Legal Aid

Keeping Vermont Law School among the best

by Will Lindner

vt_law_LEAD_0612_jeff__fmtGeoffrey Shields has served Vermont Law School as dean and president since 2004, during which time he has led the broadening of the school’s curriculum, expertise, and reputation, including the introduction of an online master’s degree program in environmental law.

More than one legal scholar has quipped about Vermont Law School’s being the only academic institution in the U.S. that offers a juris doctorate (JD) in a town without a traffic signal. That would be South Royalton.

Well, at least two scholars have made this observation — and as it happens, both have served as deans of the law school in northern Windsor County, some 15 miles from the Connecticut River. The first to point out this odd fact was Jonathon Chase, dean from 1982 to 1987. South Royalton, he said, was the only town in America “with a law school and no stop light.”

The other is Geoffrey B. Shields, who will be stepping down August 1 as dean and president of the 600-student school. Interviewed for the spring issue of the alumni magazine, Loquitur, Shields enjoyed the irony of leading a distinguished institution — the nation’s top-ranking environmental law school for four consecutive years (U.S. New & World Report) — where you can’t even get a ticket for running a red light.

“And yet we have a world-class group of faculty members,” Shields was reported as saying. “How do you get that intellectual capital used as fully and effectively as possible?” He then supplied one of several legitimate answers to the question: by offering an online master’s degree in environmental law.

The online degree debuted in May 2011, on Shields’ watch. He was lured to VLS in 2004 from the Chicago/Washington, D.C.-based law firm Gardner, Carton & Douglas, where he was a partner and past chair of the firm’s management committee.

The online degree is far from the only innovation Shields helped bring to life — or bring to further maturity — after his arrival.

He has overseen a broadening of the school’s curriculum and expertise, from its continued prominence in environmental law, to more extensive study in business, government, and nonprofit law (which were among Shields’ specialties in his own legal practice). Mediation, arbitration, dispute resolution, and clinical and experimental education, for example, are additional, recognized strengths of the law school.

As Shields prepares to step down, the accolades are pouring in. Faculty, trustees, and public figures (Rep. Peter Welch, quoted in Loquitur: Shields has “enhanced the already good reputation of Vermont Law School as a premier institution”) have praised his leadership and his accomplishments in fund-raising, vision, and development of the school’s physical plant; these are the coin of the realm in academia, and a great way to cap a career.

But as much as any of these, Shields values the law school’s relationship to its home state, as contributor to the economy of the Upper Valley and Vermont as a whole, and as a provider of legal expertise to clients who otherwise would have none — in keeping with the school’s slogan: “Law for the Community and the World.”

“The law school budget is around $25 million to $30 million,” he says, “and a substantial portion of that is spent locally. Faculty members and graduates serve on numerous commissions and boards in local communities; they serve in the Legislature, and as law clerks. The quality and quantity of legal services available to Vermonters is tremendously enhanced by having a law school in the state. Odds are that if you’re a business man or woman in Vermont, your attorney is a Vermont Law School graduate.

“Also,” Shields adds, “we run the second-largest pro bono legal clinic in the state, with four full-time poverty-law lawyers supervising 25 students at any given time, working to help those who can’t pay for legal services.”

Shields warms to the subject; it’s a major part of what he considers his legacy — leading the effort to intertwine Vermont Law School with businesses and organizations all over the state working “for the public interest.”

From the legal clinic in South Royalton, professors and students fan out to represent people seeking federal benefits to which they are entitled; dairy farmers and their laborers navigating immigration law; women incarcerated at the correctional facility in South Burlington needing legal assistance for child-care and housing issues; abused children at risk of becoming delinquents.

Shields describes these as “prophylactic services,” creating a safer, more stable, and well-functioning society. That, he avers, is a service to Vermont’s business sector, which prospers when people can afford to be customers. And for the students, who glean clinical practice representing real clients, “It’s a wonderful way to train lawyers.”

On Friday, May 18, the legal clinic moved into a new home — a building on the historic register, located on the village green and renovated for $4.5 million. “The program has been a high priority for me,” Shields explains.

Shields’ resume is a straightlaced legal one: a BA in economics from Harvard in 1967; his JD from Yale Law School in 1972; a clerkship for Judge James Oakes of the federal Court of Appeals, Second Circuit (1972-1973); positions in Washington as a congressional adviser and legal counsel in foreign affairs; his partnership at Gardner, Carton & Douglas.

“A lot of my practice over the years was serving businesses,” he says. “I started as a securities lawyer doing work for publicly held companies, and did a substantial amount of work on mergers and acquisition financing. Business and nonprofit representation was the center of my practice.”

Still, his initial attraction to law was its capacity to be of service to others. As he grew up in Chicago, both his parents were involved in school and community affairs.

Eventually Shields’ legal work spread into the service realm, as he developed a specialty providing counsel to large nonprofits such as hospitals, foundations, and museums. He has made room in his life to serve on the boards of colleges — including Bennington College, his wife’s alma mater — and foundations (the Shedd Aquarium and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, both in Chicago).

These provide context for his emphasis on the institution’s capacity to do good in the state and community. However, a trip back in time is needed to understand why and how an attorney in prestigious practice in Illinois and Washington, D.C., ended up in Vermont in 2004.

It turns out he’d been here before.

From 1968 to 1970, he worked for the Experiment in International Living, a cross-cultural program for high school students then in Putney and now in Brattleboro. “I fell in love with Vermont,” he says, “and have ever since maintained a relationship with Vermont.”

Indeed, he hung around in the early ’70s, working as an adjunct professor of economics at Marlboro College and then clerking for Judge Oakes in Brattleboro. Not too long after, he and his wife, Genie, purchased a farm in Guilford as a retreat.

“We’ve always been smitten by the incredible quality of the people in Vermont,” says Shields. “It’s progressive in the sense that no matter what people’s politics are, they work together to get things accomplished for each other. That makes it a wonderful place to be — as well as the incredible beauty of the state and its proximity to world-class cities like New York and Montreal. Really, it can’t be beat.”

It was Oakes who brought Shields to Vermont to speak at the law school, and not long afterward the trustees offered him the position of dean and president. Not many places could have enticed him away from the fruitful and interesting work he was pursuing. But Vermont could.

Shields plunged into his academic world, and Genie took a special interest in helping the partners of new law school students find jobs, child care, and a support system in their isolated, unfamiliar environment.

Apparently, the doors are always open at their second Vermont home — an old cape in Tunbridge, just up Route 110 from South Royalton. “About 20 percent of our new students each year arrive with a partner,” Shields explains. “That person has a challenge: He or she arrives without a job or friends; meanwhile, the person who’s the student gets swept up in the demands and excitement of the law program. It’s difficult, and Genie has done a great job becoming a resource for them.”

Shields is also proud of his wife’s professional accomplishments. Eugenie Bird (her maiden name) is an author whose 2002 book, Fairie-Ality (for children and young adults), won a British Book Award. The couple have a son, Jordan, a health-care consultant in Chicago, and a daughter, Comfort, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology and the mother of their three grandchildren.

Vermont Law School has hired Marc Mihaly, VLS associate dean for environmental programs, to succeed Shields as president and dean. As for Shields — he may be retiring in August, but he and Genie aren’t done having new experiences. They’ll be moving to Cambridge, England, for a year, where Shields will lecture and help develop a master’s degree program in business law, and where Genie will work on two more books for which she has advances from her publisher.

Then, says Shields, “Genie and I will live out our days here in Vermont.”