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.
“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.
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.”
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.