The Deans

The Deans

 

The law school's first dean, Amos Dean, was born on a farm in 1803 in Barnard, Vt., and attended the nearby academy in Randolph. After graduating from Union College and passing the bar, he joined the law practice of Azor Taber in Albany in 1829.

Before his association with the law school, Dean organized the Albany Young Men's Association; served as a trustee of Albany Medical College, the Dudley Observatory and the Albany Female Academy; and was employed for a time as director of the New York State Normal School, the predecessor of the University of Albany.

Without leaving his job as professor and administrator of the law school, Dean served as part-time chancellor and history professor at the University of Iowa for five years.

Dean was married, had three children and lived a short distance from the school. Dean had a love of literature, history, art and science. Dean worked on several books while he was a professor at the school, including a history of European art and a history of religion and government in Europe, both published posthumously in 1876.

In 1861, Dean published a practical guide to commercial law entitled Bryant and Stratton's Commercial Law of Business Men, which was designed to use as manual for businessmen and a textbook for law students. In 1850, Dean published lectures he delivered at Albany Medical College in a textbook entitled, Principles of Medical Jurisprudence: A Course of Lectures.

In addition to overseeing day-to-day operations as the law school's lone administrator and teaching, Dean for his 17 years usually oversaw operations of the moot court, where students practiced arguing cases.

Nearly two decades into its existence, the law school was on firm ground. Enrollment had grown steadily from 23 to more than 100. Despite the appearance of new law schools opening in the South and West in the growing country, Albany Law attracted students nationally. In 1859, the state granted the law school the authority to confer diplomas, recognition of the educational quality.

Speaking in 1915, Dean J. Newton Fiero said that in the 1860s the law school was "the best known, most largely attended, and ... as of that time, the best law school in America."

To maintain a high ranking among American law schools would prove a difficult challenge for successive deans. By 1870, there were 31 law schools in the United States, double the number when Albany Law was founded. Moreover, after Dean's death in 1868, there would be momentous change in the profession and a revolution in the methods of legal training. How the school responded to these changes in the last decades of the 19th century would shape its future.

In 1868, a prominent Albany lawyer and textbook author, Isaac Edwards, was invited to deliver several lectures at Albany Law School. Such an impression was made on faculty and trustees that after Amos Dean died, Edwards was unanimously chosen as the law school's second chief administrator.

Edwards had been born in 1819 on a farm in Corinth, Saratoga County. After attending Waterford Academy, he came to Albany to clerk in the law offices of James Edwards, his uncle, and Orlando Meads, a trustee of the law school. Edwards' textbooks, published during the 1850s, were highly regarded tracts on practical legal issues. Edwards also regularly wrote opinion pieces for local newspapers. Edwards' son attended the law school in 1888.

During Edwards' tenure, the course set by the founders was essentially maintained, although incremental changes were made to respond to dramatic transformations in the law and legal education that were taking shape outside the school walls.

The faculty was expanded considerably during Edwards' administration. Besides Edwards and the two remaining founders, several additional instructors taught during Edwards' tenure, many with Albany law practices who taught as time allowed.

But despite his modest movements, some local bar members felt Edwards wasn't doing enough to keep up with change in the profession and legal training. Whether these developments involving the law school occurred in spite of Edwards' management or as a result of them cannot be determined.

What is certain that Edwards' professional responsibilities exacted a personal toll. In 1879, Edwards took his life.

The trustees and faculty chose Horace E. Smith, "Solon of the Fulton County bar," a 62-year-old lawyer and textbook author. Born in Weston, Vt., Smith never attended college, but passed the bar and established a practice first in Broadalbin, Fulton County, and then in nearby Johnstown.

For a time he shared an office in Boston with Henry B. Stanton, husband of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. He was married three times and had three children. After he was hired as dean of the law school, Smith commuted from Johnstown and maintained offices near the law school.

Smith was driven by trustees, alumni and state education officials clamoring for higher standards and more rigorous preparation for the bar. Smith responded during his 10 years by reorganizing and augmenting the existing program. Perhaps the most significant milestone of his administration was the purchase of a building that gave the law school its own home.

To succeed Smith, who had sought to resign in 1887 at age 70 but was persuaded to stay two more years until a replacement could be found, trustees tapped a 34-year-old lawyer with outstanding academic credentials whom they believed would breathe new life into the school.

George Washington Kirchwey, was a rising star in local legal circles. A Yale undergraduate, Kirchwey clerked in Albany while attending classes at the Albany Law School. In addition to presenting numerous papers at the Albany Institute of History and Art, he was a voracious reader of literature, conversant in five languages, known to citizens for his rousing oratory at city events and was editor of historical manuscripts in the state library. Kirchwey was unanimously selected as Albany Law School's fourth dean in 1889.

Kirchwey, married and father of three, was given a great deal of latitude to reform the academic program. He immediately instituted a more structured two-year program and tightened requirements for students. One of the most significant of Kirchwey's reforms was the introduction of the case system. Though now a familiar mode of learning to modern-day law students, the method was in its infancy in late 19th century American law schools.

Perhaps Kirchwey's reforms would have taken root if he had not left within two years to join the faculty at Columbia Law School, where he would become dean in 1901.

Kirchwey had tried to bring Albany Law in line with the most progressive law schools in the country. But in doing so, he had eroded the niche that Albany Law had occupied since its inception: men of limited time and money had always looked to the law school as an alternative to the more prestigious programs.

After Kirchwey, trustees and faculty may have sought a less ambitious man. Accordingly, they chose an obscure 43-year-old Albany lawyer, Lewis Benedict Hall, class of 1870, to become the fifth dean.

Improvements were made to the building the law school occupied, a former church that was home to Albany Law for 46 years. Hall also made changes to the curriculum, first reinstating the one-year course of study. Admission requirements were also relaxed under Hall.

The changes in program appear to have helped, but the school was still short of students and tuition. An average of about 50 students was enrolled annually during his tenure. After four years, Hall left, believed to have returned full-time to his Albany law practice.

The four administrators who followed one of the founders, Amos Dean, did their best to guide Albany Law School through unpredictable waters of American legal education during the late 19th century. Nonetheless, the enviable reputation enjoyed by the school early on began to erode at an alarming pace, even after the change in parent institutions from the University of Albany to Union University in 1873. By the end of Hall's brief term, as the new century approached, the survival of Albany Law appeared to be in jeopardy.

In 1895, the Board of State Law Examiners of New York instituted a uniform bar examination. This was a wake-up call and perhaps a relief for law school advocates. Over the previous few decades, the school had tried to respond to various voices in the profession demanding higher standards. Now, there was a single standard upon which to focus.

In contrast to his predecessors, the sixth dean of the law school was a leading member of the state's legal profession. When law school professor J. Newton Fiero took charge, he had just completed a term as president of the New York Bar Association, while also remaining active as a member of its committees on statutory revision and legal education.

Fiero's term of office bridged two centuries and coincided with the Spanish-American War, World War I, the women's suffrage movement and Prohibition. By the end of his 30-year term, the longest of any chief administrator in the school's history, Dean Fiero had made profound changes to the direction and structure of the institution, changes that to some extent still determine its character today.

Born in Saugerties in the Hudson Valley in 1847, James Newton Fiero was descended from early Spanish and Dutch immigrants. After graduating Union College, he read law in the office of state Supreme Court Justice William Murray. Four years prior to his appointment as dean, Fiero had joined the firm of law school founder Amasa Parker's son and began teaching at the law school.

The married father of three was 48 when he was named law school dean. In 1909 while at the law school, Fiero was appointed state reporter, and from his desk at the Court of Appeals he produced more than 60 volumes of "New York Reports." Fiero was the author of several law books. His knowledge of state law and procedure was unsurpassed.

That Fiero and the trustees chose to emphasize the practical over the theoretical can be attributed to their desire to attract the same pool of candidates who had largely made up the student body from the beginning. Albany Law had never been a magnet for the elite. After 1895, the school had to compete not with Ivy League universities, but new part-time or night law programs that were attracting large numbers of working people and immigrants.

With time, Fiero extended the law school program of studies from one- to two- to three-years. Course offerings were slimmed down. Instruction tightened and focused on state law and preparation for the bar examination. Women increasingly started populating classes. A series of lectures on legal ethics was introduced.

Fiero's task was to distinguish the law school from so-called lawyer mills. This he did with notable success, as is evident from a steady growth in enrollment, which by the end of his tenure had increased eight-fold.

Harold D. Alexander and Andrew V. Clements, the two deans to succeed Fiero from 1924 through 1964, had a tough act to follow. Fiero had taken charge when the law school was on the brink of extinction, streamlined programs to conform with new, stricter state requirements, of which Feiro was often the author, and succeeded in attracting record numbers of students. During Feiro's tenure the school developed a reputation for specialization in state law and a high bar passage rate.

Deans Alexander and Clements were both graduates of Albany Law who had worked under Fiero. Alexander graduated in 1895, the first year of Fiero's deanship, and returned 15 years later as a lecturer in criminal law. He succeeded Fiero as dean in 1924. Clements, class of 1919, never strayed far from the school, serving first as its registrar and then as a lecturer. He became dean after Alexander retired in 1945.

Few now remember the man for whom the Dean Alexander Moot Courtroom is named. Born in Albany in 1874, Alexander attended city public schools, never married and was Albany County's district attorney for five years.

In his tenure, the school moved to temporary quarters in The Factory, a former mill building, and then to its current home on New Scotland Avenue. Alexander oversaw the law school through the Roaring '20s, the Depression and World War II. By the end of his tenure with enrollment sapped by the war, Alexander retired in 1945 at age 71.

Andrew Vernon Clements, 24 years younger than his predecessor, was named acting dean and a year later elected dean. Clements had been born in Chatham, Ontario. He attended high school in Rochester, then Union College and graduated from the law school in 1919.

He was among those who served in the Students' Army Training Corps in Albany during World War I. After passing the bar in 1920, he set up a law office in Albany, worked as the law school registrar and later as an instructor. He married and had two children.

During World War II, Clements served as counsel to the War Manpower Commission of New York and was director of Civil Protection in Albany. When he became dean, he dropped his law practice but remained active in legal and education affairs. Like Fiero, Clements became a prominent member of the education committee of the state Bar Association. He served as president of the Albany Academy for Girls and the school board of the Albany suburb of Coeyman. Clements also devoted hours to counseling state prison inmates who believed that their constitutional rights had been violated and won freedom for many of them.

In 1951, Clements published the Manual of Charges for Trial Justices, written with a faculty member. His widely used casebook Criminal Law and Procedure appeared the following year.

Clements coped with the influx of veterans who crowded classrooms following the war. Clements oversaw remodeling of the two-decade-old campus, expanded faculty and had the law school join the American Association of Law Schools.

In 1951, the law school celebrated its centennial. By then, approximately 4,000 students had graduated from the school since its founding.

Many law schools in the 1920s and 1930s had made changes to their program 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 the leading law schools by an increase in courses on public law. The curriculum at Albany Law, however, looked more or less the same under Dean Alexander as it had under Fiero; it was not until Clements became dean that courses on administrative law and federal jurisdiction, for example, were offered.

Clements believed that the law school should be "a major influence for good in the communities served by its graduates." The character of the school altered significantly after Clements became dean. A course in labor law was offered. More electives were offered, mostly to upperclassman, and they were changed periodically. Clements' responsiveness to trends in legal education extended also to how courses were taught.

Seminars, which had become popular in the 1920s at other law schools because they enabled students to interact more closely with professors, were introduced. The experimental "problem method," first employed in the 1940s to modify the traditional case discussions, was adopted by some law school instructors. Clements introduced 1950s modern technology to the law school. Special conferences were convened.

Clements also respond to a highly critical American Association of Law Schools review in 1960 that threatened Albany Law's accreditation, making changes that improved student performance and bar passage rates.

Clements may be credited with bringing the law school into line with other legal education programs around the country, addressing problems associated with rapid institutional growth, hiring women as administrators and instructors and improving Albany Law's standing among state law schools.

Dean Clements led the law school until he became ill in 1962. During his convalescence, long-time trustee J. Vanderbilt Straub filled in as acting dean. Clements returned to work briefly but died in 1964. Following his death, trustees turned to J. Vanderbilt Straub a second time. Like Clements, Straub had remained close to the school throughout his life.

Straub had graduated as class valedictorian in 1928 and then married the daughter of the law school trustee president, whose law firm Straub joined after graduation. A trustee starting in 1941, Straub served for 50 years, longer than any other member of the board in modern history of the law school.

Law school trustees did not have to look far for its ninth dean. Trustees chose veteran Albany Law professor Samuel Hesson. Under Hesson, a major expansion and renovation of the New Scotland Avenue facilities in the late 1960s provided the setting for a larger, better and more diverse legal education program, which was augmented by six successive deans.

It was during his tenure that the school began its transformation into today's modern institution. Born in Watervliet in 1906, Samuel Moody Hesson had attended public schools and Union College. In 1931, he graduated as valedictorian from Albany Law and then practiced law with two classmates and taught political science at Union College. In 1935, Hesson joined the law school faculty and soon earned a master's degree in law at Columbia University.

Married and father of a daughter, Hesson was a leading authority on state practice and procedure and served as a consultant to the legislature for the revision of Civil Practice Laws and Rules. In 1968, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller appointed Hesson a trustee of the State Savings and Loan insurance Fund.

Hesson was remembered by students and faculty as a "born teacher," who could be tough but was compassionate. Hesson would serve for 10 years, until his death in 1975 at age 68 due to a heart attack.

Assistant Dean John Welsh, himself a faculty colleague of Hesson's before taking the full-time assistant's post when Hesson was named dean, served as acting dean while a search was conducted.

Ralph D. Semerad, a Schenectady native, Harvard Law School graduate, Federal Bureau of Investigation judo and firearms instructor who had joined the Albany Law faculty in 1945, was a popular instructor. He was a frequent contributor to law reviews and edited numerous law digests and legal treatises.

The transition from Hesson to Semerad was fairly smooth. However from the beginning, Semerad's reports to the trustees and the Union University board of governors indicated his growing concern about enrollment, which was outstripping any increase in the size of faculty or physical plant.

Changes to the education program were made during Semerad's administration. Semerad recommended to law school 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.

Less than three years after Hesson's death, Semerad died in 1977 at age 62.

John Welsh stepped forward again to act as dean until a new chief administrator could be found. Welsh, who preferred to teach and stepped down as assistant dean when Semerad was named dean, made it clear that he wasn't interested in leading the law school.

But Welsh did guide capital and program improvements that were crucial to the law school maintaining its accreditation from the ABA-AALS. One of the most significant achievements during this transitional period was the establishment in 1978 of the Government Law Center.

Welsh born in Catskill in 1931, received his undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated in 1955 from Albany Law, where his father had been a member of the class of 1915. Welsh would serve as acting chief administrator three times: in 1975, 1977-79 and 1993-95. The married father of a son who graduated from the law school was active with the Law School Admissions Council with the New York State Bar Association.

From a pool of 20 candidates, Richard J. Bartlett was chosen the 11th dean of Albany Law School in 1979. Bartlett was already known to the committee for he had delivered the commencement address in 1974 and had recently joined the board of trustees. A familiar figure in state legal circles, he had just completed his fifth year as the state's chief administrative judge. In that role, Bartlett implemented needed reforms in the judiciary and managed one of the most complex court systems in the country.

A native of Glens Falls, Dick Bartlett had been born in 1926, He attended Georgetown University and graduated from Harvard Law School. After practicing law in his hometown, he joined the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and served as a staff judge advocate. In 1959, he was elected to the state Assembly.

Under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Bartlett headed a panel that revised the state's criminal statutes for the first time in 80 years. After the prison uprising at Attica in 1971, Bartlett was named to the commission that recommended improvements to the state correctional process. In 1973, he sat briefly on the state Supreme Court, before being tapped to become the state's first administrative judge. The married father's only daughter graduated from the law school.

Bartlett expanded the administrative staff from four to seven and gradually grew that number to 12. Bartlett's responsibilities were not compromised by a heavy teaching load and his primary focus was on his administrative role. Bartlett recognized the changing role of dean as chief executive, a trend in American high education, which began to become more compartmentalized and like corporations more bureaucratic in organization.

This organization allowed Bartlett to maintain priorities of revamping and updating curriculum, strengthening faculty relations, addressing diversity, capital improvements and fundraising.

One of the most important achievements of the Bartlett administration was the kick-off of the six-year Campaign for Albany Law School to raise more than $12 million through the new Office of Development and Alumni Affairs, established in 1984.

With a beefed-up administration, a more diverse school community and a modern library, the law school exceeded standards set by its professional watchdogs, the American Bar Association and the American Association of Law Schools.

At the end of his tenure, Bartlett was not stretching credulity when he posed the question "Are we a national law school?" Various rankings put Albany Law among upper tiers, yet most students still came from Upstate New York colleges and practiced locally because the law school's reputation wasn't widely known.

Following a nationwide search, Martin H. Belsky was chosen the next leader of the law school in 1986. Belsky was the first to have no previous ties to the law school, and at age 42 also the youngest dean in some time. Belsky came to the law school with a lengthy resume.

A graduate of Temple University, Belsky had earned law degrees at Columbia and Cambridge and then practiced law in Philadelphia, where he became assistant district attorney. He later served as counsel for the U.S. House of Representative's judiciary committee, assistant administrator and deputy counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and chief counsel for a House panel on fishing issues. Belsky had been teaching law at the University of Florida and directing its Center for Governmental Responsibility when he was solicited to apply for the dean's post.

Belsky, who had published more than 30 articles and book reviews covering a wide range of topics, was married to Kathleen Waits, a Harvard Law School graduate who joined the Albany Law faculty.

Belsky sought to continue the work of Bartlett making the school's success more widely known, and established a public relations office. Belsky also raised the goal of the Campaign for Albany Law School to $14.5 million. The success allowed for a complete renovation of the courtyard, and conversion of the old library into the Dean Alexander Moot Courtroom.

The law school's endowment now supported additional student financial aid, scholarships and professorships and expansion of administrative and student services. Belsky and the faculty worked together to prepare a five-year strategic plan.

To improve the intellectual reputation of the school, Belsky focused on faculty scholarship. He supported faculty research with grants, student assistants and sabbaticals. Following a study of 60 law schools' course offerings, about 20 electives were added to Albany Law's curriculum, including classes on transnational litigation, issues surrounding domestic violence, American constitutional history, alternative dispute resolution, immigration law, Native American rights and law and sports.

A day-care center, operated jointly with Albany Medical Center, opened adjacent to the campus. The law school conducted its first summer session. Support programming was created for first-year students to meet the increasingly diversity coming through the door, whether it was older individuals embarking on second careers, those with physical and learning needs or those for whom English might be a second language.

After five years, Belsky resigned. He remained as a full-time professor. While some earlier deans at the law school had served for as many as 20 or even 30 years, Albany Law was embarking on the national trend of rapid succession among its chief administrators; law school deans in the United States during this period were averaging less than four years.

In 1991, John T. Baker was chosen the 13th dean at the law school. Like Belsky, Baker had no prior connection to Albany Law. He was the school's first African-American chief administrator.

Born in Louisville, Ky., Baker had been an activist in the 1960s and graduated from Fisk University and Howard University Law School, before practicing law in New York City and teaching at metropolitan area law schools. For a brief period in the mid-1980s, Baker had served as Howard University dean but resigned after a controversy regarding his criticism of the school's educational standards; his position attracted national attention and praise from many in the legal profession.

Focusing on the problem of attracting students of color to the law school, Baker with a panel of minority lawyers and law students organized the first Minority Law Day in 1992. Two years after Baker became dean, he resigned but remained at the school as a professor for nine years teaching courses in corporate law and civil rights.

With 40 other law school in the market for deans at the time, faculty member John Welsh served as acting dean for nearly two years until Thomas H. Sponsler was selected as the new chief administrator of the law school in 1995. Of 50 applicants for the Albany Law post, the Loyola Law School professor had a strong academic background and had demonstrated he could run a mid-sized law school during his six years as dean of the New Orleans institution.

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Sponsler earned law degrees from the University of Toledo and Yale University. Sponsler had taught at Loyola for about 15 years before becoming its dean. While in Louisiana, Sponsler served as chairman of the New Orleans Civil Service Commission commissioner of reform of the Pardon and Parole boards. Sponsler had served on the state bar association's governing board and on a task force that studied and made recommendations regarding training programs for lawyers employed by the federal legal Services Corp.

Sponsler's mission was to achieve greater recognition for Albany Law by developing certain areas of legal expertise. New projects were established, and old ones expanded during his tenure.

Starting in 1996, the Summer Legal Institute offered course to law students and attorneys who needed to brush up on changes in the profession. That same year, the law school made national headlines when its Domestic Violence Clinic represented a victim of domestic violence who had served 10 years for killing her abusive husband. The woman was released from prison that year becoming the first incarcerated battered woman to be granted clemency by a New York governor.

The same year, the school was selected as the site for the first statewide Science and Technology Law Center. The center, which set up shop at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Technology Park in across the Hudson River in North Greenbush, offered education and training to new business ventures and their attorneys, focusing on emerging technologies, the legal issues involved in high-tech companies and the transfer of technology and intellectual property from laboratory to marketplace.

During Sponsler's tenure, faculty continued to distinguish themselves with publication of great value to the legal profession. A number of donations endowed professorship chairs.

In 1998, the Government Law Center celebrated its 20th anniversary as a national model for the research of public policy and legal issues confronting state and local government.

During Sponsler's tenure, the law school embarked on the most ambitious campaign for growth in its long history. The goal was to create an attractive and lively $200 million medical-academic complex for students, employees and visitors through the pooling of technical and financial resources of the law school, Albany College of Pharmacy, Albany Medical Center and The Sage Colleges.

In 1999, trustees approved a capital campaign to raise $25 million to underwrite objectives of the school's long-range plan, including the acquisition, renovation and construction of space, an increased endowment for faculty salaries, financial aid and program initiatives and operating support for annual giving.

Sponsler would retire in 2002, to be replaced by Thomas F. Guernsey, a dean and former professor of law at Southern Illinois University School of Law, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Southern Illinois University and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Richmond School of Law.

A legal scholar, the Battle Creek, Mich., native had a particular interest in the areas of special education law and disabilities law and had written several books and articles on the topics.

Albany Law's 16th dean was quick to assess a situation that had been exacerbated by a recession and initiatives that possibly overextended programming. Guernsey cut staff by 15 percent, cut the law school budget across the board by 5 percent and raised tuition by as much as 12 percent.

But Guernsey didn't believe this tied his hands.

Guernsey aimed to aggressively market the law school, attract nationally recognized faculty and improve the caliber of students the law school was admitting.

In 2003, the law school suffered its lowest bar passage rate in 35 years and 10 percentage points below the average of other state schools. Reducing the number of students helped improve selectivity and the bar passage rate. Bar passage rates rebounded. For example, by 2006, approximately 88 percent of first-time bar exam takers from the law school passed, nearly 10 percent greater than the state average.

During Guernsey's tenure, unrestricted donations by alumni, faculty and staff to the law school rose and money for financial aid climbed, surpassing $1 million annually for the first time.

In 2010, Guernsey, 59, married and father of two children, announced his intentions to step down at the end of the 2010-11 school year. Guernsey has served as the law school's dean for nine years, more than twice the national average length of service for law school deans.

Some of Guernsey's achievements included creating a new Center for Excellence in Law Teaching and increased recruitment of students from across the nation, resulting recently in more than half incoming students coming from out of state. He reduced the student-teacher ratio from 21-1 to 13-1. He improved the quality and quantity of faculty scholarship, instituting new standards and recruiting nationally renowned scholars. ​