Vermont Law School planted a flag in Burlington Tuesday with the opening of an office that will serve as an immigration legal clinic, admissions outlet and classroom.
"We're thrilled to be here," Thomas McHenry, dean and president of the South Royalton-based school, said during the ribbon cutting for the new office at 162 St. Paul Street.
The celebration was framed as a milestone that could lead to a bigger VLS presence in Burlington in the future.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said he hopes there will be a "further flowering" of the relationship between the school and Burlington in the years to come.
He was among roughly a dozen people who attended, including Attorney General T.J. Donovan, VLS board members, local attorneys and at least one retired judge.
The new space will allow the private law school to expand its Vermont Immigrant Assistance clinic, which has served people from 71 countries since it opened in 2003. Erin Jacobsen, the VLS professor who will oversee the new legal clinic in Burlington, said it makes sense to bring services to Chittenden County, which has more immigrants than any other region of Vermont.
It's vital work, she said.
"In our immigration clinic, we help families win asylum so they don't have to return to the countries where they were persecuted and tortured. Or we help people obtain work authorization and social security numbers so they can get jobs," Jacobsen said.
"And we help reunite families. People like the mother who was separated from her daughter at the southern border," she continued. "And we have multitudes of cases like these with more coming in the door, every day."
Jacobsen will split her time between the school's South Royalton Legal Clinic and the Burlington office, which will offer immigration law services on an appointment basis.
The admissions footprint in Burlington is designed to help the school reach potential students among the many undergraduates at local colleges. It could also enhance an existing collaboration between the law school and the University of Vermont called the UVM 3+2 program. It allows students to earn undergraduate and law school degrees in five years total, as opposed to the normal seven.
The new Vermont Law School office at 162 St. Paul Street in Burlington
The compact space is also designed to accommodate workshops, video-streamed classes and seminars. McHenry said the school will experiment with its offerings and could host regular classes in Burlington down the road. "We would love to be able to do that," he said.
Would the rural law school entertain a move to Burlington? "That would be a long-term board decision if we ever did that," McHenry said.
As with many other institutions of higher education in the state and region, Vermont Law School has faced financial struggles. In 2018, it slashed salaries and erased tenure for most professors to deal with a mounting deficit.
On Tuesday, McHenry said VLS is doing "much, much better" thanks to significant restructuring. "It's certainly stabilized," he said.
The school offers both law and master's degrees. It has 550 students who study on campus and another 140 online students.