Thomas McHenry. Thomas McHenry.

Vermont Law School has found its next dean in Big Law.

The school this week announced that Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Thomas J.P. McHenry will assume its top administrative post on July 1. McHenry, who maintains an environmental law practice in the firm’s Los Angeles office, has been with Gibson Dunn for 19 years. Vermont Law School is known for its strong focus on environmental law.

McHenry is an outside-the-box choice, as most law schools look to experienced academics to fill dean vacancies. A handful of other campuses, including Brooklyn Law School, the University of San Diego School of Law and Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, have former veterans from major law firms at the helm.

McHenry’s task won’t be easy. Vermont Law School, a stand-alone institution not affiliated with a university, has seen a nearly 37 percent decline in applications over the last five years, according to data from the American Bar Association. The falloff in applications and lower tuition revenue prompted Moody’s Investor Service to downgrade the school’s bond rating in 2014. Outgoing dean Marc Mihaly oversaw a restructuring at the school that reduced faculty and administrators through buyouts and layoffs. The school’s current enrollment is 383 students.

 

We talked to McHenry about the move from Gibson Dunn to the legal academy, and what he brings to the table. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Why leave Gibson Dunn to run a law school? It’s an unusual move.

The best response I can give is that the world of Gibson Dunn is very much like the world of a functioning faculty at a small college. We have a wonderful free-market system where nobody gets to tell anyone else what to do. We have to seduce them into doing it, because we offer our associates opportunities and they get to decide who they work for.

I’ve taught at Claremont McKenna College for 25 years—those are undergraduates and I taught an environment and policy class. I’ve loved doing it. I’ve also been very closely involved in the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, which I have a masters from. I’ve also taught at Vermont Law School for the past four summers—both land use courses and environmental business transactions classes, so I know the school very well. I’m very impressed by the mission and goals of Vermont Law School, which of course has a heavy focus on environmental law.

Tell me about your goals for the school.

The first thing is the students. Are we providing the maximum educational experience to the students? It sounds kind of Pollyanna-ish, but that’s the foundation—are we giving the students what they deserve?

Are we teaching them what they need to know to be effective lawyers? Is the school engaged in the kinds of innovative and thoughtful education programs in environmental law and criminal justice, which is another very strong area of the school.

Can I go out, along with the board and faculty, and raise money and support these programs? It’s not just money; it’s also about engagement.

Do you think your Big Law background will give you a different perspective on how to run a law school?

I know the board is hoping that’s the case. I think one of the things the school is hoping is that my contacts in the business community—and I’m on a lot of nonprofit boards—will be an opportunity to more broadly advertise Vermont Law School and get input from people in terms of how Vermont Law School can develop itself to be a more effective place.

What do you think will be your biggest challenge as dean?

The really good news about Vermont Law School is that dean Marc Mihaly, who’s stepping down after five tough years, has done an excellent job in trimming all the fat from the budget, balancing the budget, and developing a good strategic plan. It was one of my concerns when I was interviewing for the job—I was worried about the economics of smaller law schools, particularly independent ones that can’t lean on a university. I satisfied myself that the school is in a good place financially.

There of course are huge challenges. I think the fact that the American public is learning more about the rule of law right now, in our national political landscape, is probably going to lead more people to attend law school. That’s an external factor we can’t control.

What will you miss most about Big Law?

I’m going to miss the incredibly bright, thoughtful, engaged, responsive, and socially committed young lawyers in my law firm. We had lawyers out at, I think, five different airports working on the refugee issue two weeks ago. That’s the kind of thing that makes me deeply proud of my colleagues here at Gibson Dunn.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ.