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The Inner Circle / Summer 2017

 

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>> Online Learning: Increasing Access and Opportunity
>> The Significance of Our USDA Loan
>> New Member Ed Montoya JD'92

 

Farewell from the President and Dean

 

Dear Leaders' Circle and President's Society members,

Marc Mihaly

This is my final opportunity as President and Dean to thank each of you for your support and generosity to VLS, and for the help and advice many of you have provided to me over the last five years. On July 1, 2017, I will return to faculty status; I look forward to teaching this spring. During the last few months, and intensively in the final weeks of June, I have spent many enjoyable hours with my successor, Tom McHenry. Tom has attended key internal meetings, and has joined me in speaking with representatives of our congressional delegation and other key external partners with VLS. I’m pleased with this smooth transition.

I am also most pleased that VLS has reached a stable fiscal situation after weathering the decline in JD enrollment of the past years. At the same time as we reduced expenses, we invested in new revenue-generating activities, and increased our admissions and communications capabilities. The result is a second year of balanced budgets without increases in tuition, and what appears as of this writing to be an increase in enrollment for the 2017-18 academic year for the JD, the masters, and the LLM programs.

It may appear trite to re-state the obvious fact that VLS is unique, but in my years as Dean, I have learned the truth and importance of the fact. Our independence, our national reach, and our strong identity combine to make us virtually unique among law schools.

Let’s look at each of these characteristics:

  • Independence: We are one of only a dozen or so independent law schools of the more than 200 ABA accredited institutions; most are embedded in large state or private universities, with their finances inextricably bound to their “mother ship”. Only the few independents have their own balance sheets, know the true all-in cost of the education they offer, and control their own finances.
  • National Reach: Almost all law schools are basically oriented towards their own state; their graduates come from that state, take the bar and practice there. Nearly three quarters of the lawyers in the United States practice within 30 miles of where they went to law school. By contrast, VLS is totally national and international. We send our graduates to more states than all but a half dozen law schools.
  • Identity: We have a most powerful identity—a brand associated with a small, rural community, with the environmental and climate change endeavor, and with social justice and the rule of law. Most law schools strive to find such a differentiator, but they struggle because they are essentially similar to most of their competitors.

These three special attributes combine to make us truly different from other schools, and this uniqueness is a great gift. The unique identity means that special people, risk-takers, interesting, and unusual in their ambitions, continue as they always have to find their way to VLS. It is their special qualities that make our classrooms and then our alumni different from the classrooms and alumni of almost all other law schools.

Our structural independence means that more than any other school, we can innovate, and we can move quickly. Our financial independence and accountability means we can measure the financial results of our innovation, and iteratively adjust as we go. This is the essence of entrepreneurial change. This and our national reach and reputation means that it will be at VLS that the next, best model for legal and policy education will be invented and reinvented. VLS will create the new graduate education paradigm, and all of our past, present and future students will be the beneficiaries.

Again, thank you from the bottom of my heart for the opportunity to serve this great community of more than 7,000 students, faculty and alumni.

Warmly,

 Marc Mihaly signature

Marc Mihaly
President and Dean
Vermont Law School


Online Learning: Increasing Access and Opportunity
 

Inner Circle online learningWhether it’s called distance learning, e-learning, online learning or technology-aided learning, ultimately it’s simply learning. “The printing press was seen as a disruptive technology, but it transformed learning and society. Similarly, online learning and emerging technologies have the potential to transform legal and graduate education and increase access and opportunity,” new VLS Faculty Director of Online Learning Linda Hiemer says.

As a leader in the early development of online legal education, Vermont Law School is building on its online learning program to transform education and help prepare students for 21st-century practice. The American Bar Association’s plan to review its accreditation standards will likely increase its focus on innovation. Current ABA standards permit JD students to take up to 15 credits at a distance after the first year. It’s partly a nod to “the acceptance of digital learning as equal, if not superior, to traditional classroom learning,” Hiemer says. “Legal education lags behind higher education’s implementation of online learning programs by at least 15 years.”

VLS, which began offering online programs in 2011, has not lagged. Most LLM programs and some master’s programs and JD courses are online. VLS is in a minority of law schools with online JD courses. And the school was involved early on with the Working Group on Distance Learning in Legal Education, a consortium of law schools. “VLS strives to provide its students unique pathways to degrees by leveraging technology in innovative ways that will continue to make us a leader in accessibility to a quality and rigorous degree program regardless of discipline,” Hiemer says.

The school plans to develop courses and programs that are online and blended, which entails a combination of components that are face-to-face residential and technology-aided. VLS also is increasing its commitment to online learning through Hiemer’s role, as well as a new student services adviser and registrar dedicated to online students. Hiemer foresees continued growth in distance learning, particularly with the blended model, but VLS will not become a fully online school. “We’ll see a cross-pollination of the best practices of each modality, and something organic will arise from that. We can create the future. That’s how Vermont Law School is unique because of its leadership in the environment, in social justice, and in seeing the potential in both people and practice. We can leverage technology to get there.”

Recognition is increasing of the role of technology in strengthening the justice system through better access to knowledge and advocacy. Online learning has a part in that. Most students in VLS online degree programs and courses are working professionals. Distance learning may be a more affordable and realistic platform for them because courses are offered sequentially, and the flexibility allows them to continue working and stay in their community instead of moving to attend classes at VLS. About 350 students have graduated through VLS online programs. Online courses and programs align with the VLS mission and strategic plan, Hiemer notes. “Technology helps in learning transfer and should improve performance on some assessments, such as the bar exam,” she says.

Despite its prevalence, distance learning has critics. Some VLS alumni worry it might devalue their degree. But on evaluation forms, most VLS students indicate online courses and programs are comparable to or more rigorous than traditional classes, and that aligns with broader research studies, according to Hiemer.

By increasing access to legal education, the Online Learning Program will help strengthen—and sustain—VLS. “We want to be proactive, not reactive,” Hiemer says. “It’s about responding to the needs of our students, our industry and society.”


The Significance of Our USDA Loan

VLS CampusVermont Law School has experienced one of the most significant positive financial developments in the history of the school. In February of this year, we were able to replace our bonded indebtedness with much lower interest loan from the Federal government. The Rural Development arm of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA-RD) runs a competitive program to provide assistance to non-profit entities that support rural development in underserved areas of the country. In recognition of the reality that VLS injects over $30 million per year into rural Vermont and creates over 300 jobs in the area, USDA-RD awarded the school a $17 million loan on generous terms.

We utilized most of the loan proceeds to replace our $13 million in bonded indebtedness, most of which carried a 6 percent interest rate, with the loan that carries an historically low 2.375 percent rate fixed for 40 years, resulting in a savings to VLS of over $600,000 per year for the next decade.

In addition, we are able to invest over $2 million of the loan to implement revenue-producing programs in our Strategic Plan earlier than would have otherwise been feasible.

This fortuitous event would not have occurred without the assistance of the USDA-RD regional staff, and the unwavering support of Senator Patrick Leahy and his staff throughout the process.


New Member Ed Montoya JD'92


Ed and Carmen MontoyaAffable and kindhearted—these are words that colleagues and friends use to describe Ed Montoya ’92. His philosophy towards his clients is simple: “I make them a part of my family. It’s the only way I can understand their losses, their sorrows, the challenges ahead that they face.”

When it comes to the courtroom, a different Ed emerges: grimly persistent, fiercely devoted, relentlessly committed to clients’ needs and rights. Ed has helped countless families in wrongful death, product liability matters, and air disasters, including 15 separate international air disaster cases. He has tackled corporate giants such as Bridgestone/Firestone, Ford Motor Company, Goodyear and Cooper Tire and Rubber in defective design and manufacturing cases.

When he talks about VLS, the softer side of Ed reappears: “Vermont Law School gave me the ability to interact with the most incredible professors in the nation and some of the brightest people I’ve ever come across. My classmates from school–these people mean everything to me. Professionally, I am part of a community of lawyers, but Vermont Law School gave me a community of life-long friends. I never expected that I would meet teachers, colleagues, friends from around the country who were so accepting.”

A native of Queens, New York, Ed and his family moved to Miami when he was in high school. He graduated from Florida International University with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Vermont Law School was on his “short list” of potential law schools; the drive from the Lebanon, NH, airport to South Royalton sealed his fate. “I took a look at the landscape, the beauty of the mountains, the trees, the White River and said, ‘this is it….this is where I belong.’”

For most students, the first year of law school is fraught with adjustments and challenges. For Ed, this proved to be the case. The worst of it came in his second semester when his mother’s cancer advanced to the point where death was imminent. Ed recalled, “Stephanie Willbanks, Liz Cole, and my other professors said ‘if you need time off, take it. Vermont Law School will always be here for you.’ With that kind of support, my motto became, ‘I will not give up.’ I graduated on-time with my classmates, and I will always be grateful for the support I received during the most difficult period in my life.”

Ed has been a consistent and loyal supporter of Vermont Law School, organizing regional events in Miami, helping recruit students, and training new lawyers. A passionate advocate for social justice, he says, “helping people in the true sense of the word is my passion–whether it be at a trial, helping a paralegal who wants an internship, mentoring young lawyers, or promoting equal justice for immigrants. I think I get more happiness helping a person to learn than I do winning a case.”

The generosity that means so much to Ed also drives his support of the school. Quite simply Ed says, “I love Vermont Law School.” We feel the love, and proudly welcome him to the Leaders’ Circle.

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Welcome New Members

The Leaders' Circle continues to grow!

The following people have joined or renewed their membership in the Leaders' Circle since the winter of 2017:

  • Merrill H. Jacobson '90
  • Catherine MacKenzie
  • John R. Keough '80
  • Judith Needham '14
  • Edward J. Chesnik '76
  • Amy E. Cornelius '02
  • Michael E. Zeliger '96
  • Jessie N. Roberts '80
  • Amara W. Morrison '87
  • Richard K. Teitell '77
  • Christian Robin '85
  • Robert C. Costello '92
  • Jacqueline A. Hughes '81
  • Elizabeth J. Byrne '90
  • Arturo A. Hernandez '07
  • Adrienne Soler '87
  • Edward Montoya '92
  • Lindi D. von Mutius '08

 

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