'Giving it all Away' The story behind the U-M Law Quad


By Carl Bookstein
Legal News

The iconic University of Michigan Law Quadrangle is the house that donor William W. Cook built.  The beauty of its four architecturally inspired buildings is profound – including the stone structures, walks, rich green lawns and archways. The magnetic vistas of the Law Quad draw law students to the school and inspire them to succeed.

 “Giving It All Away:  The Story of William W. Cook & His Michigan Law Quadrangle” by author Margaret A. Leary is the fascinating account of the life and career of William W. Cook, the Manhattan corporate lawyer and writer who donated the Michigan Law Quad to his alma mater (law school class of 1882), along with a generous endowment for legal research. In the biography, Leary tells the tale of Cook, his donations, and the difficulties of getting the Law Quad built due in part to litigation that ensued.

Leary was the director of the law library at the University of Michigan Law School from 1984 until she recently retired in July. Leary was a law librarian for 45 years and with the Michigan Law Library since 1973, after earning her J.D., which is in addition to her master’s degree in library science.  In synch with finishing her J.D., Leary worked for a year with the Legal Aid Society in Minneapolis.  Because her librarian career was already well under way, she decided not to pursue law practice and instead to continue with a law librarian’s focus.

In 1973, Leary found a heavy box in the Michigan Law Library vault that included letters from Cook.  This is when she first became interested in her subject.  She asked a few questions around the law school and received responses like, “He was a peculiar guy.” Leary was inspired by Cook’s anonymity and the fact that he had been a leading scholar on corporate law for 30 years.

In an interview with The Legal News, Leary discussed the remarkable impact of the architecture of the Law Quad. Cook decided the collegiate gothic design of these compelling buildings would reflect the architecture of England where the common law developed. When walking in the Law Quad, Leary feels a “deep appreciation for the man who gave these buildings to the law school.”

Cook was a prolific legal scholar whose magnum opus “Cook on Corporations” became a landmark, the first edition of which was published in 1887 when Cook was just 5 years out of law school.  Cook was a native of remote Hillsdale, and became a wildly successful Manhattan lawyer and an early giant in the field of corporation law. Cook helped turn corporations into a new engine, Leary says, especially regarding the rights of shareholders and the proper valuation of shares of stock.

The book “Giving It All Away” traces the evolution of Cook’s career as a New York power lawyer, belonging to the same clubs as the Rockefellers and the Carnegies. The book also visits the rocky soap opera like 9-year marriage between Cook and his wife Ida, who decided to sue for her share of the estate 32 years after their divorce upon Cook’s death in 1930, in effect holding up the progress of the building of Michigan’s Law Quad.

Leary gives a thorough assessment of the stormy negotiations for building the Law Quad at every step of the process. She also gives great insight into the personalities and idiosyncrasies of all of the key players involved, including the adversarial role of the long-time Dean of the Law School Henry Bates and the far more constructive role played by U-M President Harry Hutchins and his prominent regents.

Cook would never travel to Ann Arbor to see the building of the Law Quad nor its completion, but was very much involved with the process including the hiring of its architects.

The book also chronicles Cook’s career as a prominent corporate lawyer working for aspiring industry titan John Mackay and his global cable and telegraph company that took on the dominant Western Union at the turn of the 20th century.

Leary also discovered that Cook was known as an anti-Semite with racial prejudices, but puts this in the context of the times: 

“My view is that he wasn’t any different than many highly respected people of his era.” She points out that Cook’s views did not show up in the wills, trusts and provisions that he created for Michigan Law. Leary also states that Cook was a workaholic with high critical standards.

Cook’s enormous donations, according to “Giving It All Away,” single handedly lifted Michigan Law from its place as an excellent state funded school to a higher level as a world class law school with international influence. According to Leary, “He wanted to set a model by giving everything that he had to the University.” In keeping with his intentions, Cook’s will read, “The character of the law schools determines the character of the legal profession.”

Leary grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, where her father was on the English faculty of the university there. She is married to architect Russell Serbay, lives in Ann Arbor, and likes to garden. This summer, she was awarded the American Association of Law Libraries Award for outstanding contributions to law librarianship. Additionally she has given lectures on William W. Cook.

Leary is currently pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing at Eastern Michigan University. 

 “After a career of legal and managerial writing, I needed to learn to tell a story,” says Leary, whose book is the first written about Cook.