S.J. Finnessey is a graduate of Cooley’s 2000 Cushing Class. Since graduation, he has gone on to a fulfilling career, one highlight of which was his admission on April 16, 2012 to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court as part of the Cooley Alumni Association bar admission program. Following his admission to the Supreme Court, S.J. sent this letter of thanks to Cooley’s founder, Hon. Thomas E. Brennan. We proudly publish S.J.’s letter with his permission.
December 21, 2012
Hon. Thomas E. Brennan
Founder, Former President, Dean Emeritus
Thomas M. Cooley Law School
Dear Judge Brennan,
Thank you for starting Thomas M. Cooley Law School. If you had not taken that first step to start Cooley, I would not be where I am today. In addition to becoming a lawyer with a steady and successful job with the State of New York, Cooley has given me the opportunities to quadruple my income over the past decade and a half. I was making about $9.00 an hour as an inside contractor salesman in a hardware store and then switched to working full-time as a police officer in a small town before attending Cooley. Now, I make well over $80,000 per year while still doing the things I love – fighting crime and helping people. I’m not making as much as my opponents who pull down well more than twice what I make, but I’m happy doing what I do.
Along the way, I have helped many women and children as an assistant district attorney, fighting domestic violence and sex abuse. Because of Cooley, I was able to help a 6-year old girl face her abuser in a criminal trial and send her abuser to prison. It was a heart-wrenching case, and I was clearly the right prosecutor in the right place at the right time for that little girl. If not for your starting Cooley, and if not for Cooley’s giving me the opportunity to go to law school, I would never have been there to help her. The right prosecutor would not have been in the right place at the right time.
I have also helped make classrooms safer for students by ending the careers of predator teachers. As a senior attorney for the New York State Education Department, I have been prosecuting disciplinary cases against teachers and school administrators regarding their moral character. Many of the teachers I administratively prosecute today have had inappropriate sexual relationships with their students.
Because of Cooley, I was able to help a woman seek justice against her school counselor who had sexually abused her 30 years prior to her coming forward to report his abuse. Even when the criminal justice system failed her due to statute of limitations, and even when others doubted her belated reporting, I was able to take his school counseling license away, giving her a sense of justice.
Because of Cooley, I was able to get admitted to the bar of the United States Supreme Court and have both of my parents witness my swearing in. I cannot thank you, Associate Dean James Robb, who stood in Court to move my admission, and Professors Amy Timmer and Ronald Bretz, who sponsored my candidacy, enough for that. I was sworn in with Bart Stupak, a former Michigan State Trooper, who was an inspiration to me when I was a student at Cooley even though I had never met or known him personally. Making the decision to leave my full-time job as a police officer was tough, but knowing that another former law enforcement officer had made it through Cooley and gone on to become a lawyer and United States Congressman was inspirational and encouraging to me. The swearing-in ceremony in Washington, followed by the tour of the U.S. Capitol Building that Cooley also arranged for my parents and me, is a memory I will cherish forever.
The only time you and I have ever really met face to face was when you handed me my diploma in September 2000. That moment – when I walked across the Commencement stage – was special. You see, my paternal grandfather passed away on the night of my high school graduation, and just as I was about to get my high school diploma, my dad was taken out of our high school gym by a police officer who had been tasked with informing my dad of my grandfather’s passing. So my dad missed my getting my diploma in 1987. Thus it was extra special for me when my dad saw me get my law degree at Cooley in September 2000. I can remember waving to my parents in the upper deck of the 6th floor of the law school Temple Building as if it were yesterday. And then you shook my hand – and handed me my law degree. When I got back to my apartment that night, I unrolled my diploma and stared at it for hours. I felt as if I had lived out the final scenes of the movie “The Paper Chase,” which I had watched a few times while in law school to help me through the real life paper chase. And now, this year, to have both my parents witness my admission to the the United States Supreme Court was truly special.
I still have the letter you sent me when I was first admitted to Cooley, a letter about the things to expect in law school as a student. That letter means a lot to me. You gave a chance to me when no other ABA-accredited law school would. And when I got to Cooley, my first-year professors like Ronald Bretz and Amy Timmer inspired me. Amy Timmer in particular inspired me not just with her love and knowledge of torts as a subject, but with her love for Cooley Law School and her love of the Cooley Honor Code.
By the end of my first year, all of my close 1L friends flunked out or left school. I used to joke that at Cooley, it’s not “look at the person on your left, look at the person on your right-one of you won’t be here next year.” It’s more like “look at the person on your left, look at the person on your right- all three of you won’t be here next year.” I knew that a lot of the students who started with me and didn’t make it were smarter than I was, which had me concerned. Amy Timmer and Ron Bretz helped me through that time period – which was a time when I was wondering if law school and becoming a lawyer was really for me. Professor Bretz told me that getting a law degree was all about the “opportunities” that a law degree could bring in the future. That stuck with me and has rung so true, and I have tried to share the lesson about opportunities with others.
Professors Bretz and Timmer are the best of the best at Cooley, and I was so happy that they agreed to be my sponsors for admission to the U.S. Supreme Court. They’ve impacted my life in ways they will never know. And through me, they’ve helped others as well – like the women and children I’ve mentioned.
I also want to share with you that several professors, who I did not even have as my own professors, took the time to talk to my parents and me in the hallways of Cooley when I was giving my parents a tour of the law school during semester break a long, long time ago. My parents and I ran into Associate Dean John Nussbaumer and Professor Otto Stockmeyer as I was showing them where I hoped my picture would soon grace the walls of Cooley along with the photos of my classmates and other classes. To have professors who were not even my own teachers take the time to chat about Cooley with my parents and me says a lot about their character. I wish I had them as teachers in class, but in just that small way they became my professors for a few moments in the hallway. You just don’t get that kind of contact and interest anywhere else. Even though Cooley is huge school, it’s moments like those that make it feel like a small, friendly town.
When I was growing up, my grandmother always told me to become a banker or a lawyer. I’m truly thankful you helped me become a lawyer and that she lived to see me achieve her dream for her grandson. And thank you for helping me connect with the great professors I had at Cooley like Ron Bretz, Justin Brooks, Terrence Cavanaugh, Michael Cox, Joseph Kimble, Gerald MacDonald, Dena Marks, Maurice Monroe, Phil Prygoski, Chris Shafer, and Amy Timmer, to name only a few. There are others at Cooley like Jim Robb, Roberta Studwell, Paul Zelenski, and the late Darryl Parsell that helped me in ways too numerous to list here.
Judge Brennan, I will never, ever, be able to thank you and my Cooley professors enough for the opportunities you have given me and the abilities you have given me to help others. As I reflect back on this year, and this amazing accomplishment of the son of a blue-collar electrician standing in front of the United States Supreme Court, I cannot thank you and those at Cooley enough. I’ve never felt so connected to Cooley as I did on April 16, 2012. I can only say thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to better myself and help people, and thank you for starting the Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
Cooley has made a huge difference in my life and will continue to do so in ways I have not yet realized. Thank you.
Very truly yours,
Samuel “S.J.” Finnessey, Jr.
Cushing Class 2000
East Greenbush, NY