Vermont Law School enrollment down 23.8 percent

Debevoise Hall on the Vermont Law School campus in South Royalton. VTD/Josh Larkin

Debevoise Hall on the Vermont Law School campus in South Royalton. VTD/Josh Larkin

Vermont Law School will see a 23.8 percent decline in new law students this fall compared with the previous year. The incoming class of 2014 will have a total of 160 students seeking a law degree; the class of 2013, by comparison, has 210 law-degree candidates, according to officials.

The school, based in South Royalton, has slightly offset the drop in incoming law school candidates with an increase in the number of students seeking masters degrees in law and environmental law programs.

John Cramer, associate director of media relations, said the decline in law school enrollments mirrors the national trend.

“With the recession and tough legal job market there are more lawyers and fewer legal jobs,” Cramer said. “The overall nationwide drop in law school applicants is 11 percent,  and (there is) a 15 percent drop at New England law schools.”

Any drop in enrollments at the Vermont Law School is problematic, according to an administration official who asked not to be named. That’s in part because, as Cramer acknowledged, the state’s only juris doctorate program is more reliant on tuition revenues than other law schools around the country.

Vermont Law School, which has ranked as the No. 1 or No. 2 environmental law school in the nation for the last 14 years, doesn’t have a large endowment because it is a relatively young institution (it was founded in 1972), and its graduates have less money to donate. Cramer said while some law schools are “geared to sending graduates to large law firms,” alumni from Vermont Law School tend to take jobs with nonprofit groups and government agencies over high-paying jobs with big name law firms.

In addition, the school is not eligible to receive funding from a number of federal agencies because it prohibits military recruiters from soliciting on campus. Vermont Law School is one of two legal institutions in the country that has banned recruitment activities because of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which school officials say discriminates against gay and lesbian military employees. Under the Solomon Act, the departments of defense, transportation, education, health and human services and labor are prohibited from funding the school because of its stance on military recruiters. Vermont Law School receives funding from Department of Energy; it also has been issued grants from the State Department for its U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law program.

Tuition at Vermont Law School is $43,468 a year, compared with Harvard Law School, $45,000, and Yale Law School which costs $50,000 per annum.

In raw numbers, the 50-student drop for the class of 2014 represents a roughly $6.5 million drop in revenues over a three-year period, which would be offset by about $1.1 million in tuition from the 15-student increase in enrollments in the masters degree program. (The finance department did not confirm these figures as of press time.)

There are currently a total of 556 students (including masters candidates) at Vermont Law School compared with 589 last year.

“Right now our budget is balanced, and we’re meeting fund-raising targets, and we have a positive excess of revenue over expenses,” Cramer said. “We expect a challenging recruiting environment for the upcoming year,  just as all law schools do.”

Last Friday, Dean Jeff Shields, who recently announced he will be retiring next year, demoted the school’s admissions chief, Kathy Hartman, according to an administrative official. Hartman had been in charge of student enrollment for 10 years.

Two other employees at the school have also recently resigned. Jeanne Eicks, head of information technology, will leave in September, and Jim McGrath, head of the physical plant operation at the school, is also departing.

Cramer said the admissions and IT departments are being reorganized. “We feel there can be a new direction that can be taken to improve efficiency,” he said.

Rumors of layoffs and furloughs at the school are unfounded, Cramer said.

In spite of the challenging fiscal environment, Vermont Law School has launched a new online law-degree program – the first of its type in the nation.

In addition, the law school is embarking on several capital improvement projects, including a $1.5 million fitness center on campus and a $3.5 million renovation/rebuild of an 1890s building on the village green in South Royalton. The historic structure will be used to house the law school’s legal aid clinic for low-income Vermonters and its environmental and natural resource clinic, which provides pro bono work for environmental groups. Both projects are set to be completed by next summer.

Vermont Law School is in the middle of a $15 million capital campaign; it has raised $12 million for scholarships, clinics and a loan repayment assistance program.

The school is also hiring two new “big-name” professors, Cramer said, for its clinical and experiential programs in an effort to attract students who are interested in beefing up their “practical skills in a tight job market.”

Follow Anne on Twitter @GallowayVTD

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