Author Archives: nelsonpmiller

Top Ten Things Law Students Should Know About Western Michigan University

miller_nelsonBlog author Nelson Miller is the Associate Dean and Professor at WMU-Cooley’s Grand Rapids campus. He practiced civil litigation for 16 years before joining the WMU-Cooley faculty. He has argued cases before the Michigan Supreme Court, Michigan Court of Appeals, and United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and filed amicus and party briefs in the United States Supreme Court. He has has many published books, casebooks, book chapters, book reviews, and articles on legal education, law practice, torts, civil procedure, professional responsibility, damages, international law, constitutional law, university law, bioethics, and law history and philosophy. He also is now teaching law classes on the Kalamazoo, Michigan campus of Western Michigan University.

1. Now that the law school is holding elective courses on WMU’s Kalamazoo campus, where are the law classes? For now, Western Michigan University is sharing with the law school Room 1412 in its Health & Human Services (HHS) Building on WMU’s East Campus off Oakland Drive, behind (south of) the football stadium and sports complex on Stadium Drive. The HHS Building location makes sense in that the law school already has a dual JD/MSW degree program with the College of Health & Human Services’ School of Social Work. The HHS Building is a spectacular, first-class facility with wonderful natural-light design, a cafeteria, lots of relaxed seating, and convenient parking. Room 1412 is a team-based learning room with cart-available distance-education technology.


2. What is the medieval-looking bell-tower-like structure next to WMU’s HHS Building where the law school holds classes? The HHS Building is next door to the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital. Its tower is not, as rumored, to restrain the insane, but for the better part of a century supplied the hospital’s water. At one point in the tower’s storied history, its water saved Kalamazoo from burning when the city’s own water system failed as firefighters attempted to douse a severe downtown fire. Although the water tower is a historic landmark, locals not too long ago made an effort to have it razed, relenting only when private funds donated for maintenance exceeded the six-figure cost of its razing.

3. What is the heart of WMU’s Kalamazoo campus? Where does everyone go? Bernhard Center, located roughly in the middle of WMU’s Main Campus, houses the bookstore, Bronco Mall, cafeteria and food court, financial-aid office and other student services, student-organization offices, and large conference spaces. While the building’s exterior is a little older, WMU has renovated many of its interior spaces, making it both very comfortable and also a showcase.

4. Where should one park on campus? Depends on where you’re going. The best practice is to order a $5 daily visitor pass online before you go, then use the WMU Interactive Campus Map, choosing the Parking Lots option from the Layers link in the Map’s upper right. The $5 daily visitor parking pass grants you access to the R Lots where both visitors and WMU employees park. Commonly used R Lots are (1) on the west side of the Main Campus by Schneider Hall for convenient access to the business school or a short walk to the center of Main Campus, (2) at the south side of the Main Campus by Miller Auditorium for convenient access to the College of Arts & Sciences, and (3) alongside the Health & Human Services Building on East Campus. For a single short-term visit, you may choose instead to park at a visitor meter, although you’ll need lots of quarters (the cost is a quarter for every 12 minutes or so). Metered parking can also be paid by a cell phone through Instructions are listed on each campus meter.Here is the parking map, with the R Lots in yellow:

5. Where can you eat on campus? Lots of places. While the Bernhard Center has the well-developed food court with national fast-food chains, a Biggby coffee shop, traditional cafeteria, and lots of comfortable seating, several other buildings also have public cafeterias including the HHS Building housing the law classes, Schneider Hall housing the Haworth College of Business, and Sangren Hall housing WMU’s large College of Education. The Plaza Cafe, located on the Fine Arts Plaza in front of Miller Auditorium, is also open to the public. To locate food on campus–Go to the WMU Housing and Dining map to get the precise locations of the buildings with cafeterias.


6. Who are WMU’s most-distinguished alumni? Tim Allen, anyone? The popular film and television actor is on its Distinguished Alumni wall in the Bernhard Center (see the wall on the second floor for a great way to get to know WMU’s national leadership). WMU’s most-recent distinguished alumni awardee is former U.S. Attorney and WMU-Cooley adjunct James Brady, whom the law school honored recently with the Marion Hilligan Public Service Award. (The other 2015 awardee was the CEO of the world’s largest tire and wheel retailer.) Other lawyer/judge WMU distinguished alumni include former ABA President Dennis Archer, Sixth Circuit Judge Richard Griffin (son of Senator Robert Griffin), Richard Whitmer, former State Bar of Michigan President Nancy Diehl, and of course WMU-Cooley graduate and board member Ken Miller. Other distinguished alumni include former Detroit Tigers owner John Fetzer and former Tigers and Marlins and present Red Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski.

7. Tell me about the WMU library and its resources. With more that 4.5 million items, including thousands of electronic subscriptions, the libraries provide access to a wide variety of materials in support of its many educational programs. Over twenty reference librarians, many with subject specialties, are ready to assist students with their information and research needs. The library has recently initiated an experimental telepresence robot to aid in research interactions between students and librarians. Four floors of newly renovated state of the art facilities provide comfortable spaces for collaboration, research, and study.

8. What’s your favorite location on campus? Whether or not you have business there, consider visiting Sangren Hall in the center of WMU’s Main Campus. One of President Dunn’s many initiatives has been the improvement of WMU’s physical facilities. Sangren Hall, home to WMU’s oldest college–the College of Education–is the spectacular centerpiece of that initiative.Sangren-Hall-SHW-Group-6

It has every feature of a next-generation higher-education facility including state-of-the-art team-based-learning classrooms with distance-education technology and wide, spacious, and well-lit public areas with abundant comfortable seating and study areas, not to mention a great-looking library and convenient cafe. It even rivals the spectacular new WMed facility downtown (WMed built with substantial private and corporate contributions). WMU has constructed several other large, inviting, and very attractive facilities that make you feel very much a part of the latest and best in higher education.

9. For what does the public know WMU? What distinguishes it? WMU was initially a teacher’s college, and its College of Education remains its largest program. That history and emphasis may have influenced its mission and vision as a learner-centered university combining clinical education with research focus. Students matter, but so does research and expertise. Many of WMU’s Ph.D.-level faculty are recognized national and international experts in their fields with heavy demands for their expertise. WMU is also diverse, recruiting heavily from Southeast Michigan and other urban areas. It has had a global reach for decades, with faculty from around the globe and international students from 100 other nations.  A Carnegie-designated national research university, WMU is in the U.S. News top tier of public research universities. Many also know WMU for programs as diverse as its nation-leading aviation program and its internationally recognized offerings in creative writing, medieval studies, behavior analysis, blindness and low vision studies, integrated supply chain management and jazz studies. WMU also has a decades-long reputation for a commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship that won it the U.S. Building Council’s award in 2014 as the best green higher-education school in the country.

10. Okay, but how’s the football team doing? Great. WMU has a Division I (top division) football program competing with the best collegiate programs in the nation, including playing both MSU and Ohio State in 2015. WMU is in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) with in-state rivals Central Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University, and out-of-state schools like Toledo, Northern Illinois, and Bowling Green.


While WMU has long been known more for its hockey team than for football success, WMU’s football teams have been to bowl games the past two years, winning the Bahamas Bowl just this year, and has had the MAC’s top-rated recruiting class the past three years. WMU’s football program is thus gaining national attention, as is its sought-after Coach P.J. Fleck. The program has a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility and a football hall-of-fame building, both adjacent to the stadium with a large indoor president’s box seating 100. Apologies to WMU-Cooley Board Chair Larry Nolan, a WMU hockey-program veteran, for not touting WMU’s outstanding hockey team, which is part of the toughest hockey league in the nation–the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. See WMU’s sports Hall of Fame for WMU’s long list of stellar college and professional athletes.

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U. S. Supreme Court Cites Justice Thomas McIntyre Cooley in Same Sex Marriage Decision

Associate Dean Nelson Miller

Associate Dean Nelson Miller

Author Nelson Miller is Associate Dean and Professor at WMU-Cooley’s Grand Rapids campus. He practiced civil litigation for 16 years before joining the WMU-Cooley faculty. He has argued cases before the Michigan Supreme Court, Michigan Court of Appeals, and United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and filed amicus and party briefs in the United States Supreme Court. He has has many published books, casebooks, book chapters, book reviews, and articles on legal education, law practice, torts, civil procedure, professional responsibility, damages, international law, constitutional law, university law, bioethics, and law history and philosophy.

While the reference won’t make any headlines other than the one immediately above, alumni should be glad to note that the law school’s namesake Justice Thomas McIntyre Cooley continues, well over a century after his death, to impress members of the United States Supreme Court.

Justice Thomas M. Cooley

Justice Thomas M. Cooley

Justice Scalia’s dissent in the Supreme Court’s gay-marriage stand cites Justice Cooley at the head of the historical list of great legal luminaries, “minds like Thomas Cooley, John Marshall Harlan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Learned Hand, Louis Brandeis, William Howard Taft, Benjamin Cardozo, Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson, and Henry Friendly….”

That Justice Cooley continues to receive recognition as a leading member of the jurist’s pantheon should surprise no one.  Over the past century and more, the Supreme Court has cited Justice Cooley and his opinions and treatises so many times that he will forever retain his status as a profoundly effective, even though unusually humble, guardian of the law and Constitution.

Yet this most-recent Supreme Court reference to the great jurist bears special note, placing Justice Cooley at the head of the list before Holmes, Hand, Black, and Brandeis.  Chronology may have had something to do with that prominence, given that Justice Cooley is the oldest of the references.  Yet Justice Scalia could have started his list of great jurists anywhere but decided to start with Justice Cooley.

We here at the great old jurist’s school celebrate Justice Cooley’s continued reputation as the nation’s premier jurist.  Let us all hope that the Constitution that he so vigorously, effectively, and humbly defended will survive just as long as his enduring prominence.


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“You Can’t Say that About Law School”

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

By Nelson P. Miller

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law, notes a distinction between business school and law school. 

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff, who did not earn an M.B.A. before taking the corner office at his multi-billion-dollar company, said about B-school, “It’s just a really expensive way to take a break.”

You sure can’t say the same about law school.

Mr. Rascoff’s quote is plainly a headline grabber.   In context, he meant that some who go to business school do not belong there.  And he added that your work finding a job in business begins in earnest as soon as you enter business school.  In that respect at least, business school is no walk in the park.

But his quote nonetheless highlights interesting contrasts between business school and law school.

Mr. Rascoff himself is proof that you can succeed at the highest levels in business without an M.B.A.  Zillow is a remarkably complex and successful business.  Mr. Rascoff earned his top job there.

Yet the same is not true for opportunity in law without a J.D. degree.  You cannot go anywhere in law without the J.D. degree that remains the gold standard for any career law-related.

Law school is also no break.  Law school is arduous for a reason.  Its purpose is to create for students an effective new mind and professional persona, while preserving and even amplifying the best of their social ambitions.

You cannot accomplish so much while on a break from life.    Personal excellence is the product of challenge.  Character is the product of striving.  Law school pushes students to achieve things that they know are worthwhile but may think are not necessarily possible.  The best of programs then give students the support and guidance to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

Business school is worthwhile.  Business is fascinating and important.  Business careers are desirable and meaningful much in the same way that law careers are desirable and meaningful.  Business school is also harder than Mr. Rascoff’s out-of-context quote makes it seem.

Yet some truth still lies latent in the contrast.  Few if any law students graduate after coasting.  The coasters leave after the first term or year.  The graduates are those who persevere.

The education’s goals demand it.  Law school must transform students.  To be effective, law school must make lawyers different from non-lawyers.  Lawyers must be deeper, more grounded, more knowledgeable, wiser, sounder, and more discerning.  They must know the ways of business and the rest of the social world while being able to stand just apart from those ways in order to be able to judge them.  Lawyers must be able to help their clients study and shape their circumstances to redeem themselves out of those circumstances.

Law school has too much to accomplish for its students to allow any coasters.  Law school cannot suffer fools gladly.  Law is serious business, the kind of weighty matter that lawyers just hunger to shoulder and carry for their clients.

Taken properly, Mr. Rascoff’s message is a sound one.  Not everyone belongs in business school, just as not everyone belongs in law school.  Both schools have their place.  Both schools share some goals.  They are also rather fundamentally different in their aims.  Appreciate both schools, and know their differences.

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What the Best Law Teacher Did

This essay was written by Nelson P. Miller, Professor of Law and Associate Dean of Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus.  Dean Miller recently received the honor of being named one of the best 26 law teachers in America in a book mentioned below.  Rather than touting himself, Dean Miller has written about his esteemed Cooley colleague, Professor Phil Prygoski, who likewise is listed in the book. Cooley is the only law school with more than one law teacher featured.

The best.  How few get to say that they were the best at anything.  Ruth and Aaron in baseball.  Nicklaus and Woods in golf.  Lincoln as president, Churchill as prime minister, Patton and Eisenhower as generals.  Shakespeare as playwright and Milton as poet.  Einstein.  Mozart.  Maybe Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, though in the latter case time must tell.  And then Cooley had Professor Phil Prygoski.


Harvard University Press just published a 323-page study What the Best Law Teachers Do collecting and presenting evidence of the inspirational teaching practices of 26 of the nation’s best law professors.  The book makes Phil Prygoski, for 35 years a beloved constitutional law professor at Cooley, prominent among those 26—in our own view, the best of the best.

The book liberally quotes Phil’s students saying the following about him, among other glowing credits to his decades of teaching at Cooley:

  • “He knows so much and his knowledge is so thorough you just can’t help but want to get to that point… .”
  • “For somebody who’s been doing this thirty, thirty-five, maybe forty years, for him to still love that process, I’ve got to love that process too.  Because if it still excites him after that long, I want it to still excite me after that long.”
  • “I think part of what makes him so successful is just the knowledge he has… .  So he’s constantly not just making us think and keeping us in tune with everything, but he does it for himself… .”
  • “The class is always forward thinking … based on what you know now of the constitutional law.”
  • “He forces you to operate in the gray area and understand that you might have these preconceptions when you walk in… .  But by the end … you open your eyes and you say, ‘There are arguments on both sides of this.’”

Phil would have shrugged off the compliments to turn the attention back to his students.  As the book records one of his students saying, “He didn’t want me to, you know, praise him and tell him how awesome he was and how much I learned.  It was more like, ‘talk to me about my experience.’”  Phil was not the focus of his own teaching.  Rather, he kept the focus where it belonged, on the subject and students.  As another student reported, “As long as you were prepared and you were trying, he wanted to hear what you had to say.”

Yet the Harvard Press book is exquisitely poignant in lauding Phil so highly. Phil has not taught since March 2012, shortly after the study collected its data on Phil, when he suffered a severe brain injury in the classroom.  After months of hospitalization and special nursing care, Phil now recovers at home under the care of his wife and family.  Colleague Pat Corbett and other Cooley faculty recently led a fundraiser to buy a wheelchair-accessible van and home therapy equipment to aid in Phil’s arduous recovery.

Phil can no longer reveal for students the rich mysteries of constitutional law, an intellectual task that challenges the healthiest and most able of law professors.  Yet nothing—not age, nor disability, nor even demise—will ever take from Phil that he was the very best at that privileged task.  Consider what the book quotes Phil as saying about his students and craft:

  • “You’ve got to start them out easy.  You’ve got to nurture them.”
  • “I think a big part of motivation … is the passion for the subject … and if they see that you’re passionate, and you’re jacked up about it, and that you care, they’re going to buy into it.”
  • “I think the ability of the student to empathize with the teachers, with the other people in the room, with the people in the cases that we’re talking about, [and with] clients, I think that’s very, very important.”
  • “Getting [a] good answer from … and praising them … this is extremely important to me.”

John Wayne.  Fred Astaire.  Van Cliburn.  Louis Armstrong.  Beethoven.  Mozart.  The best, Phil.  You were the best.  Your Cooley family celebrates what it has long known about you and celebrates even further that the world now knows it.

Cooley’s faculty just completed its own book tribute to Phil, dedicating the just-published Teaching Law Practice:  Educating the Next Generation of Lawyers (Vandeplas 2013), to Phil’s rich legacy of instruction at the school.  

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Now There’s a Thought: Disrupting Inefficient Markets with Better Law Practice

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

By Nelson P. Miller

Much has been written lately, and much said, about challenges facing law’s practitioners, those who provide daily routine law services.  Corporate clients complain about high and hidden costs.  Individuals complain about access and affordability while bar leaders report that 80% of civil legal needs go unmet.  Commentators perceive inefficiencies in the way that lawyers deliver law products and services.  High costs and low access fuel calls for reform.

We need not wring hands with clients and critics, nor condemn or dispute them.  Rather, their concerns direct us to important responsibilities and opportunities.

Lawyers do not study their processes like their corporate clients study theirs.  Lawyers know little of project management, error rates, quality control, price transparency, and other packaging, pricing, and delivery issues.  Corporate clients, whether product or service providers, make those important subjects their standard fare.  Lawyers research and know law but do not use those same analytic and process skills on their own craft, leaving management, development, and process-improvement research untapped.  What self-respecting lawyer talks of Malcolm Baldridge, process studies, and kaizen teams?  Entire management movements skip right over law firms as lawyers continue to ply their musty craft.

Sophisticated, traditional clients get what they need and want through incremental improvements.  Yet market disruption occurs at the bottom.  While firms add bells and whistles to standard products and services, they overlook dominant new market entrants.  Traditional products and services do not reach vast new client populations spawned by social and demographic.  Underwater homeowners, aging founders transferring small family businesses to the next generation, returning servicemembers, and other new clients go without service.  Traditional practices also fail to serve traditional clients in a newly global, technical, and regulatory environment.  Vast numbers of parties stumble their way unrepresented through family, probate, misdemeanor, landlord-tenant, and other local courts.

When traditional firms fail to serve growing markets, innovative firms disrupt those markets from the bottom with newly affordable law products and services.  New law graduates use new management, marketing, development, systems, finance, and technology tools to construct virtual, mobile, site-based, and other innovative law practices.  These savvy new lawyers simultaneously inspire instructional reform.  Cooley Law School has always addressed practice through its practitioner faculty, and skills and clinical courses.  The school has long offered Law Office Management.  Yet the school is creating and offering additional electives focusing on the enterprise of practice.  Those new Law Practice courses include Business Development, Finance for Lawyers, and Technology.

Through whatever delivery model lawyers provide their services, law practice remains essentially entrepreneurial.  Effective service to clients depends not only on comprehensive knowledge, adroit skill, and solid ethics.  It also depends on recognizing new client populations while designing, pricing, and delivering affordable and accessible law products and services that meet their lawful objectives.  Practice involves finding the under-served and then serving them through sustainable systems.  We have no reason to decry market disruption when it presents an opportunity for more and better service.

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America’s Newest Superhero: “Mamattorney”

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

By Nelson P. Miller

Recent reports indicate that mothers are now the sole or primary breadwinner in 40% of American households, a long-term demographic trend that the Great Recession accelerated.  Over 60% of those breadwinner moms are single parents.  Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law, notes how one particular Cooley graduate, Tamsen Horton, has in a very creative way developed a means to deliver legal services to working mothers. 

Breadwinning mothers face unusual time and resource challenges as they take on greater responsibility for the economic security of their households.  Social norms do not necessarily change as quickly as household demographics.  Working mothers must balance new financial and legal responsibilities with the rewarding but time-consuming demands of traditional child-rearing and household roles.

The multiple demands on working mothers and particularly single moms can leave those households in precarious position when challenged by common crises.  The breadwinner’s short-term illness, a child’s special needs, an elderly parent’s disability, or a motor-vehicle accident or home fire threaten those households with severe disruption and even complete demise, especially when the working mother did not prepare for crisis.  What can we do for these fragile homes?  Who can possibly help? 

Mamattorney to the Rescue

Cooley J.D. and Tax LL.M. alumna Tamsen Horton operates her burgeoning law practice Vuja De Law specifically to serve 25 to 40 year-old working mothers.  Tamsen is herself a working mother, married and with a preschool child.  She knows what she calls the “pain points” working mothers face trying to maintain and promote a stable and prosperous home. 

Take as an example a temporary power of attorney for guardianship of a minor.  Some families need such powers of attorney for school programs, family travel, and the like.  Or take as another example a financial power of attorney for an elderly parent.  These common legal documents can help a working mother manage a household and avert severe crises.

“How though, is my working-mom client going to consult with me to get the documents prepared and signed?” Tamsen asks.  “Her job keeps her from seeing me until after work.  But if she is not home at 5 p.m., then no one gets fed, and no homework gets done.”

Mamattorney’s solution?  “We just arrange a Google chat from home to home.  My virtual law practice solves her pain point.  The documents get done, and my working-mother client has the critical household-management documents in place.”  Mamattorney to the rescue.


Tamsen also calls herself a Mamapreneur. Entrepreneurial she is, following entrepreneurship’s rules that you must know your clients, create value for those clients, reach sizeable client populations, and communicate value to those clients.  Tamsen knows her paradigm client mom so well that she says she even pictures her features.

Entrepreneurship involves personal and professional identity.  Tamsen knows her gift for seeing paradigms and then shifting them.  She connects those gifts to her law practice.  The name of her law practice Vuja De is a twist on deja vu, meaning not to experience something over again but instead to take a new perspective.

Tamsen indeed finds new perspectives.  In addition to her concept of pain points, her virtual practice, and her innovative use of home video-conference capabilities, she developed the concept that her working-mom clients each have a life footprint.  “Carbon footprints?” Tamsen asks rhetorically, continuing, “My working-mom clients care most about their life footprints.  My family law, business-planning and estate-planning services help working mothers discern, organize, enrich, and protect the multiple intersecting dimensions of their complex lives.”

Tamsen gladly shares her law practice insights with Cooley students and graduates.  In fact, she developed a website and consulting service My J.D., My Terms to help students and recent graduates discern their distinct career paths, drawing on their unique personal and professional identity.  She uses the same entrepreneurial principles that inform her law practice to guide students and recent graduates in their own paths.

My Kid, My Plan

True to her law firm’s name, Tamsen is always searching for the fresh paradigm to communicate new value to her clients.  When she was trying to help her working-mom clients connect early estate planning with their commitment to their children, she borrowed her My J.D., My Terms concept to come up with My Kid, My Plan.

No service or identity detail is too small for Tamsen to consider or re-consider in improving her law practice.  Logo design, website colors, the location of her pricing information—Tamsen thinks constantly of how her clients react as sophisticated consumers to the way in which she offers them critical law services.

For Tamsen, it is Vuja De all over again, in itself a constantly fresh paradigm.

For more information on serving emerging client populations, see the Cooley law practice books Entrepreneurial Practice:  Enterprise Skills for Lawyers Serving Emerging Client Populations and Lawyers as Economic Drivers:  The Business Case for Legal ServicesCooley’s four Law Practice courses in Business Development, Technology, Finance, and Management help students sharpen their entrepreneurial skills.


Filed under Alumni Stories and News, Knowledge, Skills, Ethics, The Value of a Legal Education