VLS Spring

The Inner Circle / Spring 2015


Alma Walls: A Lawyer on Her Own Terms
Admissions Update
VLSAA Board Gives 100%
You Made it Happen: The SRLC
Raising Money for Vermont Law School


A Financial Update

Dean Marc Mihaly

Dear members of the Leaders' Circle,

I know you care deeply about Vermont Law School. You may have read that law school applications have declined nation-wide for the last four years. Many of you have asked how we are doing in this difficult time for law schools. So, I’m writing both to assure you of our fiscal health and to give you some specifics on how we have adjusted to changes in the national market. Because of our unique advantages, VLS has adjusted quickly and we are already seeing tangible results from our efforts. VLS has a strong financial future.

First, our advantages:

Vermont Law possesses three key advantages over most law schools:

  • We are independent instead of part of a larger university. We know the true cost of the education we offer, we run our business carefully, and we balance our budget every year.
  • We’re small, so we can make decisions quickly. We can adjust to prevailing conditions more rapidly than many schools.
  • We’re unique and we have a niche. We can differentiate ourselves from other law schools, highlighting our top ranked environmental program, small scale, and Vermont roots.

We adjusted quickly:

When the downturn in law school applications began in 2011, we quickly adjusted our operating expenses and right-sized our operation. Within three years we reduced our instructional budget by more than 30%, more than the decline in the number of enrolled students.

In October 2014 our board adopted a Strategic Financial Implementation Plan that set parameters for investment, additional cuts, and a limited use of reserves. We didn’t just cut expenses, we also expanded strategically. Pursuant to that plan, we have:

  • Invested in state-of-the-art web and media communications.
  • Developed one of the best admissions operations in the country.
  • Reduced our administrative expenses by over 20%.
  • Increased our scholarship funding and reduced the median cost of a VLS education.
  • Invested in aggressive new marketing and outreach to prospective students.
  • Initiated two new revenue generating programs: a pre-law program for undergraduates and a corporate education program.
  • Identified further cost savings.
  • More than doubled our fundraising goal for unrestricted giving.

As a result of this investment, last year, when JD enrollment was down nation-wide, we increased our enrollment by 13%. This year’s JD applications are strong again, and our master’s and LLM applications are at an all-time high. Our revenue-generative programs are growing slowly, but steadily. And, fundraising is on target to meet this year’s goal.

A “bottom” in the trend, and a positive financial future for VLS:

I believe that the nation-wide decline in law school applications may be approaching or have reached a “bottom.” After years of double-digit declines, new LSAT test-takers rose 6% in December and 9% in January. We will watch carefully how the market moves in the coming year, and adjust accordingly.

I do not expect JD enrollments to reach pre-recession levels because the recession spurred structural changes in the profession. At VLS, we now plan for slow and steady increases in enrollment in the next few years, but not to the levels seen prior to 2011. We have adjusted our fiscal footprint so that, at a permanently smaller size, we can offer our unique and excellent education with an operation that runs in the black.

Write me with questions!

I’ve purposely kept this discussion short, but I would be delighted to share more information and to discuss our future with any of you. Please, do not hesitate to write me at presidentsoffice@vermontlaw.edu or to call me at 802-831-1237. And thank you for your attention and your generosity.

Very best,

Marc Mihaly signature white

Marc B. Mihaly, President and Dean

A Lawyer on Her Own Terms

Alma Walls Leaders CircleIf what it takes is vision and fortitude to change careers in your 40s, Alma Walls JD'01 had both, plus a clearly defined goal: to become an entrepreneur in the field of law.

Prior to enrolling at Vermont Law School in 1998 in her early 40s, Alma worked as a business education teacher for ten years, and then as a bodily injury claim representative at Allstate insurance for 12 years. Today, Alma runs her own law firm in Clarksdale, Mississippi specializing in personal injury law.

Her decision to attend law school confused her friends and family. “My friends thought something was wrong with me,” Alma described. “My coworkers said, ‘you have a great job, great home, great car.’ They didn’t understand the goals I had for myself. They couldn’t understand my dream. I wanted to practice law and do it on my own terms.”

“Thanks to VLS I was able to realize the goals that I set for myself,” said Alma. “I will always be appreciative and thankful to Vermont Law School for all that they did for me, which is why I support VLS. I want to give back, because of the extraordinary opportunities that opened up for me because of the JD.”

In September 2014, Alma established the Walls Scholarship—a $5,000 annual scholarship she hopes will encourage students in their 40s, 50s, and older to pursue the dream of obtaining their Juris Doctorate. “I value the education I received and want others to experience such amazing law school.”

Admissions Update

By John Miller '09, Associate Dean for Enrollment and Marketing

VLS campus greenIt’s mission critical time for the Vermont Law School Admissions department; April 15 was the deadline for both soft applications and deposits for our first group of admitted students. But despite the break-neck pace around the office the last few weeks—weeks crammed with visiting applicants, travel, and application review, we have come out on the other side with positive news.

As of today, JD applications to VLS are 1% ahead of last year. We are bucking the continued national decline in law school applications, which, according to the Law School Admissions Council, are down 5% over last year. The fact that we are going in the other direction is a big achievement, and speaks to the quality of our programs and the reputation that VLS has maintained in the legal education market.

The Accelerated JD program (AJD), introduced in 2013, is also showing signs of growth. The AJD allows Vermont Law students to complete a full 3-year JD program in just 2 years—allowing students to save on living costs and enter the job market sooner. Our third class, the summer start AJD, is looking to be our largest yet, with fifteen students already deposited. The AJD addresses the very real need for a reduced-cost option for students pursuing a JD, and VLS is one of only a handful of schools offering it.

All of this success is the result of Vermont Law School’s investment in programs that work. We strive to meet the needs of the next generation of law students, and inspire them to come to Vermont for a degree that will help them make a difference. Our marketing and admissions strategy has focused on connecting these students with our community, our programs, faculty, and alumni and giving them an inside look at the VLS experience.

VLSAA Board Gives 100%

VLS education for allIn March, the Vermont Law School Alumni Association Board of Directors passed a resolution, for the sixth consecutive year, requiring that each member of the board make a financial contribution to VLS’s annual fund. In each of those years, 100% of the board made that financial contribution.

The resolution, introduced by Jackie Brilling JD’79 and passed by unanimous vote, demonstrates the board’s belief that participation in giving is a vital part of the alumni relationship with the school. “The VLSAA Board represents all alumni, and we strive to lead by example,” says board president, Karis North JD’95. “VLS educated, inspired, and prepared us for our futures. As board members we give back in many ways, but this is one way that is definite, measureable, and ensures that future generations of students will have access to the educational experience that makes Vermont Law School so special.”

Though 100% participation in giving is VLSAA board policy, there is no prescribed amount for each member’s gift. This is deliberate, sending a clear message: It is the act of giving that matters. Though there are 6,700 alumni of Vermont Law School, 40 years of graduates who work all over the country and the world in a staggering variety of professions and positions, right now, only 10% of those alumni support VLS philanthropically.

It might seem like just a number, but the percentage of alumni giving to their alma mater can have a big impact. Most directly, it can affect VLS’s ability to offer financial aid, provide student services, and attract and retain quality faculty and staff. U.S. News & World Report tabulates alumni participation in some of its rankings; and donors perceive participation rates as an indicator of alumni satisfaction (which, they feel, directly correlates to the strength of the degree program).

”The importance of developing and encouraging alumni philanthropy is one of our ongoing goals,” North notes. Through this annual resolution the VLSAA lets every alumnus/a know: You are an important part of Vermont Law School, integral to the VLS spirit of giving, and your annual gift of any size makes a difference.

Donors Made It Happen: Center for Legal Services

SRLC green summerIn 2008, Vermont Law School’s South Royalton Legal Clinic was at a crossroads. Pierce House, the SRLC’s home for 30 years, was deteriorating. The condition of the building and the lack of handicap accessibility threatened the law school’s accreditation. Meanwhile, the SRLC’s caseload was growing, and the constraints of the building limited the program’s ability to bring on additional student clinicians.

In response, VLS purchased an historic South Royalton building on the corner of Windsor and Chelsea Streets. Envisioning a new, state-of-the-art facility to house the SRLC and the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, the law school began to reach out to its community for support. Four years, 967 gifts, 511 donors, and nearly $2 million later, the renovation was complete and the clinics moved in to their new home.

It’s not hard to see the impact of this campaign. The South Royalton Legal Clinic alone provides more than $1.5M in pro bono legal services to low-income individuals and families in Vermont and New Hampshire every year. It serves as a training ground for up to 30 student clinicians each semester, giving VLS students the opportunity to work with and represent clients who, without the SRLC, might be forced to face their legal problems alone.

A closer look at the Clinic reveals the breadth of its work and its leadership in important state and national legal issues. Building upon, and maintaining, its provision of core legal aid services in areas such as public benefits and family and consumer law, the South Royalton Legal Clinic now also represents immigrants in asylum and related matters, and children caught up in intra-family disputes. .

The clinic’s outreach efforts provide valuable information to incarcerated women on family law, and to attorneys and social workers on immigration law. Students are active in every phase of the work in both the clinic’s Vermont Immigrant Assistance (VIA) program, coordinated by Professor Erin Jacobsen ’11, and the Children First! Legal Advocacy Project (CF!), coordinated by attorney Alex Banks ’87.

Just this year, the Clinic added a program aimed at serving the state’s nearly 50,000 veterans. Vermont has one of the largest per capita veteran populations in the country, and their need for legal services is growing. The Vermont Veterans Legal Assistance Project (VVLAP), led by Vermont Poverty Law Fellow Katelyn Atwood ’10, gives veterans access to direct legal assistance through the SRLC.

The staff and students of VVLAP take cases before the Veteran’s Administration, courts and other administrative agencies. They meet with Vermonters around the State who serve veterans, from members of the Governor’s Veterans Advisory Council to mental health outreach workers, to discuss ways to collaborate for better outcomes for their clients. In less than a year, the Project has become an integral part of veteran’s services in Vermont.

SRLC clinicians are doing this kind of work every day. This spring, students advocated for equal pay, filing an amicus brief addressing alleged violations of the Equal Pay Act and the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act by the Vermont Department of Corrections. They fought for clients denied social security disability, writing and filing motions and comprehensive memoranda of law in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont, challenging the decisions of the Commissioner of Social Security.

This work, and the enthusiasm of the staff and students, indicate clearly that the SRLC is thriving in its new building. The Center for Legal Services facility has given the program the space, technology, and resources it needs to provide professional, high-quality legal access to a growing client base. And the student clinicians do their first real-world legal work in a supportive environment that inspires them to give back to their communities long after they’ve left Vermont Law.

Watch the up-close and personal video about the Center for Legal Services.

Raising Money for Vermont Law School

By Rick Shafer JD'77, Member, Board of Trustees; Chair, Dean's Leadership Committee

Rick ShaferEach of us gives to Vermont Law School for our own personal reason, and for each of us, that story is different. For me, it's a way to recognize that my success as an attorney was built on my VLS education, and to help ensure the continued success of the law school. I also give as a gesture of thanks and appreciation for the total VLS experience. My time in South Royalton provided me with lifelong friendships, memories and a feeling that I am a small part of a very special place. You may donate as a gesture of thanks, or to support the law school because of its work on environmental issue, its pro bono clinics, its international law program, or for other reasons.

As we seek to grow the Leaders' Circle and increase alumni participation in giving to VLS, it is important to really understand why our alumni give, and why some are increasingly choosing not to give. In a ten year span, Vermont Law School alumni participation in giving to the Fund for VLS - the focus of our current fundraising efforts - has averaged around 9.8 percent, fluctuating from a high of 11.77 (2010) to a low of 6.7 percent (2014).

There are, of course, some very real challenges tor many of our alumni; graduates from VLS in 2013 carried an average debt load of $156,713. Nearly 40% of Vermont Law School graduates go on to careers in government and non-profit organizations. Because we are a public interest and environmental law school, the critical work that our alumni do is often under-compensated.

This is one of the reasons that philanthropic support is so important at VLS: every year, Vermont Law School gives more than $7M in merit and need-based scholarship assistance to students­ and while comprising nearly a quarter of our operating budget, we know it's not always enough. Philanthropy can - and does - make a difference. Although leadership giving is important, participation, at any level, is even more so.

Our community, the Vermont Law School community, supports each other in many ways. VLS alumni hire one another, and host students in internships and externships at our firms and non­profits. We make calls to encourage admitted students to choose VLS, volunteer as Moot Court judges, and sit on career panels. But when the call comes to make a gift, too many of us are quiet.

I would like to see all alumni answer that call - at the level that works for them. I would like to see our alumni participation rates match the passion and enthusiasm I believe most graduates have for their law school experience. I am committed to this effort, and need your help. You know why you give to VLS - tell your story to your peers and fellow alumni. Tell them why you give and encourage them to do the same.

Let's work together to demonstrate the power of participation. Now, more than ever, Vermont Law School needs its alumni, parents, friends, trustees, and the entire community to show their affection and commitment to Vermont Law School through their charitable support at any level.

Thank you for your generous support of Vermont Law School.

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About the Inner Circle

The Inner Circle is a quarterly e-publication of the Office for Institutional Advancement at Vermont Law School. Members of the Leaders’ Circle giving society receive this newsletter in the winter, spring, summer and fall, learning about the latest news from the Dean, programs, students, and fellow donors.

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Leaders' Circle logo 2014







Welcome New Members

The Leaders' Circle continues to grow!

The following people have joined the Leaders' Circle since the winter of 2015:

  • Priscilla B. Dube '80
  • Anonymous '95
  • Michael H. Dworkin P'13
  • Douglas Ebeling '97
  • Scott M. Cullen '97 and Carrie G. Hannah '98
  • Vice President Lorraine Atwood

Dean Mihaly breakfast invitation

You're Invited to Breakfast with Dean Mihaly

Join Dean Mihaly for breakfast on Saturday, June 27 from 9:00-10:30 AM during Homecoming 2015, for this invitation-only, intimate gathering. Register today to attend Homecoming.

Patricia Williams commencement speaker

Columbia’s Patricia Williams is VLS Commencement Speaker

Columbia University School of Law Professor Patricia Williams, nationally recognized for her public interest work, will deliver the 40th Commencement address at Vermont Law School on Saturday, May 16. VLS will confer an honorary degree upon Professor Williams, the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law. A graduate of Wellesley College and Harvard Law School, she has served on faculties of the University of Wisconsin School Of Law, Harvard University’s Women’s Studies Program, and the City University of New York Law School at Queen’s College. As a law professor, she has testified before Congress and acted as a consultant and coordinator for a variety of public interest lawsuits. She is the recipient of the Alumnae Achievement Award from Wellesley, the Graduate Society Medal from Harvard, and the MacArthur foundation “genius” grant. Before entering academia she practiced law, as a consumer advocate and deputy city attorney for the City of Los Angeles and as a staff attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.