The Curriculum

The Curriculum


With a dearth of formal training programs in the mid-1800s -- Albany Law School was one of only about a dozen in the country and the third in the Northeast behind Harvard and Yale -- most aspiring lawyers in New York apprenticed with local attorneys. The new law school should have had no trouble attracting students. But old ways die hard.

Founders pointed out the pitfalls of the apprenticeship system despite it lasting 10 years. They warned of the need to keep abreast of the rapid changes in 19th century American law, which were carried along with the tide of dramatic economic and demographic transformation taking place in New York and the fledgling country. Advocating law schools superiority for legal training would continue on the state and national levels legislatively for much of the latter half of the century.

A good attorney should be informed in more than one area of law and should learn how to think critically and apply it to the business of law, Albany Law School founders claimed in their mission statements. The early law school emphasized lectures, examinations, use of textbooks, observations in Albany courtrooms, participation in moot courts and student debate clubs.

The most important feature of the program was the series of lectures by founders and local lawyers, who addressed special topics. Each professor designed his own course and taught in his own way.

Classes were held Monday through Friday. Law school founder Amos Dean, the school's sole administrator and only full-time faculty and administrative member, delivered lectures between 9 and 10 a.m., while remaining founders Ira Harris and Amasa J. Parker scheduled classes around their duties in court.

 Students were given oral examinations once a week, and a written test was administered at the end of each term.

 Judge Parker lectured on real estate, wills and personal rights. Judge Harris taught courses on domestic relations, evidence, pleading and practice. Dean covered personal property, contract law and commercial law.

Courses on criminal law, equity jurisprudence, partnerships, bills and notes, surety and guarantees, law of trustees, assignees, executors and administrators, bailments, insurance, common, statute and constitutional law, and practice under the New York Code would follow.

Textbooks at the law school were used to supplement the lectures. Most of the current reference works of the time were cited in law school bulletins. The law school also benefitted from the prolific Dean, who published a practical guide to commercial law and a textbook on medical jurisprudence.

An integral part of the early law school education was the observation of court proceedings. Students sat in on sessions of the state legislature at the Capitol and of city and county courts, the circuit courts, the New York State Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.

This emphasis on practice was also evident in the early establishment of moot courts at the law school. The cases argued by students covered a wide range of common law topics and allowed formal setting to practice case construction, rhetoric and oratory. The moot court sessions were held on Thursdays and Fridays at 3 p.m.

The first term of that first year began in December 1851 and lasted 16 weeks. With the gradual acceptance of formal course of legal study and increase in enrollment, more terms per year were offered. The 1854-55 school year announced two 12-week terms. By 1860, there were three terms of about the same length, arranged to coincide with the terms of the state Supreme Court in Albany, so that at the conclusion of the court session, qualified students could present themselves for admission to the bar.

During the middle decades of the 19th century, an aspiring attorney had only to pass the oral bar examination administered by the state Supreme Court; a law degree was not required.

The early program of the law school was designed to serve those students seeking a degree, as well as those who wished to supplement their previous knowledge of the law or gain practice in its implementation.

Like other professional law programs in the United States at the time, Albany Law School measured its achievement and progress against the flagship of American legal education institutions, Harvard Law School. In fundamental ways, the law school in Albany paralleled that in Cambridge, Mass., during the mid-1800s.

This is most evident in the two schools' educational philosophies, which stressed teaching the law as a science and as an art, and in their instructional methods, which relied principally on lectures and textbooks, supplemented by moot courts and classroom observation. Both schools had an open admission policy with a maturity qualification, and about half of the entering young men had college backgrounds.

But according to a later account, all was not well with Harvard's law school during its early years until reform in the latter half of the 1800s, and it was likely that students at Albany Law were receiving a better education.

Besides its access to the New York State Library, which had perhaps the best law library in the country at the time, Albany Law enjoyed other advantages over Harvard, not least of which was its prime location in a bustling state capital and walking distance to the state Capitol and five courts at the city, county and state levels, including the state Court of Appeals, then probably the pre-eminent state high court in the nation. Moreover, in its early years, Albany Law offered a greater variety of courses and had more rigorous graduation requirements than Harvard Law School.

The method that most revolutionized the teaching of law in America was the case system, now familiar to all modern-day law students. Cases, which contained the opinions and decisions that constituted the raw materials of law, were carefully selected for their utility in teaching legal concepts. Students then dissected cases to discover their underlying principles with the professors facilitating, not dictating, class discussion. The new method declared the independence of law from politics, since it sought to explicate universal truths, not temporal legal developments.

The use of this method was not unfamiliar at Albany Law. As early as 1854, school bulletins describing course offerings indicate use of the method of instruction. This balancing of practical with Socratic method continued unchanged though unremarkable through the first few decades of the law school.

But the school's standing wasn't without criticism. Circumstances led to an erosion of the curriculum quality. Neither the modest attempts by the second law school dean, Isaac Edwards, during the late 1870s to revitalize curriculum nor its newly-minted affiliation as the department of law of Union University was enough to lift the school from the doldrums.

The perception of slipping standards prompted a committee of the Albany County Bar Association to administer an exam to 1877 law school graduates, even though the school's diploma-granting privilege wouldn't have required the 200-question test. The next year, the state Board of Regents curtailed law students' access to the New York State Library to minimize collections loss and vandalism.

During this time, the law school trustee board was expanded and an alumni association established. Increased influence led to clamor for increased standards and more rigorous preparation for the bar. Dean Edwards' successor Horace Smith reorganized and augmented existing curriculum during his 10-year tenure that ended in 1889.

Smith's successor George Washington Kirchwey was a rising star in local legal circles. A Yale undergraduate, the 34-year-old clerked in Albany while attending Albany Law School. An accomplished orator, Kirchwey spoke five languages, was a voracious reader and civically active.

Kirchwey immediately instituted a more structured two-year program. This reflected a movement within the bar associations advocating longer programs with courses that were offered sequentially in order of their increasing complexity and specialization. Kirchwey also made it harder for students to be admitted to the law school and to remain. One of the most significant of Dean Kirchwey's reforms was the formal introduction of the case method system of study.

The reforms failed to take root in the two years Kirchwey spent leading the law school before leaving for a faculty position with Columbia Law School. Kirchwey had tried to bring the law school in line with the most progressive law schools in the country, but in doing so had eroded the niche that Albany Law School had occupied since its inception: Men of limited time and money had always looked to Albany Law School as an alternative to the more prestigious programs.

Kirchwey's introduction of a two-year program was rolled back to a year-long course of study and enrollment rebounded. Use of the case method system of study was retained. The reformist measures of Kirchwey proved too radical too soon.

By 1895, most law schools had adopted the recommendations of the American Bar Association to offer a program of at least two years. Albany Law School leaders resisted as enrollment levels stagnated.

As the state bar exam toughened, new Dean J. Newton Fiero moved to pare down and focus the curriculum. By the turn of the century, Fiero no longer could maintain a one-year program. State regents were requiring two years.

The most significant addition to the school's program of studies in these years was a lecture series on legal ethics inaugurated in 1903. An alumnus gave $10,000 to establish a chair of legal ethics. At the time, 20 of the country's 70 leading law schools offered a course in professional ethics and only two of those school s were in the Northeast. Albany Law School had offered lectures on the topic as early as 1882, but the subject had not become a staple of the curriculum.

A focus on state law at the school began to be articulated as early as 1905. Members of the faculty at the law school had always taught part-time while working as lawyers or judges. This enabled them to keep students in touch with the latest changes in state law.

In 1907, Dean Fiero introduced practice court, which was conducted in conjunction with his course on procedure. The motivation behind the innovation was a recent rule of the state Board of law Examiners requiring that students pass a new examination in pleading, practice and evidence.

In 1911, the state Court of Appeals revised its rules to require some combination of four years of legal study for admission to the bar, three for those having a college degree. At the same time, state Regents increased its requirements to three years for a bachelor of law degree to be issued. Dean Fiero responded. The three-year program permitted more in-depth treatment of some topics an allowed the introduction of new courses.

A few years into Dean Fiero's administration, law school bulletins began to tout the passage rate of students. In 1897, 92 percent of graduates passed the exam, as compared with 86 percent of those who had attended other law schools and 80 percent of those who had not attended any school. As Fiero's reorganization and expansion of curriculum took hold, passage rates through World War I for the law school averaged 94 percent, compared to 82 percent statewide.

Dean Fiero retired in 1924 at age 78. Although he was not to see a modern law school built during his three decades as dean, he had succeeded in building enrollment to an unprecedented level as a result of inclusive admission policies, a continued emphasis on practical training and a new specialization in state law. While the decision to pursue the path of professionalism had retrenched the law school from a national into a regional institution, it probably ensured survival in the face of increased competition.

The next 40 years of the law school can be seen as continuity of that professionalism in the face of great change locally and nationally. Dean Andrew V. Clements made an important move to bring the law school into the legal educational mainstream in 1947.

The law school joined the Association of American Law Schools, which had been established in 1900. Like the American Bar Association, this organization recommended educational standards but represented the academic rather than the professional side of the field.

From its founding , the AALS and its Ivy-League spokesmen had tended to be more elitist than the national and state bar associations, which may explain why Albany Law School had not joined its ranks earlier. Membership conferred greater status on the law school but also meant new scrutiny by outside peers.

That same year, also saw the development of the Law School Admissions Test by the College Entrance Examination Board of Princeton, New Jersey. The LSAT was first administered the following year, and Albany Law School bulletins subsequently indicated that the test, though not required, could be sought to supplement entrance applications.

Many law schools in the 1920s and 1930s had made changes to their programs to address the growing complexity of American law. In particular, an interest in federal policy as embodied by the New Deal was quickly reflected at leading law schools by an increase in courses on public law. But it wasn't until the late 1940s at Albany Law that Dean V. Clements added courses on administrative law and federal jurisdiction.

Clements believed that the law school should be "a major influence for good in the communities served by its graduates." In 1947, the first course in labor law was offered. The following year, several seminars on real property, legal draftsmanship and banking practice were offered as third-year electives. Soon, more electives were offered and changed periodically depending upon student interest.

Dean Clements' responsiveness to trends in legal education extended not only to what was being taught but how. He introduced teaching methods already in use at other law schools. Seminars, which had become popular in the mid-1920s because they enabled students to interact more closely with professors, were introduced. The experimental "problem method," first employed in the 1940s in an attempt to modify traditional case discussion by emphasizing skill over content, was adopted by some law school faculty.

Clements also introduced the day's technology to the school, including the mimeograph machine and audio-visual equipment. Special conferences were convened to deal with unique issues or commemorate occasions.

During the mid-1950s, law school trustees considered part-time night school, an idea that had blossomed and attracted working people. In the end, trustees accepted Clements' argument that the concept wouldn't be economically viable at the law school. The issue was a little more complicated than that simple explanation, but Clements delicately dealt with issue.

Despite his curriculum changes, Clements and trustees had reason to become alarmed at students' bar passage rates, which continued to fall through the 1950s due to Albany Law's transformation from a small, informal school to one with a swollen enrollment consisting primarily of veterans who were sometimes unprepared for the rigors of a legal education. The rates, which reached as low as 31 percent by the end of the decade, had implications for the school's accreditation.

Using the Association of American Law Schools' accreditation report as a blueprint, Clements raised the minimum score of the LSAT for admission, limited the number of acceptances, expelled failing students, hired additional instructors, expanded curriculum, tightened faculty grading and offered a bar review course.

Merit scholarships were offered to recruit promising students. Afternoon classes were instituted; previously, morning-only classes had allowed students to work after class, and cut into time for study.

Clements' efforts paid off handsomely. In 1961, law school graduates placed second among the 12 state law schools, earning an overall grade of 85 percent, a half a percentage point lower than New York University's law school students.

With America experiencing relative peace and prosperity during the early 1960s, young people often chose to extend their education beyond college, and many settled on professional training for a career in law. Prospects for employment in the field were bright. Public servants with a knowledge of the law and private attorneys were needed more than ever to navigate the complexities of federal and local law as governmental agencies expanded, outpaced only by private corporations.

Albany Law School captured a share of this growing market for preparation in the profession. Electives were offered on landlord and tenant relations, creditors' rights, trade regulations, and court of claims practice.

The law school continued to struggle through the 1960s and into the 1970s with robust enrollment that taxed facilities, staff and offered little opportunity for curriculum innovation. But there were bright spots.

In 1977, a program explaining the details of the Tax Reform Act of 1976 was offered. That same year, seniors participating in the 4-year-old clinical legal education program could earn credit by working for Prisoners' Legal Services, a government-funded project.

At the suggestion of several activist faculty members, Dean Ralph D. Semerad recommended to trustees the creation of an institute of state and local government at the school, thus planting the seeds for the present-day Government Law Center, which would be established a year later to introduce students to public policy, study the relationship between law and government and provide a resource for government agencies.

Still, accreditation inspection in 1978 raised significant concern. The American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools cited overcrowding, insufficient staffing and outdated curriculum among other problems.

New dean, Richard J. Bartlett, who would lead the school through the 1980s, continued efforts to address accreditation concerns and revamp the education program.

In particular, clinical legal education got a boost with the new Disabilities Law Clinic (1983) and the Environmental Law Clinic (1985), the latter established in cooperation with the state attorney general's office. Practical experience, which had been valued since the law school's founding but which lagged after World War II, was now formalized as part of the curriculum. The law school library, long overused and overwhelmed, was replaced in 1986.

With a beefed-up administration, a more diverse school community and a modern library, the law school clearly exceeded standards set by its professional watchdogs.

By 1994 when a search was conducted for the law school's 14th dean, Albany Law was ranked 34th by the Gorman Report of 176 accredited law schools. The bar passage rate was 95 percent, consistently higher than the statewide average.

The demand for continuing education became even greater in the late 1990s, when a state ruling required lawyer to take 24 hours of classes every two years in ethics, legal skills, office management and specialized areas of law. The Summer Legal Institute was created to offer courses to law students and practicing attorneys.

The late 1990s also saw the fruits of initiatives by Dean Martin H. Belsky (1986-1991) to encourage faculty scholarship, strengthening curriculum and relevance to the practice, distinguishing instructors and raising the school's stature.

Albany Law School made national headlines in 1996, when its Domestic Violence Clinic represented Charline Brundidge, a victim who had served 10 years in prison for killing her abusive husband. Brundidge was released, becoming the first incarcerated battered woman to be granted clemency by a New York governor.

The Government Law Center continued to grow in size and influence. In 1998, the GLC celebrated its 20th anniversary as a national model for the research of public policy and legal issues confronting state and local government. Government officials and their agencies have benefited from its forums on pending legislation and publication on a wide variety of topics, including municipal law, administrative law, elder law, land-use reform and public-policy dispute resolution. In 1999, the GLC launched a new periodical, the ‘Government, Law and Policy Journal."

The law school's specialization in the study of the links between law, science and technology developed rapidly in the late 1990s. This trend is likely to continue well into the new century.

With its joint-degree program with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, its "Albany Law Journal of Science and Technology" and its courses on intellectual property, legal counseling for industrial innovation, bioethics, hazardous waste and Japanese law and trade, the law school has demonstrated a strong commitment to this growing field.