Leaders in business and law know that one of their most difficult challenges is making decisions amid uncertainty.
And when law school officials had to make some tough calls on this year’s New York City Program in Finance and Law, uncertainty was the only sure thing. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, they decided to move the program to the spring semester and to conduct it in a virtual environment.
“The timeline for planning this program is longer than you might think, because you’re asking people to make significant commitments,” says Louis A. Del Cotto Professor David A. Westbrook, who co-directs the program with Professor Stuart G. Lazar. “The difficulty is that there are so many moving pieces, but the good news is everybody is incredibly supportive.”
19 students have enrolled in the program for the spring - students from both the law school and UB’s School of Management - intent on learning from and connecting with high-level practitioners in the world of New York City finance.
“I’m really excited about it,” says Janelle Fore ’21, who is devoting the final semester of her MBA studies in the School of Management to the New York City Program. “There will still be those opportunities to network and learn from professionals in their respective fields. And I’m excited to see the team dynamic in terms of working with law students. That’s one of the things I’ve loved about UB, the chance to work with people from other departments.”
Another student in the spring cohort, Florian Bruno ’21, is finishing his work in the Advanced Standing 2-Year J.D. program for international law students. A licensed attorney in both Germany and New York, with dual U.S. citizenship, Bruno is looking to pivot to doing more corporate and finance law.
“I have been a litigator all my life, and I hope the New York City Program will help me jump into this new chapter of my career,” Bruno says. “It’s a great program, and everything I learn about finance and law will tie into my double licensure. It’s going to introduce me to a completely new world of law.”
How will a program designed to offer the experience of living and studying in New York City work in a virtual setting?
We asked Prof. Westbrook to address some common questions.
“I’ve made this a core commitment, on the theory that when one person or a broad array of alumni can help students find jobs in a targeted way, that will make their lives better and will make the reputation of the school even better.” – David E. Franasiak ’78, principal in Williams & Jensen, PLLC, and Chair of the NYC Program Endowment Campaign
Broadly, how will the New York City Program be structured this spring?
The program online will have much the same structure as the program has had since its inception. Mondays through Thursdays will be “class” days, with instruction from practitioners and faculty. Fridays will be for externships. We will meet via Zoom, sometimes in meetings involving the entire company, other times in smaller groups or one-on-one.
Students say the experience of being in New York City is an important part of this program. How are you addressing what they’ll be missing?
These are tough times, and it’s a real pity that we can’t gather in Manhattan – there’s no denying that. To some extent, we can compensate by learning more about the place – movies about New York, especially about money, virtual tours, cool New York City stuff you can do from your computer. The Met has free shows, the Botanical Gardens has a neat drone tour, all sorts of things. I’ve crowdsourced students, practitioners, and my colleagues and received lots of great suggestions. In particular, Dean Abramovsky grew up in the city and has had a lot of input.
New York is also a city of immigration and neighborhoods, and we are going to spend some time learning how that history has shaped the places that make up the city. In sum, less walking, but more culture.
UB Law alumni who work in finance are the program’s primary instructors. How are they responding to the need for this change?
Our alumni have been very supportive. The level of interest and the willingness to help us create a great learning experience for the students – despite all the obvious worries – have been very gratifying, frankly.
Are students still enthusiastic about doing the program in 2021 under these circumstances?
Yes, and that too has been gratifying. We really started preparing for the Fall 2020 Program about this time last year, and there was great interest, and then the coronavirus hit. The pandemic has made the program, like almost everything else, difficult to plan, and our plans have changed with the circumstances. The students have been incredibly understanding about this and have stuck with the program. I’m impressed.
On the plus side, are there any advantages to conducting the program online?
There are some things we can do better online, particularly because we have such great support from the alumni. We will have more focused instruction, more small group sessions, and maybe even individual tutorials.
How are you making possible the important networking that happens in the program?
We will do some virtual get-togethers, which should be fun. My hope, however, is that the increased contact with practitioners will provide opportunities for more casual, but more substantive, connections than is often the case with less frequent and more formal, in-person networking events.
The pandemic has wrought significant changes in the economy. Will the virtual program address those changes and how law and finance can adapt to them?
Changes in the economy don’t exist independently of law and finance, and so of course we can’t avoid asking, how do we work now?
The pandemic dramatizes our efforts to teach law and finance in terms of time, relationships and governance, especially under stress. For example, we’ve seen a temporal mismatch between revenues (consider a restaurant’s receipts) and obligations (consider rent or payroll). This temporal mismatch is akin to that at the heart of banks and bank-like institutions that was so ruthlessly exposed during the financial crisis. From this perspective, the pandemic heightens the importance of what we are trying to teach: financial practices as collective efforts to build capital structures upon which we can rely as a society, even in a crisis.