Sunday, November 25, 2012
As far as I know, this is the first law school to publicly announce staff reductions, which are still voluntary at this point, directly related to the national drop in law school applications. VLS Dean Marc Mihaly acknowledges that this moves comes as a result of changes sweeping the legal services industry due to technology, off-shoring and similar trends that have reduced the demand for law graduates. Many believe these trends are structural and hence permament.
The Dean says that the school is branching out by offering masters degrees in law which may help offset the loss of revenue attributable to the decline in the number of students pursuing traditional law degrees.
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.
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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.. . . . .
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.
Hat tip to Joseph Harbaugh.