McHenry (Courtesy)
McHenry (Courtesy)

From Gibson Dunn to Vermont Law School

In Big Law, 60 can sometimes feel like the new 65, an age when many lawyers hang up their pinstripe suits and retire. Not Thomas McHenry, who at 62, said he turned 60 and wasn’t anywhere near ready to call it quits.

After spending the past two decades as an environmental lawyer in Los Angeles with Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, McHenry started a new job this month as president and dean of Vermont Law School.

“This job actually came up out of the blue, which was wonderful for me, because it’s kind of the job of my dreams,” McHenry said, adding he gets to teach law, in addition to his managerial and administrative duties as dean.

Ranked as the number one school for environmental law last year by U.S. News and World Report, McHenry said Vermont Law School’s stock is only poised to rise with all that’s happening in the world from climate change to battles over regulation.

Of course, the school offers a comprehensive legal education, and although currently ranked as a third-tier law school, which charges approximately $47,000 per year in tuition, McHenry said he wants to bolster its reputation as a great overall law school. Vermont is cheaper than a lot of big cities, and many students are so seduced they end up staying, he said.

Still, with the legal industry getting increasingly competitive, and more students landing JD-advantaged jobs, as opposed to jobs where a JD is required not merely advantageous, he acknowledged that the narrative about the legal industry needing to change is getting a bit “stale.”

Vermont Law School, as the only law school in the state, serves a particular need in its community; and its focus on environmental law gives it a strong mandate to persist, he said.  

McHenry, who teaches a course on the history of environmental law, said the practice has changed considerably in the past few decades. In the 1980s, when he started out as a lawyer, federal agencies had only just started ramping up their enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.

By the 1990s, when he joined Gibson Dunn, many law firms had fully caught on to the idea that it could be a profitable area of work and even started to realize environmental law wasn’t only litigation; including the due diligence portion of any deal, he said.

“Today, I don’t think you can do a large transaction without having an environmental lawyer take a look at it,” McHenry said, “Unless maybe if it’s something to do with software.”

Although the federal government hasn’t passed, and doesn’t seem likely to pass any major environmental legislation in the foreseeable future, there’s still plenty of action at the state level and local level, he said.

The fact that a chunk of ice the size seven times larger thanNew York City broke off Antarctica earlier this week is a sign that environmental law is only going to be more important going forward, he said. And even if President Trump plans to roll back environmental laws, any change in regulations will generate work for his graduates.

“There’s always opportunity for big law attorneys when there is change,” he said. 

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