Center for Legal Services
The demand far exceeds the supply of students and attorneys available to provide legal assistance." -James May, SRLC Director
Clare Cragan chose Vermont Law School over other environmentally focused law schools largely on the strength of its robust clinical programs. It proved to be a wise decision. When she pursued a competitive federal internship and jobs, her interviewers sometimes did a verbal double-take over her work in the VLS Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic (ENRLC). "Let me get this straight: you co-authored a brief for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals?" they would ask.
Indeed. "They were surprised the clinic was willing to offer that opportunity to students," she says. Her brief, which addressed complex regulatory issues of groundwater contamination, helped her land a coveted internship in the U.S. Department of Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division and, upon graduating, a spot in the Honors Attorney Program with the U.S. Department of the Interior. "Every student should have a chance to work in a clinic," she says.
The VLS clinics—a win-win for students, clients, and employers—have long been a cornerstone of the school's public-service orientation and experiential learning approach. Now that philosophy has been cemented, so to speak, with the acquisition, renovation and conversion of the former Freck's Department Store on the northwest corner of campus into the Center for Legal Services. The $3.5-million renovation, which integrates historical accuracy with green standards, houses the ENRLC and the South Royalton Legal Clinic (SRLC). The 14,700 square feet of space enables the clinics to serve clients more effectively and provides an optimal learning environment for students.
A Commitment to Clinical EducationWith the advent of the SRLC in 1979, VLS was an early and enthusiastic proponent of clinical education: the clinics are so popular—and essential—that they cannot accommodate all the students or clients who seek them out. Experiential legal teaching has gained currency over the last few decades: The need to reorient legal education to a more practice -based approach is cited as critical in such authoritative studies as Legal Education and Professional Development: An Educational Continuum ("MacCrate Report"), the Best Practices for Legal Education, and Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law ("Carnegie Report"). We are embracing those views by carefully considering how to develop our clinical and externship offerings to provide excellent practice experiences for more of our students. At the same time, we are considering how to integrate experiential learning methods and a broad range of skills across our curriculum.
VLS's clinical program—routinely ranked in the top sixth of all law schools nationwide by U.S.News & World Report—stands out from others in several ways. The SRLC allows students in-depth work in immigration, child welfare, domestic relations, public benefits, and prison projects. The ENRLC, one of the largest in the country in terms of students enrolled and cases handled, offers rare and ready access to top environmental experts on the faculty. Also unusual among clinical programs is the full-time, 13-credit option that gives students a complete immersion into the clinics, so they get a broad view of cases and multiple opportunities to build expertise. That option allows ENRLC students to dig deep into significant cases that may span years—and write court briefs, a task that Cragan said was "initially intimidating" but was made easier because of the clinic's camaraderie and its "nurturing mentors." In the SRLC, the option provides students with the opportunity to focus on several cases and multiple hearings.
The ENRLC was located in cramped quarters in Debevoise Hall and the SRLC was housed in the makeshift Pierce House. After pricing out the high cost of repairing Pierce House, the VLS Board of Trustees turned to the Freck's building at 190 Chelsea Street when it went on the market in 2009, purchasing it for $850,000. Built in 1894, the building sits on an intersection catty-corner from the village green, bordered on two sides by the campus. A succession of stores on the site had sold everything from mud boots to pork chops to jewelry to shovels; so important has it been to the town that the VLS officials carefully worked to plot out its future with local planning officials and citizens.
The renovations involved gutting the interior of the main building, demolishing the rickety 1910 back addition and rebuilding it, removing and realigning inner walls, replacing plumbing and wiring, and installing handicapped-access features, including an elevator. Sustainable green design features include enhanced insulation, computer controls to dial down heating and cooling systems in off-times, a white reflective roof, water-efficient landscaping, low-flow toilets, low-volatile organic compound paints, sealants, carpets and wood, and drywall made from recycled gypsum. At least 75 percent of the construction waste was recycled. Because the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the exterior was kept carefully intact—even the brick-patterned tin that covered the wooden structure was replicated.
PLANNING FOR CAMPUS AND COMMUNITY
The transformation of the 117-year-old Freck's building into the Center for Legal Services marries a prominent downtown landmark to Vermont Law School's highest ideals of social justice and environmental stewardship. It restores an underused, deteriorating building into a vital local hub-one that provides not oats and hoes but help and expertise for basic legal needs and protections.
By virtue of its prominent location on the corner of the campus, the building has long been viewed by Vermont Law School planners as a logical way to continue the school's environmentally conscious, restoration-focused growth. The Master Plan of 1995 pinpointed it as a desirable acquisition if it ever came up for sale, and it also got the nod of approval from Sasaki Associates, the landscape design firm that produced an award-winning "framework plan" in 2010 for consideration by the Board of Trustees.
Because the building is located at the intersection of the two main streets in South Royalton, placing the legal clinics inside the building was also a logical choice, says Lorraine Atwood, vice president for finance and administration: "The Center for Legal Services will be serving not just students but the public, which integrates the campus with the community."
With 16 of its 19 buildings historic in character and "repurposed" for the school, VLS has learned how to preserve historical and aesthetic integrity while meeting strict green building standards. "We've gotten good at the rigorous process of protecting the exterior and certain interior components, while at the same time making a building modern and functioning," says Dean Geoffrey Shields. In its long-term planning process—and in meetings with local officials and boards—VLS has sought to expand carefully and thoughtfully, without overwhelming the small, struggling town of South Royalton. "This is an opportunity to spruce up a key location in town while expanding the public-service function of our clinics, which will draw more people into town," says Shields.