VLS Partners With Elite Black Colleges

South Royalton — More than 30 years after arriving at Vermont Law School to find one other woman and very few other African-Americans pursuing legal careers, Shirley Jefferson looked around campus in the fall of 2013 to see women making up more than half of the first-year students and people of color more than 20 percent.

Now the school’s dean for student affairs and diversity, Jefferson isn’t declaring “mission accomplished” just yet: On Tuesday, the law school announced the formation of partnerships with three historically-black undergraduate schools.

One aims specifically at attracting minority students from Ohio’s Central State University to VLS programs in environmental law and energy law, the others at better preparing students from Morehouse and Spelman Colleges to qualify for admission to law schools in general.

“At Vermont Law, we believe we should be training the next generation of leaders who will make a difference in their communities and in the world,” Jefferson said. “These are colleges and universities with long histories of promoting racial justice and equality, and we are proud to partner with them.”

For starters, senior-to-be pre-law students from each institution this coming summer will begin attending VLS’ Jump Start program — usually aimed at Vermont Law’s first-year students.

“This gives them a feel for what they can expect,” Jefferson said. “We go over contract law, torts, writing and analytical skills, an introduction to all the terminology.”

In the fall of each academic year, admissions counselors from VLS will travel to the partner schools to meet prospects and explain the combined law and master’s-degree programs in environmental and energy law. And come spring, VLS will invite selected students to its application preparation workshop.

Vermont Law also will work with pre-law advisers and law faculty from the partner schools to better understand the legal issues affecting environmental and energy policy, including invitations to VLS’ Summer in Vermont program.

After meeting Jefferson at Central State’s Pre-Law Day last summer, the director of the university’s pre-law program and special initiatives jumped at the chance to show an alternate career path to students in the sciences, technology, engineering and math who worry about finding jobs after earning their bachelor’s degrees.

“We want to help them understand that the legal market is a global market,” Sidney Williams said on Tuesday. “Some sectors are going to be up, and some are going to be down. Right now there are lots of opportunities in the energy sector, fracking (for natural-gas exploration and extraction) being just one example.”

Out of more than 1.2 million licensed lawyers nationwide, 4.8 percent identified themselves as black or African-American in the 2010 U.S. Census — up from 4.2 percent in 2010 — according to the market-research department of the American Bar Association.

Jefferson said that while she began exploring partnerships three or four years ago, first with Spelman, VLS has been developing unofficial connections with historically black schools such as Georgia’s Savannah State.

“At least eight or nine of our students came from there,” Jefferson said. “They’re all leaders on our campus.”

She added that VLS, with an on-campus population of nearly 500 students and more than 150 taking courses online, is continuing to talk with other historically-black schools about helping potential law students find their way. Class size for the law-degree program has ranged between 150 and 170 in recent years. according to school officials.

“Everyone wins when schools cooperate to increase access and affordability in higher education — students, faculty, and ultimately the legal profession itself,” VLS President Marc Mihaly said. “This partnership is also important because it demonstrates how mission-driven schools can work together to diversify the legal profession and tackle the challenges of our time.”

In the fall of 2013, VLS joined the University of Vermont in offering a three-year program under which students can pursue the new Accelerated Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA from UVM’s School of Business Administration and either a law degree or a master’s degree from Vermont Law.

The two schools also are exploring a five-year program under which students would earn bachelor’s degrees from UVM in three years and law degrees from VLS in two years.

The move to attract new students to the Royalton campus comes as VLS, like many law schools around the country, has seen a decline in students. VLS last year was working to close a $3.3 million budget gap, in part by cutting 12 staff positions and shifting eight professors from full-time to part time status.

David Corriveau can be reached at dacorriveau@gmail.com and at 603-727-3304