Last month I wrote an article, When the Numbers Don’t Add Up: Vermont Law School’s Tenured Faculty Purge and What It Portends. It cast a harsh light on the economics of Vermont Law School (VLS), noting the all-in $70K annual cost of attendance, $122K national average law grad debt; 2.71 times adjusted-for-inflation cost of law school over the past 3 decades; lack of practice readiness or augmented skills possessed by most law grads; a harsh job market; and the folly that all law schools should cost the same or prepare students for identical careers. The dire straits of Vermont Law School—those that lost their jobs and remaining students that will be impacted by the fallout–is no cause for celebration. It does demand sober reflection and prompt action by the ABA and the legal Academy, because, VLS is the tip of the spear.
Kevin Colangelo (herein the author) published a response, Widening the Lens on Vermont Law School, to my article and others focused on VLS. While the author’s title purports to apply a “wider lens” to the subject, it narrows the focus to his personal experience and fond memories of Vermont Law School. He also chronicles some steps the institution has taken to get ahead of the curve in a time of unparalleled legal industry change. Conspicuously absent is a focus on VLS’s finances apart from mention that it is a stand-alone law school in a rural setting that has a meager endowment.
Mr. Colangelo clearly enjoyed his experience at VLS, noting in his article: “Still have the skis I used to get to class in rough winter weather (to you flatlanders, “rough” equals 2+ feet of snow).” Charming as that anecdote is, it is wholly irrelevant to the harsh economic realities faced by VLS—and many other law schools. The author pays lip service to the hardship that imposes upon students and the brand dilution and negative publicity it has cast on his alma mater. How one gets to class is not nearly as important as what one learns in it and what the cost is. And if—as in the case of VLS—that cost (ski equipment aside) is about the same as attending an elite law school, most students at VLS would undoubtedly chuck their skis in favor of a more pedestrian way to arrive at a classroom where the “bang for the buck” is exponentially higher—at least securing a first job and paying of student debt. This is not to say—as the author mistakenly imputes to me—that I am among those possessed of “a certain smugness” and misapprehension that non-elite law schools lack sophistication to respond to an evolving marketplace. To the contrary—the blame for misalignment of the Academy with the marketplace is systemic and includes several of the elite law schools. The difference is elite institutions have the brand and financial resources to withstand the change and to adjust. Students attending lesser-brand but high-priced schools are usually upside down upon graduation and for years after. One Academy member, not at VLS, had the chutzpah to argue in response to my article that VLS’s problems stem from excessive student discounts and insufficient outreach, not the school’s mind-boggling tuition, low ranking, excessive debt, and poor job figures.
No doubt several VLS grads—including Mr. Colangelo—have made good use of their diplomas, but the numbers don’t add up for many current VLS students—as well as those attending most U.S. law schools. The author should be grateful that as “a proud graduate of Vermont Law School, class of 1994” (sic) his law school tab was roughly one-third of what it would be today. This too is part of the true wider lens view of VLS. The VLS of today may have more sexy courses and lounges, but it costs nearly three times in adjusted dollars as it did for Mr. Colangelo, and it’s doubtful VLS had anywhere near $17M debt when he enrolled. The “serene” “bucolic” “quaint” character of the place—27 miles from the nearest traffic life per the author—also leads one to question how and why the fully-loaded cost of attendance at VLS is the same or more than many (higher-ranked) urban law schools.
The author proceeds to tell the “untold story” of VLS. That story is about “pragmatic leaders across at least 2 administrations that (sic) worked hard to evolve and differentiate both their curriculum as well as the manner of instruction for most of the last decade.” Differentiation is a worthy goal, but leadership must have access to capital to hire consultants–as VLS did– and embark on expensive new initiatives (some of which are highlighted by the author). VLS lacked the capital because, as the author acknowledged, “Like other stand-alone schools, Vermont Law has a relatively small endowment roughly $10 million…and few cash reserves, as the school spends close to 100% of its income each year.” That accounts for the “inconvenient truth” that VLS—like many law schools—is awash in debt and was $17M in the red before its recent tenured faculty bloodletting. Is this “pragmatic” leadership or profligate spending when the die has already been cast?
Were VLS’s financials shared with applicants and students? If not, the ABA, that grants and oversees law school accreditation, should require such disclosure by all law schools. Likewise, the ABA should loosen the reins on law school curricula and acknowledge that not all schools prepare students for the same careers. Learning the basics are a must, but so too are practice and contemporary skills—business basics, data analytics, how technology is applied to legal service delivery, “soft skills” that are really “hard” ones such as client management and collaboration, and project management should be standard fare for all students. Beyond that, the “one-size-fits all” approach to legal education should be replaced by a use-applied one.
One need not attend an elite law school—or earn a law license– to have a meaningful, productive legal career. Law is no longer solely about lawyers; it is a profession and industry comprised of “legal professionals.” As “practice” become narrowed and the myth that “lawyers decide what is ’legal’ work”—then do it exclusively by themselves—is over. In today’s marketplace, consumers make that decision. That’s why “legal operations,” “law companies,” “legal tech” providers, litigation finance companies, and a host of other providers have an ascendant role in the marketplace. This will provide opportunities for grads of non-elite law schools to leverage their law degrees beyond the narrow pedigree-centric law firm world that dominated for generations. There’s one caveat: those graduates—all graduates—must offer more than “legal knowledge.”
The legal Academy must “do more with less.” Vermont Law School—and others—must face the reality that their model of ever-escalating tuition, fancy new buildings , arcane new courses that fascinate their instructors but don’t add much value to students, and a faculty wholly unfamiliar with the marketplace are over. The sad story of Vermont Law School is not new and no doubt will be reprised by others. It’s time to face the numbers and take some painful steps to reduce the cost of tuition and to provide students with the tools required to succeed in today’s marketplace. That’s the lens that matters.