), talks about how WMU-Cooley’s well-connected professors led him to a job at PwC.

 

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