Vermont Law School makes more cuts as class size drops

Rep. Sarah Buxton

Rep. Sarah Buxton

Sarah Buxton, a state representative for the towns of Tunbridge and South Royalton, got some unpleasant, if not totally unexpected, news when she returned to her job at the Vermont Law School after a four-month stint at the Statehouse. Buxton’s position — assistant director of community relations and alumni affairs — was axed at the end of May, leaving the 34-year old lawmaker out of work.

Buxton’s involuntary departure is one of a number of cost-cutting decisions that the Vermont Law School has made in the past six months. The school is grappling with a trend that’s afflicting law schools almost across the board — fewer applicants are applying due to dwindling job prospects and the specter of student debt.

Vermont Law School is particularly vulnerable to financial backlash of that trend because it lacks the shield of a “mothership.” Most law schools are housed within universities, which have been able to absorb their losses.

Class size for the J.D. program at VLS increased from 152 in 2011 to 171 in 2012, but VLS President Marc Mihaly expects it to take a 30-student plunge this year. Peter Glenshaw, communications director for VLS, said this number has typically fallen between 150 and 170 students during the last 20 years. The school is still accepting applications, and school officials say they won’t have a final count until the students show up in September.

Mihaly says he is also worried that they’ll see a decline in the average GPA and LSAT scores of the incoming class.

Starting last September, VLS enacted a plan to shrink the school in response to a tuition dollar drought that left it with a $3.3 million budget gap. The school attracted national attention last winter when it cut 12 staff positions — 10 were through voluntary buyouts and two were involuntary.

This past spring, in a quieter move, VLS whittled down its faculty. Eight professors, of the 40 who were eligible, voluntarily moved from full-time to part-time positions. Mihaly estimated that two or three other positions were eliminated when professors departed for personal reasons.

VLS has been pruning expenses elsewhere, too. It has cut down on cleaning services and changed the hours and offerings of its food service, among other changes. At one point, there were conversations about whether coffee would continue to be available in offices, according to one staff member.

An analysis by Bloomberg Business Week shows VLS had the third-highest acceptance rate in 2012, with 83 percent of applicants being admitted. [In past years, the rate has typically fallen between 60 percent and 75 percent.] That prompted The Careerist, a law job blog, to place it in the unflattering category of “law schools where your pet poodle can probably get in.”

But VLS’s acceptance rate isn’t as munificent as it may seem, according to Mihaly. The school attracts a certain type of student, Mihaly says — people more concerned with changing the world than making money — and those who don’t fit that mold generally don’t apply.

Mark Mihaly, president of Vermont Law School. Courtesy photo

Mark Mihaly, president of Vermont Law School. Courtesy photo

“We’ve always accepted a relatively high percentage of our applicants because the people who apply to us self-select.” But with a dwindling applicant pool, Mihaly says the school has to make sure entry standards don’t slip to an unacceptable level.

“The problem we have to watch out for is we can’t take people who we believe probably won’t succeed in law school or won’t pass the bar,” Mihaly said. “To use a trite word, it’s immoral. And there are people applying like that. We are just a little more vigilant now.”

VLS has been able to make up its budget shortfall, but has the financial anxiety trickled down to the students? Mihaly said the buyouts, faculty changes and other cost-cutting endeavors were done in a way that didn’t impact the academics at VLS, but even so, the students haven’t been immune to the school’s fiscal concerns.

“The big student concern is, are we going to lose teachers we really value?” Mihaly said.

Mihaly says school administrators have largely been able to alleviate that concern by avoiding faculty layoffs, and because they’ve been ”open about our budget numbers with the students.”

Buxton, a VLS graduate who has filed for unemployment to hold her over while she looks for a job that can accommodate her annual four-month absence during the legislative session, observed signs of frustration among the student body.

“With a population of students who are stressed to the max and learning to argue, it did become tough at times,” she said.

Buxton said staff have also felt the strain as they were asked to pick up the duties of  their departed coworkers.

“A number of staff who opted not to take the buyout are being required to reshape their responsibilities in a way that doesn’t support the best that those individuals have to offer the institution,” Buxton said. “I saw real frustration and some serious concerns.”

Weathering the storm

Mihaly said he thinks there may be a silver lining to the school’s cash-strapped state. The upshot of the absence of an encompassing university is that VLS has had to assume a lead role in finding ways to make legal education make it more affordable.

The buffer that big universities provide to other schools won’t be permanent, Mihaly said, and it may be preventing them from adapting to the changing contours of the legal profession.

“They used to be cash cows. We never were a cash cow. Now the universities are pumping cash into them, and we don’t have a mothership to do that, but that’s a vulnerability and a strength.”

Tuition at VLS is roughly $46,000 for 2013 — a 2 percent increase over 2012 — but Mihaly says VLS has committed to reducing the cost of tuition in the next several years.

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

Mihaly points to its accelerated J.D. program, which debuted last month with an enrollment of 12 students, as one of the ways VLS is trying to make a law school more affordable, and therefore more attractive, to students. The program will allow law students to get their degree in two years, saving them a year’s worth of tuition.

VLS has also been experimenting with distance learning for some of their masters degree programs, and enrollment there is growing, according to Peter Glenshaw, director of communications for the law school.

Another piece of good news for VLS is that the job placement rate for their graduates — which, historically, has hovered at around 75 percent within two to three months of passing the bar — hasn’t declined, despite the downturn in the legal profession, according to Mihaly.

“We’ve been utterly unaffected by the drop in employment and the reason is there is such a diversity in the direction our students go in,” he said.

The school’s environmental law program ranked first in the 2013 U.S. News & World Report ratings for the fifth year in a row, and Mihaly hopes that the legal specialty will continue to attract applicants.

Daniel Richardson graduated from VLS, where he is now an adjunct faculty member, in addition to being the incoming president of the Vermont Bar Association.

Richardson said he thinks VLS has been prudent in the cutbacks and changes it has pursued. “As far as I can see I think the cuts seem to be strategic. They are making cuts that are designed to make them leaner and capable of running… A lot of law schools are going through these transitions. Vermont Law School is just doing it more publicly… I think they’ve gotten some negative feedback because everyone is conservative in the legal profession and academia.”

Corrections:
This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. to reflect the following changes:

Class size for the J.D. program at VLS has typically been between 150 and 170 students for the last 20 years. This story originally stated the average was roughly 200 students. Class size increased from 2011 to 2012, but is expected to decrease in 2013.

The VLS environmental law program has been ranked number one by U.S. News & World Report for five years in a row, not four, as was originally reported.

Alicia Freese

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30 Comments on "Vermont Law School makes more cuts as class size drops"

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Clancy DeSmet
2 years 11 months ago

Forty-six thousand dollars a year is absolutely ludicrous, and it’s unsustainable.

By the way, interest rates on student loans will double next week. Congress has been very ineffective in supporting the 99%.

Clancy DeSmet
2 years 11 months ago

In 2006, the tuition was “only” $28K/year.

Townsend Peters
2 years 11 months ago

This is not just declining enrollment. Under former dean Shields, VLS went on a hiring and spending spree that was obviously unsustainable because demographics already indicated enrollment would decline.

Dave camel
2 years 11 months ago

The laid off faculty should have no problem finding partner or “of counsel” level positions at large law firms since they choose to give up these types of positions and the opportunity to make millions in order to teach law school.

Dave Stevens
2 years 11 months ago

Huh, a college in the state of Vermont with a declining enrollment due to abnormally high tuition that isn’t sustainable by any stretch of the imagination. Atleast we’re consistent.

2 years 11 months ago

Law school is a scam. Anyone thinking about law school should do research, read some blogs, read some books, and talk to young grads. Do not invest $150,000 plus and three years of your life for a 50% chance at a job that will only last a few years.

David Carpenter
2 years 11 months ago

I am not sure where all the bitterness is coming from in the comments, but they certainly seem long on hyperbole. I am a 1997 joint degree graduate and have had a very successful, enjoyable career for the past 16 years, as have most of my classmates. Vermont Law School was a great experience for me and for pretty much everyone I stay in touch with.

Karis North
2 years 11 months ago
I’m a 1995 JD and I’ve been practicing environmental law since I left VLS – I have a terrific fulfilling and, yes, lucrative career and the education I got at VLS was stellar. I’m a Cornell undergrad and I chose to attend VLS specifically because of its reputation in environmental law. I’ve been in mega firms and smaller firms, and there is no question my VLS education prepared me well for whatever came across my path. It is a challenging time for the law world — not just legal education. I commend Dean Mihaly, and the VLS administration, faculty and… Read more »
Karis North
2 years 11 months ago

I’d also like to share some of the terrific work VLS is doing in land use and civil rights. Below are links to recent articles by VLS professors on two of the Supreme Court’s decisions last week. The Echeverria article on the Koontz case was one of the most emailed articles in the NY Times last week, and the Gardina article in the Huffington Post also received significant attention. These are just two examples of the caliber of professor that teaches at VLS!

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/27/opinion/a-legal-blow-to-sustainable-development.html?_r=0

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jackie-gardina/visible-family-ties_b_3492140.html

Mark Sciarrotta
2 years 11 months ago
I’d echo the comments of Ms. North and Mr. Carpenter above. For people that want to influence positive change in their community and the world, a legal education is still an excellent investment and there is no better place to study law than Vermont Law School. Nationally, law school applications are way down and it’s not clear yet whether this is a cyclical phenomenon or the ‘new normal.’ But, in this uncertainty, Vermont Law School, under Dean Mihaly’s leadership is doing the right things—cutting costs, streamlining processes, and looking for innovative partnerships and solutions—all for the right reasons, and doing… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago
This story and some of its comments are a little disheartening. As a recent graduate of VLS, I know it’s a great institution that’s not going anywhere and feel it my duty to let you know why. VLS isn’t going anywhere because: (1) VLS’s promotion of environmental and public service careers is an important and admirable purpose which also leaves it uniquely suited to thrive in the face of the law school bubble; (2) the federal government still has its foot on the gas pedal for incentivizing careers in public service; and (3) the state’s compelling policy goal of educating… Read more »
John Lawrence
2 years 11 months ago

I would like to mention that my initial comment was censored by the website administrator. It appears the comments here are mainly from shills of Vermont Law School trying to conduct damage control. Maybe there are a couple successful VLS grads, but the majority of people are unemployed and likely never get jobs from this school. My niece attended VLS and she can’t even get a paralegal position. This school needs to close down. I look forward to my comments being published. Thank you.

Christopher Cooper
2 years 11 months ago
I fear that by talking only to school officials, VTdigger may be getting only 1/2 the story. Last year, I served as a 3L Senator on the VLS Student Bar Association. I was appointed to a special investigatory committee that, among other things, was charged with looking into recent tuition increases at the school, how they had been communicated to the students, and their impact on the school. What we discovered does not comport entirely with what you have been told. For instance, Pres Mihaly continues to imply that VLS enrollment declines are tied to the overall drop in applications… Read more »
Christopher Cooper
2 years 11 months ago
Re: Brian Buckley’s promotion of the federal “pay-as-you-go” loan repayment program. While this income-based repayment program ensures that your monthly loan repayments do not exceed a certain percentage of your income, the program: a) requires that you consolidate your loans — meaning you are prevented from paying down the principle on some loans (that may have higher interest rates) first and, in some cases means that you lose the LOWER interest rates on other loans. b) stretches your repayment out over such a long period that, in many cases, the monthly payments do not even cover the accrued interest on… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago
Chris, I appreciate your work in the investigatory committee and I think what you’ve uncovered is very important. I my opinion, the school’s financial aid should be need based and it was a terrible decision to switch to a merit based system. Thank you for bringing it to the school’s attention. Also, in response to your points about IBR: It’s called pay-as-you-earn. Pay-as-you-go is a budgetary rule in Congress. a) Federal Direct Consolidation does not require you to consolidation all of your loans. You can pick and choose which ones you want to keep separate and not pay under IBR.… Read more »
Christopher Cooper
2 years 11 months ago
Brian: Apologies for the “pay-as-you-go” / “pay-as-you-earn confusion (chalk it up to bar prep exhaustion). I think you are mixing apples and oranges when you combine some of the requirements of IBR (income-based repayment) and federal public service loan forgiveness (PSLF). Under IBR, you pay roughly 10% of your income for at least **25 years**, after which the remaining is forgiven. Under federal loan forgiveness, you can pay the IBR rate and have the balance forgiven in 10 years. …but there are a few (HUGE) catches. First,PSLF DOES require you to consolidate all qualifying loans — which, as you have… Read more »
John Smith
2 years 11 months ago
A few quick observations: — the job statistic quoted (75%) is a gross exaggeration — using VLS’s own numbers (which I would not trust anyway), fewer than 50% (93 of 206) of the 2012 graduates got a full-time, non-temp lawyer job — at best, only a few recent VLS grads (fewer than 10 out of 200 per class) can get a job that pays enough to support the cost of attendance, which, per the VLS website, is more than $200k — it is UNLIKELY that this school will be around much longer — whatever value the degree has, will be… Read more »
Kenneth Trainer
2 years 11 months ago
— the job statistic quoted (75%) is a gross exaggeration — using VLS’s own numbers (which I would not trust anyway), fewer than 50% (93 of 206) of the 2012 graduates got a full-time, non-temp lawyer job — at best, only a few recent VLS grads (fewer than 10 out of 200 per class) can get a job that pays enough to support the cost of attendance, which, per the VLS website, is more than $200k — it is UNLIKELY that this school will be around much longer — whatever value the degree has, will be worth less after the… Read more »
John Lawrence
2 years 11 months ago
I read on one of the law school scam blogs that VLS admitted a whopping 83% of its applicants. All I can say is WOW! That should go a long way toward increasing the school’s rankings. The bottom line is VLS charges too much money for the school’s reputation and the employments prospects for graduates. VLS can talk until it’s blue in the face about how its Environmental Program is #1 in the nation, but the truth is (1) no big firms care about specialty rankings; and (2) environmental law is a very small practice area. Even if you do… Read more »
Donald Kreis
2 years 11 months ago
This criticism is nothing but ad hominem baloney. Since there is no “John Lawrence” listed among Vermont’s active or inactive attorneys, he certainly isn’t in a position to opine knowledgeably about the marketplace for attorneys in Vermont. In these circumstances, perhaps he could explain how he knows that “no big firms care about specialty rankings.” More to the point, though, as someone who taught at VLS from 2008 to 2012 (and who still teaches at VLS through its distance learning program) I can testify that few if any VLS students aspire to working at the big firms. And the employers… Read more »
Fred Woogmaster
2 years 11 months ago
“Pro se” means appearing for oneself before a court. “any client who appoints him/her self as his/her own lawyer is a fool”. anonymous The legal profession has been very successful in elevating its members to “indispensable” status. When essential services are provided within the “profit model” those with means benefit, those without means are adversely affected! Increased tuition? Increased legal fees. Increased legal fees? Justice skewed, The People screwed. Separating those lawyers genuinely committed to service and to the attainment of equal justice (and there are some) from the legal institution, becomes more and more difficult. It is those billable… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago

Excellent Resource for anyone thinking about the above-mentioned IBR/Public Service Loan Forgiveness:

http://studentaid.ed.gov/sites/default/files/public-service-loan-forgiveness-common-questions.pdf

(Qualifying payments need not be consecutive)

Donald Kreis
2 years 11 months ago
This conversation has been bothering me and so I am reluctantly leaping into the fray to defend my former employer. I worked as the associate director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment (IEE) at Vermont Law School from 2008 to 2012. Full disclosure: I remain affiliated with VLS, where my title is Senior Energy Law Fellow. I teach courses in the school’s excellent Distance Learning program. Chris Cooper, who served as a fellow at the IEE during his time at VLS and is thus a former colleague, has performed a valuable service by obtaining and then analyzing the… Read more »
Christopher Cooper
2 years 11 months ago
I understand Don Kries’s desire to defend his colleagues and, if read carefully, one can see that I have anticipated all of the objections he raises. 1. Honest Information. As the report indicates, the 2010 tuition increase was announced to students through an email sent by then-President Shields. In that email, Pres. Shields made two statements that were inaccurate. The first (and most obvious) is that the 4% tuition increase tracked the rate of inflation. In fact, inflation (measured by the consumer price index) had not been above 3% since before the great recession in 2007. Second, he suggested that… Read more »
Donald Kreis
2 years 11 months ago
I understand that Mr. Cooper believes that the admissions and pricing strategy that VLS adopted in 2008, and continued thereafter, is inconsistent with his notion of social equity and perhaps that of others as well. But surely he cannot seriously contend that a different strategy would have caused VLS to become a more highly ranked law school or otherwise be more successful than it has proven to be. If he thinks so, he should offer up a plausible scenario for how that could have worked out. Further, Mr. Cooper’s defense of his allegation that VLS has essentially been lying to… Read more »
Christopher Cooper
2 years 11 months ago
Prof. Kreis is usually much better at preventing his passion from clouding his argument. Here, he constructs a classic series of straw-people, and begs adoration for having blown them down. 1. The Strategy. My contention was never that a better strategy for maintain VLS’s competitiveness would have been to keep rates low (though I think someone could probably make a pretty strong case for that. My statement was that strategy that VLS *DID* choose – to massively increase tuition rates in order to entice “better” students – failed miserably and should be abandoned. The burden in on those who would… Read more »
Donald Kreis
2 years 11 months ago
Fair enough . . . I concede that those who condemn others for their sly innuendo should eschew the tactic themselves. In that spirit: Wouldn’t it be more constructive if all of us — me, my former colleague Chris Cooper, everyone who is part of the VLS community, and perhaps the larger world of people who care about the law in Vermont and people who care about environmental law and policy (loosely defined) — agreed that it is in our best interests to see VLS continue to survive and thrive? Assuming it is, then what’s the point of continuing to… Read more »
Christopher Cooper
2 years 11 months ago
First, I have not left South Royalton. 😉 Second, Prof. Kries now collapses his argument to “can’t we all just forget the past and focus on the fix?” This is a convenient way to divert from the fact that HE is the one who “took issue” with one recommendation from the conclusion of my report (see above). He demanded that I justify (publicly) my suggestion that students receive accurate information about tuition increases and then berates ME for “flogging the school’s now-retired former Dean” when I effectively answer his objections. He builds more strawpeople by insinuating that I think VLS… Read more »
Christopher Cooper
2 years 11 months ago

On a personal level, I will also merely ask where in any of my postings here have I failed to act “in a civilized way” or made “reckless” accusations? I think the fact that I scrupulously researched these issues, including interviewing top members of the VLS Administration prior to issuing a balanced report providing reasonable recommendations attests otherwise. But, again, Prof. Kreis seems oblivious to his own standards regarding “defamation”.

Stephanie Kaplan
2 years 8 months ago

In 1979, tuition was $3,900. That would be $13,226 in today’s dollars. Back then the place was pretty funky and we didn’t have a gym or any other amenities, but then again we had much more manageable debt when we graduated and it was more possible to do public interest work.

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