Rachel Heath checked her email on a recent morning, found out her next class was cancelled and breathed just a bit easier.
It was a momentary reprieve in an otherwise arduous academic schedule that began in spring 2015, when Heath applied to the University of Vermont’s new 3+2 program in partnership with Vermont Law School. Heath became the first student in the accelerated program, which allows UVM students to complete the fourth year of their undergraduate degrees at VLS while starting their studies for a juris doctorate. Through 3+2, students will earn their law degree in two years instead of three.
Last summer, Heath moved from Burlington to the VLS campus in South Royalton, Vt., for her first semester of law school. Her second semester began in September and she has now embarked on a third.
To finish in two years, she’ll take VLS classes each summer. It’s an intense pace, allowing little down time or room for fun, but Heath says she considers it an easy sacrifice.
“It’s an incredible experience,” she says. “I love all the students here. I feel so much more prepared and closer to what I’m going to do after college.”
UVM students indeed give up their freedom and leisure for the fast track, but that’s the point of the program – to save them time and money while reaching their ultimate goal, says Brian Reed, UVM’s associate provost for teaching and learning.
“Students who do this understand the trade-off,” he says.
Reduced tuition is key to the 3+2 program. Students complete seven years of schooling in five years.
“It’s a substantial financial savings,” says Janet Murnane, a UVM lecturer and attorney and Heath’s advisor in the Community Development and Applied Economics department. “I talk to students all the time who are interested in law school but are worried about the money.”
UVM administrators expect that only a handful of students will start college with enough certainty about their legal futures to embark on this rigorous path. They have to decide to apply for the 3+2 program by the end of their first year at UVM. That helps ensure that they will complete their required course credits by their junior year with a cumulative grade point average of 3.5.
“It’s a subset of students who are really sure, really goal-oriented, really clear on where they want to go,” Reed says.
Besides Heath, UVM has half a dozen students who are in various stages of considering the program.
VLS pursued the 3+2 setup with UVM to make advanced education more accessible and affordable for students in Vermont, says Katie Merrill, the VLS admissions counselor who oversees its accelerated J.D. program.
The two schools have a longtime close relationship and echo each other’s emphasis on environmental stewardship, social justice and global human rights. VLS is nationally recognized for environmental law but has a loose atmosphere that’s more supportive and collaborative than competitive.
“We’re not your typical law school that’s feeding these big law firms,” Merrill says. VLS students are as likely to end up working for a nonprofit organization or a government agency forming policy as a large metropolitan firm or a prosecutor’s office. “They love that we are advocates and we approach the law differently.”
At any point, students can back out of the program. They can slow the pace at VLS and take three years for a J.D. Or they can change their minds about law school entirely. One UVM student was admitted to 3+2 but decided she preferred to spend a year abroad rather than rush to law school, says Kala Gillim, UVM’s assistant director for career education and primary advisor to students pursuing law school.
“They can still come back to UVM and complete their credits for baccalaureate here,” Reed says. “There’s an off-ramp.”
Heath, who is from Essex and wanted to stay in Vermont for her schooling, had never considered a legal career when she arrived at UVM. She first majored in environmental science, then switched to art education before settling on community and international development. It’s one of eight UVM majors that qualify for the 3+2 program.
Her early inclinations, though, arose in one of her environmental science courses.
“We did a little mini debate on a dump that was being built in the town,” she says. She argued for those against it, citing resident concerns about health impacts, but grasped the economic value of such projects. “That’s always the big thing here. They always emphasize how you are going to argue for both sides. You don’t just argue for one side.”
The experience piqued Heath’s interest in working with underserved groups and residents on community issues. Then she took a course on the state Consumer Assistance Program (CAP), housed at UVM and part of the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, and worked on its phone bank helping resolve Vermonters’ complaints about business practices.
“That was just incredible, to see the inner workings of a government agency,” Heath says.
The 3+2 program wasn’t yet in place at the end of Heath’s first year at UVM, but she got an exception to apply in spring of her sophomore year in 2015. Murnane, the deputy attorney general who directed the CAP at the time, wasn’t surprised that Heath embraced the challenge. “She’s one of the most hardworking students I’ve come across.”
Heath even completed her UVM honors thesis before starting law school.
Without summers off to clerk for a judge or law firm, Heath still has multiple opportunities for hands-on learning at VLS, including seven clinics on and off campus or an externship in the field. In the fall semester, she was accepted to the South Royalton Legal Clinic, where she will handle political asylum, refugee and poverty cases under staff attorneys.
She has yet to decide how she wants to practice law in the future – or whether she wants to do that.
“I can go out and be a lawyer when I’m done with this, but there’s so many other avenues that I can explore, as well. There’s a lot you can do with a law degree besides just being a lawyer.”
And right now, she has the breathing room to figure that out.