Makau Mutua

Makau Mutua

Q: Is a law school education a good buy in the current economic environment? Why is law school so expensive?

A: As New York State’s public law school, SUNY Buffalo Law School prides itself on delivering great value for the tuition dollar. Our graduates have the freedom and training to pursue many types of work, from public interest to biglaw and everything in between. In that way, SUNY Buffalo is the quintessential “good buy.”

A law school education remains valuable. It opens doors not only to economic success, but to a range of career options that are closed to non-lawyers. As a public law school, we take seriously our mission to ensure access to talented students from all walks of life, including those of limited means. The expense of law school is due to the fact that a law school needs to train students to think and act like lawyers. To do this, you need a top-notch faculty, strong clinical and externship programs, technology, and infrastructure. None of this is cheap, but it is all worth a great deal.

Q: Are you confident that there will be enough legal jobs in the foreseeable future to accommodate your graduates? In what sector will graduates find those jobs (for example, in government, large firms, small firms, insurance agencies)?

A: There will always be a place for talented attorneys in America and throughout the world. Our students continue to find rewarding work in a broad range of sectors—firms, government, public interest, and non-traditional environments. Students comes to us with the idea that they want to run a not-for-profit or work for an NGO, and they then use our degree to make that a reality. So while I know that the economic realities of the legal market are now causing graduates to think more broadly about how to use their degree, this is not new to us. It has always been this way at SUNY Buffalo.

No one can deny that the legal industry is facing enormous pressures. Firms continue to grapple with the fact that clients aren’t willing to pay what they once were. Outsourcing has come to the legal profession. The “business” of law is changing, and law is more global than ever. As a law school, we need to respond to these changes to make sure that we remain competitive and our students do as well. Changes to our skills program are a perfect example of this, and the early reviews from employers are very promising.

Q: What changes have been made to the curriculum to ensure students are well prepared for a career?

A: Over the past three years, SUNY Buffalo Law School has developed a comprehensive and integrated legal skills program designed to enable our students to be more effective attorneys in the early stages of their practice and to better compete in an increasingly tight job market. A central component of this program is the newly created Legal Analysis, Writing and Research (LAWR) Program, which requires all students to engage in three semesters of skills training that involves classroom and tutorial experiences and offers them extensive personalized feedback on a variety of legal work products. The LAWR program is taught by nine full-time faculty members and provides the foundation for two required upper-level intensive writing experiences, also supervised by full-time faculty members.

This required five-semester approach to skills training was developed from the results of extensive research our faculty and administration conducted with judges, law clerks, attorneys and hiring partners to determine what skills our law graduates need in order to be practice-ready lawyers from day one on the job. We realize, of course, that “practice ready” does not mean our graduates will be seasoned lawyers right out of law school. We also recognize that our graduates will, in all likelihood, be practicing law for four decades or more, and that none of us can predict all of the skills that will be needed for effective lawyering decades or even years down the line. Thus, we have made a concerted effort not only to enhance the way we teach our students the basic skills of legal analysis, writing and research, but also to integrate the teaching of these basic skills with the more traditional doctrinal teaching mission of the Law School.

Additionally, we have revised and substantially improved other skills courses, practicums and clinics, such as those emphasizing investigation, interviewing and counseling, problem-solving, document drafting, trial and appellate practice, and mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution. Innovative skills training and the enhanced teaching of legal doctrine, theory and interdisciplinary perspectives are a great combination for preparing lawyers for practice well into the 21st century.

Q: What does your school do to make it stand out among the state’s 15 law schools?

A: We are proud of our place as the State of New York’s public law school, and take this role seriously. We offer a comprehensive curriculum—we are not a “specialty” school. Our focus is always on providing the best-quality and most affordable legal education for our students. Increasingly, our comprehensive skills training (LAWR, clinics, moot courts, journals and trial advocacy programs) makes us stand out. Traditionally, another area of strength for our school is our focus on the interdisciplinary study of law—to put it another way, law in context. Incidentally, I think these approaches are complimentary in creating a great lawyer.

Q: How do you plan to implement the requirement that law students complete 50 hours of pro bono before being admitted to the bar?

A: SUNY Buffalo Law School’s clinics and externship program, which combine legal teaching with hands-on law practice, will play key roles in helping students to fulfill the mandate, as will the school’s close relationship with legal service agencies.

The Law School’s clinical education program comprises eight clinics that serve students and the community in the areas of affordable housing, economic advocacy, consumer and financial advocacy, environmental policy, social work, mediation, elder law and family violence.

The clinics offer diverse and sophisticated practice opportunities to second- and third-year students who work closely with skilled supervising attorneys. Clinical courses help students understand the essential relationship between thinking about legal problems and dealing with client problems. Rather than focusing on routine legal services, the Law School’s clinical offerings involve complex matters in which creativity and innovation play key roles in serving clients effectively.

In addition, the school has an extensive program of externships and judicial clerkships that also will help students satisfy the pro bono requirement.

Q: What advice would you offer students about how to make the most of their law school experience?

A: At its best, law school is a rich feast for the mind. I would advise students not to narrow their focus too early, certainly not before the middle of the second year. A student who enters with the intention of becoming a litigator, for example, may become entranced by the complexities of tax law; an aspiring general-practice lawyer may discover that she is drawn to an activist role in preventing domestic violence. As I listen to our alumni talk about their SUNY Buffalo Law experience, I am struck by the role that serendipity plays in their legal education and their subsequent careers. Entering students should embrace that uncertainty, because it’s at the creative heart of learning to love the law.

Law school is not a trade school. Students need to remember that they are entering a noble profession—at its deepest level, law is fundamental to our democracy and our life together as citizens. Irrespective of the area of practice, law is a calling. I think it can be easy to lose sight of this—law school is stressful and a lot of work. But I would encourage students to keep in the forefront of their mind the fundamental value of the profession. If they do that, work hard, and continue to make time for the people that they love, their law school experience will be greatly enriched.