Small-class guarantee will deepen first-year law school experience

Release Date: March 9, 2015

“With this change, we’re trying to give students an experience they can’t get anywhere else.”
Luis E. Chiesa, vice dean for academic affairs
University at Buffalo Law School

BUFFALO, N.Y. — University at Buffalo Law School students in their critical and formative first year will receive even more personal attention from their professors under a new plan approved unanimously by the school’s faculty.

First-year students already undergo intensive instruction and coaching in research and writing skills. Beginning in fall 2015, they also will spend one of the six first-year doctrinal courses — covering such areas as contracts, property law and torts — in a very small class of about 15 students.

The change, first proposed by an internal committee on curriculum planning, means first-years will have more one-on-one interaction with their professors, fostering their analytical and advocacy skills early in their law school careers.

“Historically — here and at many other law schools — doctrinal courses are taught to a big group of students, anywhere from 50 to 80,” says Professor Luis E. Chiesa, who as vice dean for academic affairs is responsible for overseeing the curriculum. “With this change, we’re trying to give students an experience they can’t get anywhere else.”

Although almost half of U.S. law schools have a similar arrangement, Chiesa says, “What is distinctive is how small our sections will be.” Other schools’ “small” sections might have as many as 30 or 40 students; “ours will have half of that, which allows professors to do much more with students.”

One advantage of the new arrangement is that it maximizes student-professor interaction in that substantive class. “In a typical class of 60, each student may get called on three or four times over the semester,” Chiesa says. “That limits the opportunity to interact with students and help them develop skills in public speaking and oral argument. Now, we’ll have that opportunity 12 or 16 times in a small section.”

In addition, he says, the bonding experience of an intensive, small section develops solidarity and community among students. “They’re in a more intimate setting, getting to know and understand each other better, learning each other’s views better. This has been shown to make for a more robust educational experience,” Chiesa says. And because professors have fewer students, they have more flexibility in what work they require — more quizzes, perhaps, or more writing assignments — because the work of grading is reduced.

With the change opening up more sections of 1L doctrinal courses, UB Law faculty who currently don’t teach first-year students now will have the chance to do so. “We can do this with existing resources,” Chiesa says. “It’s a matter of redeploying faculty to help out in this very worthwhile endeavor.”

Only tenured and tenure-track faculty teach the first-year doctrinal courses.

“I love teaching in the first semester,” says Chiesa, a specialist in criminal law. “I like when students don’t really have a sense of what the law means and you can instill that sense in them. It’s really satisfying to see that grow.”

Media Contact Information

Ilene Fleischmann
Vice Dean for Alumni, PR and Communications
Law School
Tel: 716-645-7888