Cooley's new dean is not your father's dean

Name another law school dean who played for a band that opened for R.E.M. (Not once, but twice…)

Name another law school dean who owned a nightclub that only booked bands that did not do covers. (Unless the covers were very bizarre…)

Name another law school dean who has had multiple arrests for gay-rights activism. (No convictions, he points out…)

We’re guessing it would be hard to find another law school dean with the resume of James McGrath, who was recently named dean and president of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School.

Or, as McGrath theorizes, maybe he’s not all that unusual: “It could be most are not as forthcoming.”

Nope, we’re not buying.

By most indications, McGrath would seem a rarity when it comes to being at the top of the legal education pyramid. A good number of deans, for instance, are graduates of the nation’s more prestigious law schools, such as Harvard and Yale.

McGrath, who is white, went to Howard University School of Law. He was drawn to the historically black law school in Washington, D.C. because that’s where so much social activism has taken place.

“I wanted to go to a school where people did it best,” he said.

Openly gay, he took part in a number of protests back in the day, when the AIDS epidemic was exploding, and government was moving sluggishly to address it.

Hence, the arrests.

“You’re supposed to get arrested,” he said. “If don’t get arrested, you’re not doing it right.”

None of this caused Cooley to hesitate, it appears. When he interviewed, he felt immediately at home, he said.

“I felt like I knew everyone. We laughed. We had a good time.”

Leaving the interview, he felt either he had a chance at the job or he gave them a bit of a break from the drudgery of dean searching.

It turned out to the former. (Or maybe both ...) 

He replaces Don LeDuc, who retired after 16 years serving as WMU-Cooley’s president and dean. Indeed, it’s not as if Cooley changes up leadership all that often. McGrath, who starts in July, is just the school’s sixth dean and third president.

His resume is hardly limited to rock ‘n roll and activism, mind you. He has an undergraduate degree in psychology from San Jose State and an LL.M. in Graduate Legal Education from Temple. He’s currently a professor of law and dean for academic support, bar passage and compliance at Texas A&M University School of Law.

(The ultimate bar passage rate for that school’s Class of 2016? It was 94 percent.)

His job at Cooley will be demanding in that he’ll serve both as president and dean, but he feels he’s got all the bases covered. For one, he’s got an entrepreneurial background, given he ran a business. And he’s both schooled and experienced in graduate legal education, which he feels needs to be more progressive.

Cooley poses other challenges, though. Once the nation’s largest law school, it got hit hard when the legal education crisis hit. It once enrolled nearly 4,000 students, but that number dropped to 1,285 in 2016.

In 2014, it closed its Ann Arbor, Michigan, campus. Its main campus is in East Lansing, Michigan, and it has satellite campuses in the Michigan towns of Grand Rapids, Auburn Hills and Kalamazoo, as well as Tampa, Fla.

Though private, it’s affiliated with Kalamazoo-based Western University, a move done to shore up the standings of both schools.

Cooley needed shoring up. Not only did enrollment drop, the school was accused by the American Bar Association (ABA) of taking students who did not appear capable of completing law school or passing the bar. Later, the ABA and Cooley resolved the issue after the school took steps to improve admission standards. Still, it’s bar passage remains a concern. Just 42 percent of its 2018 grads passed.

Finally, Cooley made national news because one of graduates has had a hard time of it lately. That would be Michael Cohen, President Trump’s so-called “Fixer.”

That led Politico to blare this headline: “Trump’s Lawyer Went to the Worst Law School in America.”

Ouch.

Naturally, McGrath is aware of all of this. Indeed, taking on such a challenge is one of the reasons he was drawn to Cooley, he said. His involvement in academic support makes the school a great fit, he said.

As noted, he wants to incorporate more advanced teaching methods and has gotten 100 percent faculty support, he said. That’s key to making improvements.

Being openly gay has not been an issue at all, he added. McGrath, who is married and has a daughter, joins select company when it comes to heading a law school. Anthony Niedwiecki, dean of Golden Gate University School of Law, is also openly gay. There may be more, but it appears to be a small number nonetheless.  

McGrath finds the distinction to be a bit embarrassing, he said. Lots of deans were gay in the past, but they just weren’t open. Still, he said he’s proud to be out and open.

His hiring is all about improving Cooley, not breaking barriers.

“We’re not looking to be a top tier law school,” he said. “We’re looking to produce practice-ready lawyers who will be prepared to pass the bar the first time.”

Photo courtesy of WMU-Cooley Law School 

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