phil halpern standing in the middle of a crowd of students.

Prof. Philip Halpern with participants in the 2010 New York City Program in Finance and Law.

Professor Phil Halpern: four decades of teaching and scholarship

After more than 40 years of service to the law school, Professor Philip Halpern, one of UB School of Law’s resident experts in corporate finance, has transitioned into retirement. But the New York City Program in Finance and Law, which Halpern directed for many years after its inception in 2005, continues to be one of the law school’s signature programs, attracting students as a unique part of the UB Law experience.

Halpern, whose own education was at Columbia College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, joined the law school’s faculty in 1977 and spent his career at O’Brian Hall. Colleagues have long noted both his intellectual curiosity and his devotion to the craft of understanding and teaching the law.   

“He never backed away from hard work,” says a longtime colleague, Clinical Professor Emeritus Thomas F. Disare. “He was very methodical and thorough in his thinking about what he was trying to accomplish. And he took his teaching extraordinarily seriously. By the time he got to a class, he had put a lot of time and energy and effort into getting ready for that class. He employed a very surgical process, trying to use his prodigious brain to really winnow it down.”

As the inaugural director of the New York City Program—which places students in Manhattan for an intensive semester of learning—Halpern helped develop the program and cultivate relationships with the alumni practitioners who do much of the teaching.

“Phil was constantly thinking about how to get more out of the program,” Disare says. “He really worked hard to give students the very best experience.” Adds Professor David A. Westbrook, who now co-directs the New York City Program with Professor Stuart G. Lazar: “It’s been great for the students, who get to learn not just in doctrinal classes but through practices that involve multiple areas of the law. Phil would really drill down and understand what different experts were saying very quickly.”

In addition, Westbrook says, “Phil was always very generous with his time, very generous with connections, very generous with advice if you asked. He was often a very sane voice.”

Professor Halpern reflected on his career in a brief but wide-ranging conversation.

After law school, you clerked for a federal judge in California and practiced with a San Francisco firm. Was it always your intention to become a professor, or did you come to academia serendipitously?

I started law school at a pivotal time in my life, shortly after my discharge from the Army, having spent the preceding 14 months in Vietnam. The first year of law school was a welcome change and I felt fortunate to be there. I turned out to be a much better law student than I had been a college student, perhaps because of the time off from school, my version of the gap year today. I liked law school and over the course of those three years I developed the idea that if the opportunity presented itself, I would like to become a law professor.

You served in two specialized roles at UB Law, as a clinical director in 1977-78 and as associate dean in 1989-90. What was significant to you about your experience in those roles?

When I joined UB, then-Dean Tom Headrick asked me if I would be willing to serve as temporary director of the law school clinics until Nils Olsen arrived to take over the position permanently. Working in the clinic was a good way for me to transition from practicing law to classroom teaching. It also enabled me to get to know Nils, who became a close friend.

When I was associate dean, my focus was primarily on students, dealing with student issues. I think during that time I became more aware of the special problems our students face. I think that helped me later on in my classroom teaching and in my dealings with students, to be more sensitive to their needs. It certainly was helpful during COVID and teaching via Zoom and responding to the difficulties that posed for all of us.

Your scholarship and teaching have concentrated on corporate finance and related transactions. What draws you to this research area?

That was a fairly circuitous journey. When I arrived at the law school, I supervised students in the criminal justice component of the clinic. My early classroom teaching was in criminal law and criminal procedure. I spent almost a decade in that area. I didn’t have any real background in finance. In law school I had especially liked the various tax courses, but I had little taste for or understanding of corporate law or finance. I knew nothing about accounting and I had not even had a course in corporations.

In the late ’80s, George Hezel and Tom Disare were working in what was then the law school’s Affordable Housing Clinic. Based on my friendship with both of them, I got interested in affordable housing. They were using a very complex funding mechanism called low-income housing tax credits. I renewed my interest in taxation and developed some expertise in that area and worked with them in the clinic. While working with them on various affordable housing projects, I learned transactional lawyering from Tom and about developing affordable housing from George. Then in the ’90s Tom Disare, Jack Schlegel and Phil Perry from the management school developed a course in finance transactions, which I sat in on and later taught a section or two. That stimulated my interest in corporate finance.

You were the first director of one of the law school’s signature programs, the New York City Program in Finance and Law. What was the impetus for the program, and how have you seen it evolve over the years?

It was the brainchild of Dean Nils Olsen and John Thomas, who was the dean of the management school. I was the first person to go to New York City and direct the program, in collaboration with Amy Westbrook. In the early years, we worked together on the program. It had to be interdisciplinary, because we combined law students and management students. The challenge was to speak to both audiences, which required teaching a little bit of law to the finance students and a little bit of finance to the law students so that they could work together. As it turns out, in the world of finance, lawyers and financial professionals are always working together, whether they’re developing documentation or responding to a systemic financial crisis or the challenges that a particular institution might face.

It’s really been possible because of the commitment of our alumni. The vast bulk of the teaching in the program was done, and continues to be done, by lawyers and finance professionals associated with UB. So one of the delights of the program for me was to meet our New York City alumni and to reconnect with some of my former students—a reversal of roles. They were the teacher and I was the student. I am very grateful for alumni support in making the New York City Program a success. And meanwhile, I enjoyed their company. I also enjoyed working with the students in a role that felt more like a coach than a teacher.

What’s the difference between a coach and a teacher?

A coach assists a player/student in performing a certain activity, as opposed to teaching them about that activity. In addition, the player/student has more agency in the coaching relationship than in the teaching relationship.

An eternal tension in law schools is between teaching the theory of law and the practical skills of the legal profession. Does your preference lean one way or the other?

They both have their place in the world of law school, because when responding to problems in the world sometimes a theoretical approach is required, sometimes a pragmatic approach, and frequently a combination of the two is required. A great example of that is the response to the subprime mortgage crisis [in 2008]. On theoretical side, it required on the part of researchers at the Federal Reserve a very, very deep dive into understanding what was then called shadow banking, the complex linkage of various non-bank financial institutions. On the other hand, when it came to developing regulation, Andrew Haldane, a British central banker, had it right when he said, keep it simple. He used the image of a dog catching a Frisbee. Don’t turn banking regulation into something very theoretical and complex. We have to be selective when we use theory and know when to take a pragmatic approach. The same goes for teaching.

Many academics move from school to school, but you’ve stayed a part of UB School of Law for more than four decades. Has that continuity served you well in your teaching and scholarship?

When I arrived in Buffalo, what was then called the Buffalo Model was in full swing. It was an interdisciplinary approach developed under then-Dean Tom Headrick. I had had a very traditional legal education, and I didn’t readily adapt to the Buffalo Model, but over time I became a believer. Much later on I co-taught a seminar with Tom Headrick on global financial systems, and it was one of my most enjoyable teaching experiences, partly because of the interdisciplinary approach that Tom encouraged. I was able to develop my interest in finance because I was in one place and developed relations with a number of people, including Tom Headrick, Jack Schlegel, Tom Disare, George Hezel, and Phil Perry. All of them, along with the help of UB’s wonderful alumni, allowed me to make the transition from criminal law to finance and the New York City Program. And it was all possible because I stayed in one place.

What are your plans in retirement?

When it’s possible after COVID, I’d like to do some volunteer teaching in the Buffalo public schools. It would be probably middle school kids on the West Side of Buffalo, many of whom are non-English speakers. I’ve been in conversation with a principal at a school on the far West Side.