Advocate for UB Law
Distinguished litigator makes the case for his alma mater in the court of public opinion
Story by Blair Boone, Ph.D. '84
But he's also a leading trial lawyer with a reputation as a cagey courtroom tactician. So like most top litigators, he probably has a few cards he's not showing. And like all good trial lawyers, he really likes to win.
Combine his love of the law with his competitive drive, then throw in an abiding loyalty to UB Law School, and it's easy to see why Connors was the ideal choice to chair the school's committee for The Campaign for UB: Generation to Generation, even if he didn't think so at first.
"When I was first approached, I said 'no,'" Connors relates. "I'm not very good at raising money. I thought they'd be better off with someone else." Then, "like good lawyers," chuckles Connors, the school came back to him in another attempt to make its case. This time, he agreed to take on the challenge, and in typical fashion, he has helped build a winning case for UB Law.
"We have to make the case for UB," says Connors. "People think UB is subsidized by the state, that it has unlimited funding. That's not the case at all."
As the only law school in the SUNY system, UB is a tremendous asset to New York State and the region, but it must compete against other prestigious public law schools across the nation. Connors cites outstanding public law schools at universities such as Michigan and the University of Virginia that already have substantial endowments to provide funds for everything from student scholarships and research to hiring leading faculty, improving the physical plant and more.
According to Connors, increasing the law school's endowment is one of the key goals of The Campaign for UB. "It's so important for us to have funds that we can use as a law school. It allows us the academic freedom to accomplish our goals," he emphasizes, adding, "You can't be a top tier law school and ascend to the place your students deserve without an endowment. The way you do that is by raising money."
As evidence of what increased funding and a growing endowment can achieve, Connors points to some of the school's earlier accomplishments, such as the $1 million naming gift that supported the addition of the Francis M. Letro Courtroom to O'Brian Hall. The courtroom, which Connors calls a "litigation laboratory," brings actual court cases to the law school, allowing students to see top lawyers and judges in action.
"That courtroom distinguishes UB from any other law school in the country," enthuses Connors. "We have our own courtroom, and that brings with it a host of positive experiences. We have appellate courts conducting real proceedings. Our students get to watch real lawyers advocating for real clients. They get to see legends of the judiciary, people they've only heard about or whose opinions they've read, asking questions in a courtroom setting. "Plus," he adds, "they get to use it themselves."
Connors's personal experience supports the value of firsthand exposure to courtroom proceedings. During his first year at UB, the Law School was still downtown, a bonus for someone who already knew he wanted to be a litigator. "I was able to go to a class, then go to a courtroom," he relates. "I grew up in law school watching the [Buffalo] legendsóWilliam B. Mahoney, Herald Price Fahringer, Harold Boreanaz, John Condon. It was like my own personal clinic. For me, that was an incredible appeal.
"If I were in law school now, I wouldn't hang out in the cafeteria," he laughs. "I'd hang out in there," referring to the school's new courtroom.
The Law School's Campaign for UB goal is $12 million. Reaching that goal is "very, very much dependent on gifts from alumni," says Connors. He also is quick to point out that gifts of all sizes are crucial to meeting both the current campaign goals and future needs for the school. "Some people feel if they can't make a major gift, they'll pass on it," he says. "But reaching our goal is very dependent on increasing the percentage of gifts from our alumni. We want to broaden our base of support and reach out." Even as Connors speaks of reliance on alumni for gifts, he is confident that the school will reach and even exceed its goal.
Other important uses for campaign funds include the improvement of O'Brian Hall's facilities, subsidizing faculty recruitment efforts and student scholarships, and enhancing the quality of academic life at the Law School. Connors cites the Frank G. Raichle Professor in Trial and Appellate Advocacy, the school's first endowed professorship in litigation, as another recent success.
He also points to the innovative clinical programs that distinguish the education UB law students receive, helping them build both critical thinking skills and practical knowledge of the law.
"They get the legal community involved through these very innovative bridge courses, and that's something you don't see at any other law school," says Connors. "Where else can you go and learn how to pick a jury and prepare for a trial from John Condon, or learn how to do a municipal law transaction from Jim Magavern? It's a wonderful experience for the students. That's where UB's Law School is at the forefront of innovation."
Connors himself has contributed to that practical education by occasionally teaching trial techniques to UB law students. "I've always learned more than I've taught," he says. "Always in the exchange of information, the person who teaches benefits. The enthusiasm, the eagerness, the willingness to learn, the raw ability of young lawyers is very energizing, and you see that when you teach."
He has also served on the Law School's Dean's Advisory Council, and, in recognition of his support and $125,000 commitment to the Law School, the jury deliberation room in the new courtroom has been named for him. In his professional life, he's a frequent lecturer on trial practice and a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He was also recently inducted into the International Academy of Trial Lawyers. Membership in the academy is limited to 500 currently practicing attorneys nationwide, and Connors is the only active trial lawyer in Buffalo to receive this honor.
He describes his legal practice at Connors and Vilardo as very broad based, including criminal and civil cases for both plaintiffs and defendants, as well as constitutional issues. "That's what I love most about the practice of law," he says. "One day I'll have to learn about esoteric medical procedures, the next day about street crime."
Despite his claim of being "one-dimensional," Connors has also played a very important role in the civic life of Buffalo, his adopted hometown, as close friend and advisor to the city's mayor, Anthony Masiello. A native of Queens, Connors came to Buffalo on a basketball scholarship to Canisius College, where he earned a B.A. in 1968. "I found this community engaging," he says. "From ages 17 to 22, I made lifelong friends, so I wanted to go to law school here. My college roommate [and basketball teammate] turned out to be mayor several years later. I have friendships that have lasted a lifetime," says Connors, adding, "And I didn't have to compete with the Long Island Expressway."
Like any good trial lawyer, Connors knows the value of a powerful summation in winning a case. Ask him for one overriding reason to make a gift to the Law School and he replies, "Some of our largest donors call me after making their gift and say how good it made them feel to repay their debt, to fulfill their responsibility and become such an integral part of the school.
"Now is the time to reconnect with UB Law," concludes Connors. "You won't believe how good it will make you feel."