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Hail Mary Passes
How to build a great law school.


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John J. Miller

The University of Michigan has a lot to brag about this year: A convincing win over the Ohio State football team, a victory for its color-coded admissions system at the Supreme Court–and now the news that it runs the second-best law school in Ann Arbor.

Second best?

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That’s right. The latest scores for the Michigan bar are out, and first-time test takers who graduated from the University of Michigan passed at a rate of 90 percent. That’s pretty good–but not quite as good as the other law school in town. The Ave Maria School of Law can claim a pass rate of 93 percent. That’s tops not just for Ann Arbor, but the whole state of Michigan.

The University of Michigan might have to get used to playing second fiddle, because Ave Maria opened its doors in the fall of 2000 and has only graduated a single class–the one whose members just beat every other law school in the state at the bar.

“We promised students a first-rate legal education, and we’ve kept that promise,” says Bernard Dobranski, dean and president of Ave Maria. “We want to compete with the top 20 law schools in the country.”

Ave Maria is a Catholic law school (NR’s Kate O’Beirne serves on the board), but more than Providence has been at work in helping it achieve this ambitious goal. Several years ago, the school adopted a specific strategy to reach elite status.

The surest way to high-quality graduates is high-quality applicants, so Ave Maria tried to make itself as attractive as possible to wannabe lawyers who might normally be reluctant to take a chance on a brand-new institution. Annual tuition costs nearly $26,000, but the school has offered huge discounts to attract top-flight students. The typical member of its inaugural class only paid about 20 percent of this amount.

“I thought we would have 30 to 40 students whose LSAT scores were a little above the 50th percentile,” says Dobranski. “We ended up with about 75 students whose median test score was around the 80th percentile.”

This year, the school has a total enrollment of 225, including a first-year class of 100. The tuition discounts remain substantial, though they aren’t quite as big as they once were. Like so much at Ave Maria, they are made possible through the philanthropy of Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza.

“I am extremely proud of our graduates as well as our faculty and administration, who have worked so hard to give them the best legal education possible,” says Monaghan. “These results are another step in fulfilling our vision, and a sign that our students have what it takes to make a positive impact on society.”

Of the 28 Ave Maria graduates who took the Michigan bar in July, 26 passed. The University of Michigan had 42 test takers, and 38 who passed. (Statewide, 838 people took the bar exam and 571 of them passed, for a success rate of about two-thirds.)

Does this mean that Ave Maria’s admissions system is better than the “holistic” one full of racial preferences that the University of Michigan defended before the Supreme Court last year?

“No comment,” says Dobranski.

What a good neighbor.



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