| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed

Features

Cooley Law School finds success in diversity

George Jay Storms

Brent Thomas Geers

Lou Danner

George Jay Storms

Brent Thomas Geers

Lou Danner

While affirmative action policies in higher education have grabbed headlines and made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court over the last decade, Cooley Law School has quietly been recruiting, retaining, and graduating the highest number of minority candidates in the nation. Find out how and why the school is transforming the local legal scene, and meet three of the law school's most recent graduates as Stephanie Doublestein reports.
When George Storms graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in January, he joined the ranks of thousands of attorneys who have graduated from the Michigan-based law school since the school’s inception 40 years ago. But when he passed the bar on his first try in February and became an associate with local firm Willison and Hellman in September, he became the first out-of-state minority graduate of Cooley to be hired by a Grand Rapids firm.
 
Nelson Miller, associate dean at Cooley’s Grand Rapids campus, says the school has graduated 60 African-American attorneys in the ten years it’s been in Grand Rapids – a larger number than were already members of the Grand Rapids Bar Association. In fact, Cooley’s success in recruiting, retaining, and graduating minority students has earned it national attention, as the law school leads the nation in most minority graduates, outranking Harvard and Georgetown in addition to other well-respected schools.
 
“Justice Cooley himself, our namesake, was kind of a people’s judge. He said that law has to represent the thought of the common person,” says Miller. “It cannot represent the elite; it won’t be respected as law if we don’t have an inclusive profession and a justice system that represents the people.”
 
To that end, Miller says access and inclusion have been a part of the school’s mission since “day one,” and he says the school achieves such high rates of success for two reasons: recruitment and support. Cooley maintains relationships with a number of historically black colleges and universities, and increases its pool of minority candidates not by maintaining a quota system or offering race-based scholarships but through a unique, two-week professional exploration program (PEP), which reaches out to students who don’t quite qualify for admission based on GPA or LSAT score but may still be successful at the school.
 
Storms, an Alfred University graduate hailing from the East Coast, was just that kind of a student. He readily admits that he didn’t enter law school with a perfect GPA from undergrad, yet he didn’t let that stop him from finding success.
 
“I saw no real correlation between GPA and law school performance,” he says. “Law school is a whole different beast. Success in law school is determined by intelligence, work ethic, and overall drive to become an attorney.” Storms says he relied not on study groups or the academic resource center – though those are offered at Cooley – but on the support, accessibility and commitment of his professors.
 
“It was an unbelievable experience with regards to the professors there who gave me assistance outside of the classroom. They really pointed me in the right direction and . . . because of them, I had externships, a clerkship with a judge, and those things gave me the experience I needed,” says Storms.
 
Lou Danner, who earned his JD from Cooley in May 2013, echoes that sentiment. “I found it to be a family kind of environment,” he says – which is just the kind of support the Detroit native was looking for.
 
Danner was initially drawn to law school because some of his family members had been in and out of the court system, often incarcerated, and he knew he didn’t want to be in that environment. Then, during his undergraduate years at Northwood University in Midland, Danner found a mentor. “She was an attorney and was the first black person I saw who was successful and she was a lawyer. So I knew it was something I wanted to do,” says Danner.
 
When his financial situation dictated that he remain in state, Cooley became his best option. Danner worked 45 hours per week during his first semester at Cooley, then cut back to part-time throughout the rest of his tenure at the school, balancing a job with rigorous classes and the internships and externships the school requires. He thinks drawing more minorities to the profession can only happen with an honest discussion about the kind of work it takes to become an attorney, and by having that conversation much earlier.
 
“I think it has to start even before college,” he says. “You have to start in high school. It takes a village to raise a law student.” And Danner, who just became a member of the bar in late November and set up a solo practice in Holland, thinks those law students should ideally resemble the village they’ll one day serve.
 
“When American society is a patchwork of so many different types of people, if the judges and the attorneys and jurors aren’t representative, and if the system itself isn’t fair and equal, then just one class of people is making all the decisions,” says Danner.
 
Another recent Cooley graduate, Grand Rapids native Brent Geers, says there’s already a perception in some communities that the legal system as a whole is unjust. “That’s heightened when people go into a courtroom or courthouse and don’t see anyone who looks like them. It’s vital that there are people present in the system that share connections with different groups,” says Geers, a Creston High and University of Michigan graduate who has been practicing law in Grand Rapids since 2012.
 
Geers says he never set out to be a game-changer. “My desire has always been strictly to practice law. I’m not out to revolutionize it,” he says. But Geers does believe that being a solo, minority practitioner in Grand Rapids allows him to be accessible to a population that may not otherwise know where to turn for legal help.
 
“One of the most important things anyone can do is just be present and be seen. That can do a lot to change people’s perception,” he says. “When I walk into a courtroom and people see white male, white male, white male, black male, female, it sends a message that it’s not a closed society, that it’s very possible for me or my son or daughter to do this.”
 
All three recent graduates say challenges remain. The economy is difficult for new attorneys, with individual clients and corporations having less discretionary income to spend on attorney fees. And Danner and Storms have found West Michigan to be a slower-paced, close-knit environment where relationships take longer to form and the culture tends toward the conservative.
 
Dean Miller doesn’t discount economic or cultural challenges to the school’s goal of growing the local pool of highly skilled lawyers of every race and culture. But he is confident that, with dedicated recruiting and a supportive environment, the school will continue to achieve success in transforming the West Michigan legal community one graduate at a time.

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts