No, Thomas M. Cooley Law School Did Not Make Michael Cohen A Bad Lawyer, And The Fact That Cohen Got His JD There Does Not Mean It’s A Lousy Law School

Ugh. I don’t want to argue that Cooley isn’t a lousy law school, mind you, although I don’t have anything but anecdotal data of the matters, and I certainly don’t want to defend Cohan, whom I fingered as a lousy lawyer way back in 2015. ( What A Surprise: Donald Trump Has An Unethical Lawyer!). 

No, this post is about how incompetent journalists are, how they are too frequently devoid of basic reasoning and research skills, and how, particularly when they deal with legal matters, their ignorance is frequently embarrassing while it actively misleads the public.

Politico’s Phillip Shenon, who, not surprisingly, is not a lawyer, figures he can smear three parties via guilt by association with one brush in  “Trump’s Lawyer Went to the Worst Law School in America.”  But graduates of every law school succeed and fail, and while the law schools like to take credit for them, there is every reason to believe that those grads would have succeeded or failed had they gone to better law schools, or worse ones. One graduate’s misadventures prove absolutely nothing.

Roy Cohn, who  served as Senator Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel during the infamous Army–McCarthy hearings and was later disbarred, graduated from Columbia Law School. If he had graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Shenon no doubt would have thought Cohn’s alma mater was significant, but, of course, it would be a cheap shot at McCarthy and Cohn. If Cohen had gone to Columbia, Shenon could write a piece titled “Trump’s Lawyer Went to the Same Law School As Roy Cohn.”

Bill Lerach, disbarred in the class action law suit scandal involving his law firm, was considered a champion of abused investors and a social justice crusader, until he was exposed and sent to prison. He went to the University of Pittsburgh’s law school. Did that school make him do what he did? If he had gone to Harvard, or Cooley, would he have practiced law any differently?

Let’s look at Richard Nixon’s lawyers. John Erlichmann, send to prison and disbarred, went to Stanford Law School.  John Mitchell, also locked up, also disbarred, graduated from Fordham Law. John Dean, who was sent to prison and disbarred, got his law degree at Georgetown. Speaking of Georgetown, Stephen Glass, the disgraced journalist deemed possessed of so wretched character that California declared that he can never be a lawyer and have a chance to screw up like Michael Cohen, attended t Georgetown Law Center, which, as I have written about here, has a law professor who was previously a bank robber. Thomas Cooley Law School never sank that low.  Until recently, GULC also had an adjunct ethics prof who turned out to be a meth dealer. That guy, Jack Vitayanon, got his degree at Columbia Law School, just like Roy Cohn. What a coincidence! Or is it….?

As you may know, I also got my law degree at Georgetown, so if I go rogue, you know who to blame. Wait, maybe you don’t. The one to blame will be ME.

Shenon sees great significance in the fact that Cooley has a low bar exam pass rate among its grads.

“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.”

Two points: First, since the school lets anyone who thinks they can make it through law school try, of course it has a low pass rate, just like state colleges have lower graduate rates. As a group, the student body is not as smart or well-educated  as those of more prestigious schools. If the same Cooley students who flunked the bar had gone to Columbia, or Georgetown, they still would have flunked, although they might have flunked out of law school first. That tells us nothing about Michael Cohen. Second, law school doesn’t teach what is on the bar exam. That’s why grads take bar exam prep courses, like I did. My experience was that about 50% or more of the material on the bar exam wasn’t covered in my studies, and also that everything on the exam was covered in the prep course. In other words, I could have passed the bar without three years of law school at all….or if I had graduated from Cooley, like Michael Cohen.

Shenon goes on to further prove he doesn’t know law school from a buggy whip by writing,

“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.”

Law schools do NOT teach “basic competence as a lawyer.” They don’t teach contract drafting either. Any law grad will tell you, or Shenon, if he had the diligence and competence to ask, that they graduated with virtually no skills in the practical aspects of legal practice at all. A very smart friend of mine, a lawyer and a member in good standing in the local bar, drafted a simple letter of agreement for an organization I ran. It was horrible,  but then, he was just a graduate of Georgetown.

One of the most brilliant and admirable lawyers I ever knew didn’t go to law school at all. He “read for the law,” apprenticing with a veteran lawyer, as lawyers used to do in many localities.  Now that might have done Michael Cohen some good. On the other hand, if he screwed up, Phillip Shenon would have written an article for Politico headlined, “Trump’s Lawyer Didn’t Go To Law School!”

Yes, Michael Cohen is a lousy lawyer, and probably would have been no matter what law school he graduated from. Thomas M. Cooley Law School may be a lousy law school—I haven’t attended any classes, but then neither have the journalists attacking it—but law schools can only do so much with mediocre students, and the smart, ethical ones will excel no matter where they go to school. I have a strong feeling that if I had gone to Cooley, taking poor notes during lectures, often skipping assignments, and spending much of my time and energy running a law school theater company, I’d be exactly where I am today. I would still have have passed the bar exam on my first try, and would still be a more ethical and competent lawyer than Michael Cohen.


* I just saw Above the Law’s piece about what writer Joe Patrice calls Shenon “deep profile,” which by Above the Law miserable standards is almost fair. The article is incoherent. I learned, though, that a spokesperson for the school also referenced Roy Cohn and Columbia, and Patrice’s rebuttal is “Last I checked, Columbia was still putting out students who pass the bar, something Cooley struggles with these days. That, much more than Roy Cohn’s legendary capacity to be an asshole, is how we judge a school.” Huh? Cooley also puts out students who pass the bar, and Columbia has students who flunk it. And the Politico piece used Cohen to impugn his law school, but Patrice says that it’s unfair to use Cohn to denigrate his law school.

My conclusion: both Patrice and Shenon obviously graduated from terrible journalism schools.


19 thoughts on “No, Thomas M. Cooley Law School Did Not Make Michael Cohen A Bad Lawyer, And The Fact That Cohen Got His JD There Does Not Mean It’s A Lousy Law School

  1. Law schools do NOT teach “basic competence as a lawyer.” They don’t teach contract drafting either. Any law grad will tell you, or Shenon, if he had the diligence and competence to ask, that they graduated with virtually no skills in the practical aspects of legal practice at all.

    No kidding.

    I found the bar review courses covered very little we hadn’t had in law school but they certainly refreshed all that stuff. A month of cramming, pure and simple.

    What a cheap shot at Cooley. Did anyone mention where Bill and HIll went to law school? Or tricky Dick? Can you say Yale and Duke boys and girls? Sure you can.

    • My Dad failed it, because he took it the first time without studying, hoping to save time. That was my Dad! He flunked, but passed the next time. His law school went out of business.

      • Did he by any chance have the combination of above average intelligence and learning early on the unfortunate lesson that only half-paying attention was enough to get decently good grades?

      • It seemed to me that the biggest correlation with failing the bar the first time around was that “nice guys” sometimes didn’t bring the intensity they should have to those two months.

    • A lof of the students from my first tier law school who did not yet have jobs (read: near the bottom of the rankings) took the New York Bar. (My school was in VA). This may be part of why the exam passage rates are poor in that state.

  2. My law school actually did teach contract drafting, in a class called Drafting Contracts.

    It was the best law school class ever, and frankly, the only one worth the money I wasn’t paying. (Full tuition scholarship here-Big fan of the LSAT).

  3. It appears that Mr. Cohen is the kind of lawyer that many of us in large firm practice know quite well-someone who is not particularly skilled at the legal stuff, but quite good at ingratiating himself with clients, especially important, well-paying clients.
    This isn’t a problem as long as people understand their limitations. The most successful partners in my firms have been people who were very good at meeting and greeting, playing golf, and socializing in such a way that our clients came to them with their problems because the clients trusted them and these attorneys made the clients feel comfortable, but who knew enough to direct the clients’ work to other partners or associates for the heavy lifting. These partners also made sure that their coworkers who did this heavy lifting were recognized in some manner. Everybody won.
    Mr. Cohen appears not to of had the luxury of associating with skillful counsel whom he could trust to deal with Mr. Trump. Or perhaps he was so jealous of his relationship with Mr. Trump that he simply firewalled off everyone from dealing with his most important client. Either way, the situation looks like a classic case of someone in over his head in a representation, who is unwilling or unable to reach out to get competent assistance.
    In my experience, these situations are particularly challenging because often the client relationship starts out with a problem that the attorney IS qualified to handle and handles relatively well. It requires a particular level of maturity to step back from the client relationship and realize that your good work in one instance does not translate into your ability to do good work in all instances. An attorney’s judgment in making that kind of assessment is often clouded by the desire for credit from the client, the desire for credit from other members of the firm or within the legal community, the fear of losing the client once she is exposed to other counsel who might be better at particular tasks, etc. I personally have had the situation arise many times, and it can be a struggle to remind yourself that the interest of the client always trumps your personal desires or incentives.
    This is an excellent example of an all too common legal ethics issue that I suspect Jack will incorporate into his program.

  4. I learned very quickly that school is mostly what you put into it. When I was in basic training, I went to Fort Jackson, SC. This was not my choice (not that I would have known the difference). When I ended up going to AIT at Fort Lee, I learned a lot of people thought that Fort Jackson was a joke. At the time we were the only basic training facility that had girls. People had other names for it such as relaxing Jackson.

    When it came to PT, I found that I was in better shape that quite a few people there. I didn’t consider myself alethic or anything (didn’t even do any sports in high school). I just did what the program asked of me.

    In undergrad, I was first in my major (there were 12 of us). I was the only one to go on to graduate school. Of the 11, five have better-paying jobs, one was allowed to walk early but was expected to finish in the summer (last I heard, he never did), and the other five are working in a different field.

    By the time I started graduate school, I had a child. I decided, I just needed to pass. I finished with a B average and I am ok with that.

    I have never been asked my GPA. I have never been asked what I did or didn’t do in college. If people ask about my service, it almost always refers to my time in Iraq. I also learned, that while the school has helped tremendously prepare me for my job, there are numerous things I have learned from doing it, that I was never taught in school. I assumed this was common knowledge from anyone who has ever gone to school and held a job. This is an unfair attack on Cooley and Cohen and seems to be just another way of “otherizing” by the resistance.

    • My best friend English professor was still spitting mad in his eighties that, despite the fact he’d finished first in his undergrad class at Duke, NO ONE had ever asked hi in a job interview during his entire working (publishing) and teaching career what his class rank had been. Really funny.

  5. Well, Cooley is a horrible law school. It really is the law school of last resort in Michigan, but the fact that Trump’s lawyer went there is pretty immaterial.

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