The departure of Ave Maria School of Law for Florida spelled opportunity for the fast-growing Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

Ave Maria’s former building on Plymouth reopens this month as Cooley’s Ann Arbor campus. Cooley president Don LeDuc defines its target market as “the U-M undergraduate who wants to go to law school, can’t get into U-M law school, and wants to stay in Ann Arbor.”

While that may not be the most prestigious strategy, it’s worked well for Cooley. Founded by conservative former Michigan Supreme Court justice Thomas Brennan in 1972 (and named for a nineteenth-century Michigan justice), it’s grown into one of the nation’s largest law schools in part by accepting students others won’t. The downside of its open-door policy: 19 percent of the students who enroll at Cooley don’t graduate (though LeDuc says some dropouts eventually graduate from other schools).

Cooley keeps overhead low: the Ann Arbor campus will initially offer just five full-time classes from Cooley’s standard first-year curriculum. The four faculty members were already teaching at other Cooley campuses (which are in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Auburn Hills). Still, it’s not cheap: at $1,025 per credit hour, a Cooley degree costs at least $90,000.

The high attrition rate troubles U-M general counsel Suellyn Scarnecchia–though she emphasizes that she’s speaking not on behalf of the university, but as a former dean of the University of New Mexico’s law school. “There is an ethical question whether one ought to accept tuition money…where you can predict that they’re not going to be able to be successful at your law school.”

LeDuc says that it’s up to the students to judge whether they’ve got a realistic shot at finishing–“you can’t make people totally self aware.” As for those who do graduate, he says, “The quality of the teaching here is such that any one of them knows that they are prepared to go anywhere in this world to practice and compete against any other lawyer from any other law school.”

The U-M law school doesn’t seem troubled by the new competition. The school is marking its sesquicentennial this month by breaking ground for a new building, with U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts on hand for the celebration–which is open to U-M students, staff, and alumni only.