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History of Pace Law School

Early in 1974, Edward J. Mortola, the President of Pace University, wrote to Judge Morris E. Lasker of the United States District Court: “A small, quality law school is being planned…to make unique and significant contributions to the University at large and to the Westchester community. Its graduates should be welcomed into the profession and into allied fields.”

The Pace University School of Law opened its doors on the White Plains campus in September 1976, as the late Dean Robert B. Fleming, who came to Pace from SUNY-Buffalo Law School, welcomed the freshman class of 250 day and evening students chosen from a pool of 1,400 applicants.

Among the founding members were law professors Ralph M. Stein; Josephine Y. King, PhD; Bennett L. Gershman; John A. Humbach; James DeMarco; and Hervey Johnson.

Through the generosity of Bessie Gerber Glass and her family, the Joseph and Bessie Gerber Glass Law Center was completed in 1979. The groundbreaking ceremony in mid-October 1976 brought more than 400 supporters and dignitaries to the White Plains campus, including New York State Governor Hugh Carey and Westchester County Executive Alfred Del Bello.

By 1981, Dean Fleming was able to report to the Trustees that enrollment had risen to a combined total of 749 in the evening and day divisions. At that time, 45 percent of the student body was female. An alumni association was established with representatives in thirteen states. Today, the Law School has an enrollment of 750 students, 60% of whom are women. Today, Pace law graduates number more than 5,000 and reside in nearly every part of the United States, as well as Canada, Australia, England, France, The Netherlands, Russia, Israel, Spain, Nepal and Argentina.

Early in its history, the Law School pioneered a progressive, innovative health law specialty, under the direction of Professor King, integrating health law with corporation, contract and tort law. Building on Professor King’s work, the Law School expanded its health law and policy program under the direction of Professor Linda Fentiman, to meet the changing needs of this fast-growing field. A Health Law Advisory Board was established to help implement the new program.

Dean Fleming retired in 1982 and was succeeded by an Interim Dean, Justice James D. Hopkins of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division, and former Westchester County Executive and legislator. Under Dean Hopkins’ leadership, the Law School continued to build its most important curricular specialty: the environmental law program. Pace has earned national as well as international recognition for excellence in this field.

The Honorable Janet Johnson, a judge of the Iowa Court of Appeals, was named Dean of the School of Law in 1983. During Dean Johnson’s six-year tenure, significant curricular innovations were introduced. These included certificate programs in environmental law, international law, health law and policy; and a semester abroad program in London. Dean Johnson also established Pace’s first direct client representation legal clinic, John Jay Legal Services, Inc.

Under Dean Johnson, the environmental law program was greatly expanded with the establishment of the Environmental Litigation Clinic, today co-directed by Professors Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Karl Coplan, and by the introduction of the LL.M. program in environmental law.

In 1984, former United States Representative Richard L. Ottinger joined the environmental law faculty. He became co-director, with Professor Robinson, of the Center for Environmental Legal Studies and, in 1987, launched the Pace Energy Project (now known as the Pace Energy and Climate Center) for utility law reform. The Energy and Climate Center, today led by Karl Rabago, works in five states, plus Puerto Rico and the Mohawk Nation in upstate New York. In February 1989, Pace launched the annual, student-run National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition, the most prestigious environmental moot in the country.

Dean Johnson resigned in 1989 to return to teaching; and Steven H. Goldberg, former Associate Dean for academic affairs and externals at the University of Minnesota, succeeded her as dean, serving until 1993.

Under Dean Goldberg, Pace Law School began the computerization of its Law Library and developed a Student Honor Board and an Academic Support Program. Dean Goldberg implemented one of the few criminal law legal writing programs in the country taught by tenure-track faculty.

In 1989, attorney and educator Vanessa Merton joined the School of Law as Associate Dean for clinical education, professor of law, and director of John Jay Legal Services, Inc. Dean Merton expanded the clinical program to include the Health Law Clinic, the Appellate Litigation Clinic, the Criminal Defense Clinic, the Wills and Advance Medical Directives Clinic, and the Prosecution of Domestic Violence Clinic. This expansion was sustained by more than half a million dollars in educational grants. Pace’s Clinical Education Program has been ranked among the top twenty of the nation’s 186 law schools.

Also in 1989, in partnership with New York State, Pace established the Women’s Justice Center, under trial attorney Michael Dowd, to train defense and prosecuting attorneys in trying cases of domestic violence. Today, the program, which evolved into the Pace Women’s Justice Center, has a staff of eleven attorneys. Pace students are engaged through the Center in providing direct legal services to victims of domestic violence.

In 1993 the Land Use Law Center was established under the direction of Professor John Nolon, a Fulbright Scholar. The Land Use Law Center is dedicated to fostering the development of sustainable communities throughout New York State and to providing opportunities for students to gain in-depth, practical experience in land use law. The Center engages Pace students as first-year volunteer interns and as paid summer associates and project managers. Students earn academic credit on guided research projects and in small seminar settings. They have produced more than 50 in-depth research papers, more than 30 of which having been published in law reviews and journals.

Professor Barbara Black was named Interim Dean after the resignation of Dean Goldberg. She served until June 1994, when she took a leave of absence to serve as deputy director of the Association of American Law Schools in Washington, D.C. During her tenure, Dean Black engaged the faculty in an examination of the curricular recommendations made in the ABA’s MacCrate Report and presided over the School’s sabbatical accreditation inspection.

Professor Ottinger was appointed Acting Dean in July 1994 and, in December, became Dean of the Law School. Under Dean Ottinger’s dynamic leadership, new programs and initiatives were launched. These included re-establishment of the Board of Visitors, comprised of leading public officials and prominent business executives and attorneys who serve as advisers to the School. Dean Ottinger’s extensive development efforts included the School’s first-ever comprehensive Campaign for Excellence.

Major curricular developments under Dean Ottinger included the establishment of an International Program, led by Professor Gayl Westerman, who had revamped the international law curriculum, established a number of international externships, and created a new LL.M in Comparative Legal Studies designed for graduates of foreign law institutions. Adding to the strength of the international program, and to the growing base of international contacts for Pace, is the acclaimed database on the UN Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (CISG) created by the staff of the Institute for International Commercial Law under the guidance of former law librarian and professor of law, Nicholas Triffin.

In 1995, Pace became one of only 22 law schools nationwide authorized to confer a research doctorate degree, the Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) in Environmental Law. In 1997, Professor Barbara Black created the Securities Arbitration Clinic at the Law School, an innovative clinical program that seeks to meet the need for legal services of small investors with claims against brokers.

Dean Ottinger retired in 1999 at the end of his five-year term and was succeeded by the School’s seventh dean, David S. Cohen, who was recruited for the position after an international search. Dean Cohen came to Pace from Canada after serving for five years as Dean of the University of Victoria Faculty of Law (UVic). Under his leadership, UVic became one of the top law schools in Canada.

Pace Law School began its third decade and the new millennium with the dedication of a state-of-the-art, 27,000-square-foot classroom building, bringing advanced technology into the school’s classrooms. Soon afterward, in 2003, the New York State Judicial Institute opened its 30,000-square-foot facility on the Pace Law School campus. The Institute sets the standard for judicial excellence across the country, providing resources year-round to help New York judges stay current with legal issues.

Under Dean Cohen’s leadership, Pace Law School experienced a 57% increase in applications, total scholarship aid went up by 96%, LSAT scores and GPAs rose, and admissions became much more selective. In addition, six outstanding, full-time faculty members were hired and the academic support program was enhanced, resulting in rising bar passage rates.

In 2004, Stephen J. Friedman succeeded Dean Cohen, who stepped down after completing his five-year term. Dean Friedman is one of the nation's leading corporate, securities, and mergers and acquisitions lawyers, and an active leader in the nonprofit world. With Dean Friedman at the helm, Pace Law School continued to build high-quality programs that enrich the student experience and both reflect and influence the legal landscape.

In 2005, Pace Law School was awarded the ABA Award for Distinguished Achievement in Environmental Law and Policy. The school also initiated the annual International Criminal Court (ICC) Moot Competition – the first of its kind in the world – which brings together disparate legal traditions in the context of simulated ICC cases.

As part of a broad effort to attract highly qualified students to the Law School, Pace introduced the Learned and Augustus Hand Fellowship Program in 2005. Named in honor of Billings Learned Hand, one of the most influential judges in American history, the program offers fellowships to a select group of applicants every year. Due to this and similar programs, Pace has retained the quality of its student body, despite the national downward trend in law school applications.

In addition to enhancing its academic and scholarship programs, Pace Law School continues to shape its dedicated community of scholars. Several highly regarded and experienced educators joined the Pace faculty in 2005 and 2006. The school has also recently expanded its Career Development services to include alumni, improving employment opportunities for current students and graduates. In 2006, over 91% of Pace Law School's recent graduates reported relevant, full-time employment within nine months of graduation.

In June 2007, Pace Law School appointed Michelle S. Simon interim dean of the School, succeeding Stephen J. Friedman who became president of Pace University, and in May 2008 Simon became Dean of the Law School. Dean Simon has been a member of the Pace Law faculty since 1985. She is an expert in criminal law, civil procedure, and legal writing, all of which she teaches, and in which she has authored or co-authored 17 articles and book chapters on topics ranging from instructions to juries in criminal cases, guilty-plea negotiations, sex offenses, legal issues in AIDS, search and seizure procedures, and the legal autonomy of cities in urban planning.

Her extensive administrative experience at Pace Law School includes service as associate dean of academic affairs from 2001 to 2006 and work on 16 committees, including one on academic standards and another conducting a self-study, both of which she chaired. Until her new appointment, she directed the school’s programs in judicial studies and legal writing.

In April 2014, after a national search, David Yassky was appointed as Dean of Pace Law School.  Prior to joining Pace Law School, Dean Yassky served for four years in the Bloomberg administration as Chair of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.  Under his leadership, the TLC enacted historic reforms expanding service in previously underserved areas and dramatically improving the fuel efficiency of the taxi fleet. Yassky also served for eight years in the New York City Council.  He sponsored innovative legislation including zoning incentives for affordable housing, new penalties for firearms trafficking, tax incentives for film and TV production, and authorization for whistleblower suits against fraudulent City contractors. 

Before election to the Council, Yassky had a distinguished legal career in government service, private practice and academia. In the 1990s, he served under then-Representative Chuck Schumer as Chief Counsel to the House Subcommittee on Crime, helping to enact the Brady Law, the Assault Weapons Ban and the Violence Against Women Act, and he practiced law at O’Melveny & Myers LLP representing corporations and financial institutions on acquisitions and securities offerings.  In 1998, Yassky joined the faculty of Brooklyn Law School, specializing in administrative law and constitutional law. His scholarship on the Bill of Rights has been published in leading law reviews and has been cited widely in academic journals and judicial opinions.

The Law School's growth over the past 30 plus years represents not merely a change in the number of courses, programs, and faculty members, but also the development of a unique philosophy and an approach to legal education that strikes an important curricular balance between theory and practice.