SOUTH ROYALTON -- Vermont Law School is offering voluntary buyouts to staff and may do so soon with faculty as it prepares for what its president and dean says are revolutions about to sweep both the legal profession and higher education.
A sharp drop in the numbers of Americans applying to law schools -- triggered by a drop in the number of legal jobs open -- already is being felt at the independent law school's bucolic campus on the south bank of the White River.
The class due to graduate in the spring with juris doctor degrees numbers just over 200. The class that will follow it in 2014 numbers about 150.
"When our enrollment goes down, we have to downsize," Marc Mihaly, the school's president and dean, said in an interview. "No matter what, we're going to see fewer on-campus JD students (traditional law students pursuing juris doctor degrees). And we have to adjust to that because we do not run deficits in this school."
The law school is independent; it is not tied to the University of Vermont or another "mother ship," as Mihaly put it. He argued that can make it more nimble in responding to changes in the marketplace for legal training.
The declines in numbers at the South Royalton campus reflect a national trend. Word has been spreading in recent years that there are fewer job openings for lawyers. The American Bar Association reported in June that barely half of those who finished law school in 2011 had landed legal jobs within nine months of graduation.
That, in turn, has brought about a 25 percent drop in the numbers of people applying to law schools nationwide during the past two years, according to The National Law Journal.
Both Mihaly and Paul Campos, a leading critic of legal education and law professor at the University of Colorado, said some law schools likely will have to close. Campos argued that many have allowed their tuitions to rise so much that law school no longer is a wise investment for most students.
Campos scoffed at VLS advertising itself as the place to go for people who want to work in public-interest environmental law. Just a tiny percentage of lawyers end up in such jobs, he said.
"You might as well say your career aspiration is to be an NBA power forward," he said.
VLS maintains it does better than the national average for law schools placing graduates in jobs with government agencies and public interest groups and in judicial clerkships.
Law schools report figures each year on the employment status of graduates to the American Bar Association. Of 174 graduates in 2011, the school reported, 139 were employed, with 110 of those in long-term, full-time jobs.
Mihaly, who moved up from the faculty to take the top job at VLS in August, said in an interview this past week that law schools need to adapt to changes sweeping both the legal profession and higher education.
The legal profession is entering an era of greater specialization and differentiated levels of training. No longer will law firms be staffed completely with people with three-year juris doctor degrees. "The market and technology are going to take that model and shake it," Mihaly said.
Instead, they'll be looking to meet their clients' demands that they reduce costs by having a growing number of tasks handled by people who may have less than three years of traditional legal training, but who are specialists in fields ranging from environmental to sports law, Mihaly said.
Health care has responded to demands for reducing costs by having physicians' assistants and nurse practitioners take over duties once performed by doctors, Mihaly said, and the legal profession will soon be following suit. Some law firms may figure out that some processes can be handled "by a call center in India," he said.
Meanwhile, there will also be a push for specialization, he said. He called VLS well positioned to respond to the challenges. Already the school is regarded as a leader in environmental and energy law, among other specialties. It has developed extensive ties with China as that giant nation develops a body of environmental law.
"If you're interested in law and you're interested in China and the environment, there's only one place to come," Mihaly said.
The school is branching out beyond the traditional juris doctor degree to offer master's degrees in environmental law and policy and in energy regulation and law.
While it responds to big changes in the legal profession, VLS also is grappling with what may be even bigger changes in the world of higher education, Mihaly said. The thousand-year-old model of a university based on a monastic separation from the surrounding community is disappearing, as more people combine education and work.
"Distance learning," with classes offered mainly online, is becoming increasingly popular. Mihaly cited his daughter Elena, a third-year VLS student who is taking courses online while already working at the Colorado attorney general's office in Denver.