RIVERVIEW — Haile Spratt knew he wanted to be a lawyer; he just had to choose a law school.
He quickly zeroed in on Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids, Mich. One of the largest law schools in the nation, Cooley is known for its open admissions policy and acceptance of students who are overlooked by others.
"I felt like it was the best place for me," Spratt said. "I didn't feel like I had to prove myself just to sit in a seat."
The only problem: Enrolling at Cooley would uproot this Mississippi native to a campus very far from home.
That is, until last May, when Cooley opened its first campus outside Michigan. Located in Riverview, near the intersection of U.S. 301 and Interstate 75, the school celebrated its official grand opening last week.
And Spratt isn't the only one happy about its arrival.
"Opening this Tampa Bay campus vastly increases people's access to a legal education during these uncertain economic times," said E.J. Salcines, a former Hillsborough state attorney and appellate judge, at Wednesday's event.
The presidents of the Florida and Hillsborough Bar associations chimed in with praise, as well, citing Cooley's diverse student body and practical teaching techniques.
But the prospect of more law school graduates entering an already saturated job market is not lost on professionals, Salcines said after the event.
"We do have a lot of law graduates, who even after passing the bar, are having trouble finding jobs," Salcines said. Salcines said Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober recently told him that he couldn't fill 50 state jobs because of budget cuts.
"As a result, minor crimes — nonviolent crimes — are having to be overlooked," Salcines said. "It's happening all over the state of Florida."
Cooley Tampa Bay associate dean Jeff Martlew doesn't dismiss the impact of the recession on the legal field, but he maintains a positive outlook.
"We are certainly not saying times are not tough and lawyers haven't suffered," Martlew said. "But the impact on attorneys is nowhere near as bad as it has been on other groups."
Martlew cites a 2010 statistic from the U.S. Labor Department that says unemployment among lawyers is at 1.5 percent.
And Cooley graduates seem to be finding work. About 84 percent of Cooley graduates are employed nine months after graduation, Martlew said. That number is based on only those who self-reported their status to the school and does not include anyone not currently seeking employment.
Those numbers, however, have been the target of contention. A lawsuit filed by some former students in 2011 claimed the school exaggerated its job placement figures. The lawsuit was later dismissed, Martlew said. Cooley has filed a defamation lawsuit against the law firm that oversaw the first suit. It is still pending.
"There's no doubt the market is a challenge," said Charles Toy, Cooley's dean of career and professional development. "However, there are a couple of things going on demographically that are helping students."
Those include the number of baby boomers reaching retirement age and jobs opening in more rural areas of the country, he said.
Those factors may not lead to more immediate jobs in Florida, he said, but jobs may be easier to come by for those willing to relocate.
Many students who attend Cooley may be local, though, because the school's flexible format works well for working professionals.
Xiomara Rivera, 39, of Riverview, chose it for that reason. Rivera is a captain in the Air Force and works in human relations at MacDill Air Force Base.
"I have to be flexible with my schedule and Cooley has been very accommodating to my commitment with the Air Force," she said.
The school has full-time and part-time programs. It offers morning and evening classes and has 275 students enrolled. Afternoon classes will begin in January. Its 132,000-square-foot building can accommodate about 700 students.
U.S. News & World Report ranked Cooley in the bottom fourth of the nation's law schools. Cooley conducted its own research based on information gathered by the American Bar Association and ranked its school at No. 2 in 2010, just under Harvard Law.
Spratt, who is now the president of the Cooley Tampa Bay Student Bar Association, said he doesn't worry much about what is said about the college. The open admissions policy may be one of the reasons people attend Cooley, he said, but it's not the only one.
"People think the name of a law school is the most important," Spratt said. "But really, it's the people."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.