Struggling law school seeks to reinvent itself
South Royalton, Vt., is a quiet, unassuming town with a population of just over 600. Like most colonial-era New England hamlets, it has a handful of historic buildings and landmarks, including a memorial commemorating the birthplace of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
South Royalton’s main claim to fame, however, is that it is home to Green Mountain State’s only law school.
Vermont Law School has dispensed juris doctor degrees to students from across New England and beyond since 1972. Many have come to the sleepy central Vermont village because of the college’s emphasis on the environmental law and policy, as well as his progressive vision of justice.
But like many smaller institutions across the country, in recent years, VLS has suffered from declining enrollment, shifting regional demographics, and shaky finances. Now the only college in Vermont that offers a JD is looking to reinvent itself by betting big on a new slate of master’s degree programs.
In June, officials announced a restructuring plan that includes adding three new master’s programs and changing the college’s name to Vermont Law and Graduate School, a rebranding that officials hope will better sum up the growing diversity of its educational offerings.
The redesign was made possible in part by an anonymous donation of $8 million, the largest ever received by the independent college.
The law school offered a handful of master’s degrees, including the standard Master of Laws (LLM), even before it added the “G” to its acronym. The restructuring, however, adds degree offerings to the graduate school and places equal emphasis on its non-JD programs. It also greatly expands student options for online courses.
Rodney Smolla, a seasoned lawyer and higher education leader, took over as president of Vermont Law and Graduate School in July, just weeks after the changes were announced. He said the college’s innovative restructuring plan and progressive history attracted him to the position.
“There is real richness in trying to approach these issues from both a traditional legal perspective and a public policy perspective,” he said. “You could deliver a lot more in terms of educational opportunities if you invested as much or nearly as much on the public policy side as you do on the traditional law side.”
Declining enrollment is a concern across higher education, but it has particularly affected law schools. Interest in JD programs plummeted after the 2008 recession, and while the numbers have gone up and down since then, law school enrollment isn’t what it used to be.
Vermont Law School is no different. According to data from the nonprofit Law School Transparency, VLS hosted a class of 212 first-year law students in 2010, but by 2013 that number had dropped to 129.
The decline led to financial difficulties, which were exacerbated by VLS’s independent status, which meant it was not backed by a university or larger system that could help defray the costs. In 2018, the college reduced the tenure of many faculty as part of a broader restructuring effort to address budget shortfalls.
Smolla thinks the trajectory is changing. Last year, the class of incoming JD candidates numbered 174, the highest for the college since the recession. This year there are 150 new JD residential students; a new online JD program has already filled its share of 20 spots and now has a waiting list.
“I think we’ve turned the corner,” Smolla said. “I am very optimistic.”
Small College Blues in Green Mountain State
It’s been a tough decade for small liberal arts colleges in Vermont. In 2019, three private institutions within 100 miles of each other closed: Green Mountain College, the College of St. Joseph, and Southern Vermont College. A fourth institution, Marlboro College, became the Marlboro Institute when it merged with Emerson College in Boston the same year.
Karen Gross served as president of Bennington-based Southern Vermont College from 2006 to 2014. She said to survive, small colleges must be ambitious in both recruiting strategies and educational offerings.
“VLGS should be commended for trying to innovate, and I think what they’ve done and broken down silos, moved more programs online and stayed close to their mission is smart,” she said. “But I wonder if it’s too little, too late.”
Gross, who is also a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Department of Education, said small law schools as well as colleges in Vermont are under increasing pressure to stand out in a crowded market with a shrinking customer base. She thinks her own college could have been saved if it weren’t for a “lack of creativity and boldness” on the part of the leaders who succeeded her, and she fears that VLGS suffers from a similar deficiency.
“What they did was move the needle 15 degrees. You have to move the needle 160 degrees,” Gross said. “Now is not the time to tweak the margins. Want to do something different? Go big.”
Smolla said he was confident in the strategic plan of VLGS, adding that the college has some advantages that other small institutions do not have. Its progressive mission and status as Vermont’s only law school have made it a cause celebre for many state policymakers and philanthropists.
“People care, the government cares, our senators care. Because it’s so important to the state,” he said. “That’s an advantage we have that you wouldn’t necessarily see at a small liberal arts college in the middle of the Midwest with many other competing schools.”
Smolla also noted VLGS’s unique focus on environmental issues, which he hopes will draw students to campus as well as its online programs, which he says share the same ethos.
“That’s always been the romance of this beautiful, rural, mountainous state: the idea that people who care about the environment can also enjoy being in the environment, in nature,” he said. “But this Vermont state of mind is more than just a physical place; it’s a culture and an attitude…so you could take our classes from Los Angeles or from China, but in a sense you would still be in Vermont.
“Diversifying the product range”
According to data from the American Bar Association, one in six law students was enrolled in a non-JD program during the 2020-2021 school year. At some law schools, such as the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona, students in non-JD programs far outnumber traditional law students.
“If you look at it from a purely economic perspective, it just diversifies the product line,” said Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “If you find that your potential consumers are drying up or insufficient to support your business, it makes sense to explore what other products you can offer.”
These law-adjacent master’s degree programs provide legal training in specific issues that could be useful to those pursuing careers in politics, consulting, accounting, nonprofit advocacy work, or a number of other areas where legal knowledge is useful but a JD is not required.
Many law schools offer master’s degree programs in tax law and entertainment law, for example; VLGS’s expanded degree offerings build on its carefully cultivated niche. The new master’s offerings – environmental policy, energy regulation, food and agricultural policy, and restorative justice – are all close to its long-standing mission to train students to use the law to fight for justice and environmental protection.
Smolla believes that as the climate crisis deepens and issues of environmental injustice become more widespread, VLGS degree offerings will be more valuable — and more in demand — than ever before.
“There will be a lot of students who aren’t interested in becoming practicing lawyers or going to law school for three years, but who care about those intersections in various ways,” Smolla said. “Our feeling was that we could attract a lot of students that we don’t currently have.”
Tamanaha, author of Law school failure (University of Chicago Press, 2012), is, by his own admission, a cynical observer of the legal education landscape. Still, he said while there’s reason to be skeptical about the value of non-JD law school programs, expanding degree options is both a savvy business decision and a way to respond. at the request of students.
“For many schools, this could eventually become the main source of income,” Tamanaha said. “If they keep adding masters programs and keep seeing the pool of JDs dwindle, maybe that’s what will make the operation work.”