Vermont Law Dean Is All Ears

Submitted a year ago
Created by
Emily Ballou

Vermont Law School’s new dean, Tom McHenry began work in July at the South Royalton college and he’s made himself right at home.

McHenry, who replaces Dean Marc Mihaly, underscored his role as a “fundraising dean” during a recent interview in his office in the campus’ Debevoise Hall.

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Speaking generally, McHenry said that his top two priorities for VLS are “being Vermont’s law school” and “continuing to be the great environmental law school we are.”

With aspirations of doing cooperative work and programming with Vermont colleges such as Vermont Tech, University of Vermont, and Middlebury College, McHenry is also looking to interact more with the surrounding towns and the central Upper Valley area.

“I’d love to see us do more of everything,” McHenry said. “I’d love to see us do as much outreach as possible because we just don’t do enough.”

McHenry has no major plans to change VLS, though he’s taking up Twitter to connect with the community. McHenry instead emphasized how much there is for him to discover and learn as dean.

“Someone told me recently, ‘One mouth, two ears. You should listen twice as much as you talk.’” McHenry held up his right wrist, revealing a bracelet that said simply, “Listen.”

“My style is not dictatorial, my style is cooperative and consensual.”

Community Value

McHenry noted that the “immensely strong sense of community” at Vermont Law School could not be overstated.

“When I first heard that from people I thought, ‘Well, every institution that I’ve worked at, whether it was a law firm or a business … has a sense of community,’ but there is a deeply ingrained and widely held, widely shared, and incredibly positive sense of community at Vermont Law School. It’s welcoming, it’s supportive … you just don’t find that many places.”

Facing Challenges

Despite VLS’s reputation and warmth, the institution is not immune to the pressures other law schools and colleges have felt.

McHenry acknowledged that for the past few years, the school has faced drastic declines in enrollment. This year, however, has seen an 8% increase in applications.

Nationally, McHenry noted a 20% increase in LSAT takers this spring, a phenomenon that might be attributed to the so-called “Trump Bump.” McHenry and other administrative personnel are “cautious but optimistic” about the future of law schools in the country.

With graduates taking the bar in over 30 jurisdictions, only about half of the students attend VLS for environmental law.

McHenry pointed also to VLS’s strong record of importing talent to the state. While 10% of VLS students come from Vermont, 20% of its alumni stay in the Green Mountains.

“They either fall in love with Vermont, or they fall in love in Vermont,” McHenry chuckled.

Getting students to the school and generating revenue are two top goals for McHenry and the college.

“We need to look for good, creative ways to bring more funding to the law school, whether it’s through foundations or major donor gifts,” he said.

Improving student outcomes is an important step on that path. With his fellow educators, McHenry is concentrating on improving passage rates for the bar exam.

VLS recently implemented a bar exam practice test, the results of which are evaluated by the faculty and staff to better understand how programs can be improved.

VLS will hold an inauguration ceremony for McHenry on Friday, October 13 at the Chase Community Center on campus in South Royalton.

The Road to VLS

Growing up in the heart of New York City, McHenry attended Yale and received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1977, followed immediately by a master’s from Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where he now co-chairs the Environmental Leadership Council. He attended New York University School of Law, earning a juris doctorate in 1983.

Before finding his way to VLS, McHenry was a partner with the Los Angeles-based law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher for 19 years. There, McHenry provided legal counsel in Kenya, Tanzania, Laos, Namibia, Uganda, and the People’s Republic of China. Championing environmental causes, he provided legal expertise in West Africa and the Caribbean as well as for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

According to a statement from the school, McHenry’s community service includes working with the National Forest Foundation, the Council on Watershed Health, and the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, in addition to holding leadership roles with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the L.A. Chamber of Commerce.

For the past four summers, McHenry has taught various summer session courses at VLS, including a two-week environmental business transactions course and a comparative land use course which took students to France.

“Some people retire in their early 60s, but I wanted to keep working,” McHenry said. “I had no intention of retiring … None of the other jobs I was looking at seemed more interesting or engaging as my job now as dean. I was looking for something very challenging and demanding, and I found it.”

This article was originally published in the Randolph Herald on Aug. 3.


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