attorney attending court with students observing.

Attorney Lisa Coppola argues a motion in the Francis M. Letro Courtroom.

Justice in action

Live Special Term proceedings in O’Brian Hall

UB School of Law students had a close-up view of lawyers at work—and perhaps a glimpse into their own future as litigators—when a state Supreme Court justice held daylong special term proceedings in the law school’s Francis M. Letro Courtroom.

Hon. Catherine Nugent Panepinto ’97 heard motions argued in about a half-dozen civil cases in the Sept. 15 proceedings, says Jennifer Scharf ’05, an adjunct faculty member and director of trial advocacy for the law school’s Advocacy Institute. They included a request for an injunction and a motion to dismiss.

While Special Term is a routine part of court, Scharf says, it is essential for attorneys who press their points and for all sides to move their cases forward. But there’s no substitute for exposure to a live courtroom.

“It’s actually very interesting because the decisions during Special Term dictate the parameters of your case,” says Scharf, whose law partner in The Coppola Firm by coincidence argued a motion that day. “Some of these motions have the power to dismiss a case altogether. They’re big issues. The students got to see some extraordinary practitioners make legal arguments, and that’s one of the very first things they will do when they go into practice.

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“To learn from practitioners is really essential to the students,” she says. “Often what we teach them in class is theory. Until you see it in front of you and have some context, it’s hard to appreciate the nuances and strategy.”

Trial Technique students are required to observe live courtroom proceedings, and subsequently write out their observations, Scharf says. For this to happen in the elegant first-floor O’Brian Hall courtroom makes the logistics infinitely easier than traveling to downtown Buffalo court buildings between classes. “It’s tough,” Scharf says. “The busiest times in court are the times when they have classes. But in this instance, if you have a 10:30 class, you can pop into our courtroom at 9:30. It makes it a whole lot easier if students have that access right in their own back yard.”

Moving the court to the North Campus does involve some logistical planning. It’s orchestrated by Dawn Skopinski, associate director of the Advocacy Institute, who’s working with the courts to make more such opportunities happen. Justice Panepinto was accompanied by a clerk, a court reporter and a security officer, and the attorneys involved also needed accommodations such as parking.

Hon. Catherine Nugent Panepinto ’97 at the bench.

Hon. Catherine Nugent Panepinto ’97

“I was very happy to conduct special term proceedings at UB,” Justice Panepinto says. “I graduated from UB in 1997 and appreciate the opportunity to give back to the school and the current students. The Francis M. Letro Courtroom is a pleasure to work in, and I look forward to returning and encouraging other judges to do so as well.”

A number of students were able to watch the day’s proceedings from start to finish, including second-year law student Jane Kent, a student in Scharf’s Trial Advocacy class.

“I am truly appreciative that Justice Panepinto brought her special term proceedings to the law school,” Kent says. “It was a great opportunity to be able to walk from class and right into a real court proceeding. Watching attorneys in the court allowed me to see the concepts I learn in the classroom play out in real life.”

Students will have another chance to see judges at work, albeit in a mock trial situation, when the Buffalo Niagara Trial Competition takes place Oct. 14 to 16, returning to in-person competition after a pandemic hiatus. “We’re very grateful for the court system and how collaborative they are with our program,” Scharf says. After preliminary rounds in the downtown courts, the finals will be held in the Letro Courtroom.