The words “bucolic,” “serene,” and “quaint” are not normally associated with a law school. But it’s common to hear these and similar descriptions of Vermont Law School in rural South Royalton, VT (population 700). How rural you ask? The nearest traffic light is purportedly 27 miles away. Yeah. That rural.
But even this frozen-in-time New England hamlet is not immune from the relentless winds of change in legal education. In late June, Vermont Law School announced that it would be terminating tenure for 14 of its 19 tenured faculty. In doing so Vermont has, at least in the media, become the de facto example of the significant financial and operational challenges faced by independent law schools.
This matters to me for a host of reasons, primary among which is that I am a proud graduate of Vermont Law School. Class of 1994. Still have the skis I used to get to class in rough winter weather (to you flatlanders, “rough” equals 2+ feet of snow).
I could be wrong, but I suspect that this story has attracted more attention than the school has seen in its 46 years of existence. I stopped counting the number of news outlets that picked up this story in the last few weeks at 20, including Forbes, the ABA Journal, SFGate, Above the Law, the Law Professor Blogs Network and Inside Hire Ed. Given my involvement over the past decade in discussions on the future of legal education, I get it. I really do.
However, setting aside any discourse on the administration’s approach to removing tenure from the affected faculty, it occurs to me that there’s an obtuse rush to judgement and a certain sense of smugness in some of these articles. I.e., “See, I told you these non-elite schools aren’t sophisticated enough to properly respond to an evolving marketplace . . .” One highly-read industry commentator even compared the quality of a Vermont Law education to a Kia, whereas a Columbia Law education is a Bentley! Nice. If his goal was to anger and belittle 600+ current Vermont Law students, as well as the several thousand alumni who work to make good use of that very education for companies, governments & individuals on a daily basis – all for the purpose of punctuating his economic conclusions – then he succeeded. Congratulations, sir.
From my perspective, it appears that like many law schools across the country, Vermont was indeed losing money for several years. Like other stand-alone schools, Vermont Law has a relatively small endowment (roughly $10 million, compared to Columbia’s $450 million) and few cash reserves, as the school spends close to 100% of its income each year. But make no mistake: those of us with deep connections to the school are very aware that recent administrations have not simply been fiddling away the days as the legal education marketplace constricted around them.
Vermont Law retained consultants on several occasions over the past few years to develop strategies and solutions for the school to weather the financial storm (see The Trials of Vermont Law School, September 10, 2014, by Kathryn Flagg, accessed July 25, 2018). Hard choices were made, including staff layoffs in 2012 and the voluntary transition of 8 faculty from full-time to part-time and an overall trimming of $4 million from the operating budget, in 2013. Outside observers who ruminate on whether or not these moves were all that could be done or were the best possible strategies under the circumstances are navel gazing. You can’t change the entire financial position of any enterprise without taking some risks, suffering the second-guessing crowd, and accepting that friends and family might end up being casualties along the way.
But, there’s another story about Vermont Law that hasn’t been told. It’s about how pragmatic leaders across at least 2 administrations also worked hard to evolve and differentiate both their curriculum as well as the manner of instruction for most of the last decade. Unsurprisingly, much of this has been done in both anticipation of, and response to, the shrinking legal education marketplace. Virtually every step taken is one that legal education scholars (including a couple who have opined on the current situation) routinely advocate for schools in similar financial and operational crunches to raise the profile of the school, boost alumni giving and attract new students.
- In 2013, Vermont Law started offering an accelerated, 2-year J.D. program. This remains one of only a handful of such programs at independent law schools and ends up costing two-thirds the cost of a three-year program. (see: Mihaly: Law school in two years? We’re doing it, September 5, 2013, accessed July 26, 2018).
- The school has had long partnerships with global institutions, offering a total of 10 distinct dual-degree programs. For example, students can earn both an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth (just down the road from the school) and a Masters in Environmental Law from Vermont Law.
- Vermont Law is one of the few schools to implement online J.D. and Masters of Law programs as options (the J.D. a hybrid online and in-person program, as the ABA has not yet accredited any fully-online J.D. programs). Vermont’s foray into this space dates to 2006.
- Vermont was one of the first law schools to significantly invest in experiential learning by allowing students to earn a full semester of academic credit in an off-campus apprenticeship. The current courses include the Semester in Practice, a Judicial Externship, and a Part-Time JD Externship.
- The school is among the leaders in the recently-released Law School Innovation Index, a project by Professor Dan Linna of Michigan State University Law School. Driving this are 8 separate courses that are focused on legal service delivery innovation and technology. Only three other law schools have more such courses, and none are independent schools. In fact, Vermont’s Center for Legal Innovation, founded in 2015 (of which I am a Fellow), and its leaders have been profiled in recent articles by the ABA, Forbes, the Legal Executive Institute and the National Jurist.
- Lastly, for at least the last 5 years Vermont Law has not only attended ALM’s annual LegalTech show in New York, but it has taken a sponsor’s booth to promote the school’s spirit of innovation and provide networking assistance and exposure to emerging legal technologies for the students that attend the show.
The importance of the final two points above is more significant than may be apparent, as there are currently no less than 3 growing legal technology companies that have origins at Vermont Law:
- Skopos Labs: An AI-powered research platform that turns unstructured policymaking data into accurate predictions of risk and opportunity,
- Text-A-Lawyer: Featured in a recent Law.com story: This ‘Serial Entrepreneur’ Thinks Finding a Lawyer Can Be as Easy as Hailing an Uber, July 5, 2018 (accessed July 25, 2018), and
- Community Lawyer: With offerings ranging from portals that help bar associations operate referral services to hosting services that help legal experts encode their knowledge.
One may read all of this and say, “This is all fine and good, but the simple fact is that the financial model for all but a few elite law schools is unsustainable.” A fair point for sure, and one with which I am confident Vermont Law’s leaders agree, on some level.
But for those who observe from a distance and conclude that Vermont Law is a doomed enterprise that has blindly been reshuffling the financial deck chairs, take the time to adjust and appreciate the view of an upstart, innovative school doing a damn good job, not only of improving its chances for long-term survival, but of taking the kinds of calculated risks with its curriculum and instructional model that many experts advocate and feel will pay off and be core to the law school experience in the not-too-distant future.
Kevin Colangelo is a Senior Director at HBR Consulting. He is a veteran legal executive, entrepreneur and corporate lawyer. Kevin has held leadership positions at three Am Law 100 law firms and was instrumental in the development and growth of two successful alternate legal service providers.
More information on the ALM Intelligence Fellows Program can be found here.