With the recent passing of James L. Magavern ’59, UB School of Law recognizes the loss of one of its longest-serving and brilliant adjunct faculty members and the rich knowledge of state and local finance law that he brought to generations of students.
Magavern, widely known for his civic work—notably leading the revision of the City of Buffalo Charter—died March 7 in his Buffalo home. He was 89.
His professional life was spent at the family law firm, Magavern Magavern Grimm LLP, where he practiced government law, corporate law and land use regulation, representing governments, public agencies and property developers. The tributes that followed his death focused on his public work, much of it done pro bono, in charter revision, ethics guidelines and municipal financing of public projects. As Erie County attorney, he helped design the agreements that led to construction of the Buffalo Bills’ football stadium in Orchard Park.
But Magavern also had a special interest in legal education, and UB Law students were the beneficiary. He taught or co-taught courses at the law school for over 30 years, affording students an inside view of how high-level municipal negotiations are conducted. His courses addressed topics like the charter revision process; the state-imposed financial control board under which Buffalo operated for many years; and more broadly, the intricacies of state and local finance decisions.
“Jim was a tough act to follow,” says William F. Savino ’75, partner in the Buffalo office of Woods Oviatt Gillman, LLP. Like Magavern, Savino has taught for many years as an adjunct at the law school. “He always said law is a teachable, learnable craft. He never thought it was something you were born with. It’s something you practice and perfect.”
Professor Emeritus Barry Boyer, who served as UB Law dean from 1992 to 1998, recalls a practitioner who built a strong collegial relationship with the school’s full-time faculty by virtue of his intellectual generosity and his willingness to engage the great questions of law.
“Jim had strong personal relationships with the faculty and built them with those of us who were more junior faculty at the time, just because he was such an interesting and approachable guy,” Boyer says. “His work and his background gave him a stature and respect that maybe others wouldn’t necessarily have. It also reflected in Jim’s theoretical bent. You could engage him at any level, from the nuts and bolts of filing a brief all the way up to what the theory of municipal governments should be.”
When the law school reimagined its curriculum in the mid-1990s, Boyer says, the law school’s State and Local Government Program was a model for revising the curriculum to more thoroughly integrate the theory of law with elements of legal practice. Along with Professors Milton Kaplan and Bill Greiner, and later Clinical Professor George Hezel '73, Magavern was a central figure in that program. “Within that series of courses,” Boyer says, “a student who was interested in working with or in local government could get a really strong foundation.” He adds that Magavern drew crowds of students to his lecture course on municipal finance.
Magavern’s interest in legal education extended to faculty scholarship, primarily through the Magavern Fellows Fund, established in 1985 by Jim Magavern’s father, Sam, in honor of Jim's grandfather, William J. Magavern. Now endowed through the generous support of the Magavern family, the fund provides support for the law school’s most promising faculty members, allowing them to do important work in their areas of interest. Over the three decades since it was established, multiple Magavern Faculty Scholars have built their academic careers and advanced the study of law through law review articles, monographs and books. The law school’s current William J. Magavern Faculty Scholars are Professor Irus Braverman and Professor S. Todd Brown, who is also vice dean for academic affairs.
Among the many accolades Jim Magavern received during his lifetime was the Edwin F. Jaeckle Award, in 2001, the highest honor bestowed by the law school and the Law Alumni Association for exemplifying the highest ideals of the law school and for his significant contributions to the school and the legal profession.
Members of the law school faculty, past and present, reflect on the life and legacy of their friend and colleague.
Remembering ‘the model lawyer’
Jim was a joy to be around. Engaged, interested and interesting, earnest, embracing the multiple experiences and meanings of life, serious but with a wonderful warm smile and laugh, very smart but also very wise, committed, dedicated, humane, and absolutely loyal to his clients, friends and community. He had a finely honed sense of justice and an impatience for those who avoided thinking about the distinction between right and wrong.
We thought of Jim as the model lawyer. The Model Rules of Professional Responsibility defines a lawyer as a “public citizen with special responsibility for the quality of justice.” That was Jim, always reflective of the role, and conscious of the tension sometimes between representing clients both private and public and the greater good, always thoughtful about the nature, craft and demands of legal practice. He was the very embodiment of what was once called “civic virtue.”
– Dianne Avery '82 and Fred Konefsky
The very small faculty I joined along with Ken Joyce in 1964 was eventually joined part time by Jim Magavern, I think mostly as an adjunct. I never knew anyone like Jim, a straight-ahead moderate Republican seemingly no longer in existence. He used to remind me of Jimmy Stewart, tall, thin, calm and certain but willing to listen to other views.
Jim’s sense of responsibility to the community was, to me, remarkable. He would throw himself into local projects because, after all, that’s what you should do. I remember that he served for a time as Erie County attorney.
And then there was his wonderful, warm and witty spouse, Robin. Often I would ride home with her and her rambunctious children. They had great fun with me, who was, at only 26, trying to look mature in my topcoat and hat.
– James Atleson
When I came to Buffalo as a UB faculty member in the 1970s, I knew a few things about the law school, but virtually nothing about the local legal community and the city. Jim Magavern was one of my windows on this world. Though he was always quiet and self-effacing, Jim was enormously talented and enormously public-spirited. A conversation with him about potential redevelopment of the region became a master class in public policy, politics and law.
I learned that Jim was a person you could always count on, whether the task at hand was teaching a key seminar on local government, providing excellent legal services, or shepherding a broken canoe and novice paddlers out of a challenging wilderness. For many years, Jim was my personal lawyer and my friend. I don’t think you could find a better lawyer, or a better friend.
– Barry Boyer
Former Dean and Professor Emeritus
Maggie and I remember Jim and Robin for their enduring friendship, for their unsparing kindness, for their wise counsel and guidance, for all our great times together—lots of fun and serious conversations, and tennis, hikes and cross-country skiing in the hills south of Buffalo, whitewater running in Canada and just wandering about the Buffalo they treasured. “Thank you” doesn't really capture our feelings. It's a deep, heart-embraced thank-you with love and admiration woven through it.
– Tom Headrick
Former Dean and Professor Emeritus
When I learned of Jim Magavern’s passing, I did something I almost never do: shared the news on Facebook. I described Jim as a fine man, and a great man. From when my wife and I arrived in Buffalo in the early 1980s, until the present, he was remarkably kind and helpful to us whenever the occasion arose. So far as I know, he treated everyone that way. Consequently, he was very much loved by a great many people.
At the same time, Jim was a man with an immense commitment to addressing the important issues of his time. He did so repeatedly and worked at the highest levels of business and government. I have known a number of people who were kind and generous like Jim, and a number who were politically committed and important like Jim—but very few who were both.
– Errol Meidinger
Jim was an outstanding teacher at the law school, in which he initially served as an assistant and associate professor from 1966 to 1971. After joining his family law firm, he continued teaching at the law school for the next 30 years as an adjunct professor.
I co-taught a course for three years with my colleague Frank Munger and Jim. We met weekly with the seminar Jim was teaching about the Buffalo City Charter revision efforts ongoing under his leadership, to work closely with Buffalo’s corporation counsel, to supervise students in the legal representation of the City Charter revision process, and to present their research and conclusions to the commission.
Jim made complex finance law clear and compelling. He was generous with his time spent with students and was a joy to teach with. I learned much of what I know of municipal finance and governance from him.
– Nils Olsen
Former Dean and Professor Emeritus
Our conversations were pretty much always about New York, but they became more focused as my scholarly interests shifted to the history of the region’s economy. Jim’s “comments”—they were always too broad to be thought of as just answers—on my questions were always helpful.
I taught with Jim only once and it was fun, but it was even better to have been a student at the intermittent classes he held just for me for so many years. A few years ago, I had the chance to repay him by taking to his house a large, strange map of Buffalo that showed the city from the west, centered on Ferry Street, not north and south as every other map I have ever seen. I remember him rolling out the map on his living room floor, getting down on his knees and carefully examining the old relationships that such an orientation made new again. I already miss this lively, always inquiring mind.
– John Henry Schlegel
University at Buffalo Distinguished Professor