Joyce, smiling, wearing commencement regalia.

A master of laws, remembered

A tribute to the legendary Professor Kenneth F. Joyce

Every institution of higher learning develops a character, a uniqueness that reflects the place, the time and most of all the people who’ve shaped it. Few have done more to mold the ethos of UB School of Law than Professor Kenneth F. Joyce.

By one estimate, Ken Joyce taught over 12,000 students during his more than 45 years at UB Law. In his courses, generations of aspiring attorneys learned to appreciate both the black-letter law and the philosophical underpinnings of tax law and trusts and estates. Beyond his exceptional teaching, though, was a gentle and generous spirit. He always sought to bring out the best in everyone. Law students responded by consistently naming him Faculty Member of the Year, and the State University of New York agreed when in 1997 he was named a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor.

Professor Joyce, a Boston native (he never lost the accent) who relocated to Cape Cod in retirement, died Feb. 7 in the company of his family. He was 85 years old.

From his upbringing in a South Boston housing project, Joyce quickly excelled academically, first at Boston College High School, then at Boston College (summa cum laude) and its law school (cum laude), where he was editor in chief of the Boston College Law Review. After graduation, he clerked for a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court judge and at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. Following a yearlong master of laws program at Harvard Law, he joined the UB Law faculty in 1964.

black and white photo of Joyce, profile view, bookshelf behind him.

SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus Kenneth F. Joyce

Donations can be made online to the Professor Kenneth F. Joyce Excellence in Teaching Fund

“My areas have been death and taxes,” he once told an interviewer. “Sometimes those areas are not seen as really exciting and sexy. It’s not that I can make them come alive. It’s that, it is just not true. There are some interesting conceptual policy problems. … I think the students have to be given the opportunity to involve themselves in a way that they enjoy themselves and enjoy the materials. To try to solve problems—that’s the general, the overall enjoyment they get out of being here. If along the lines you can see some humor in the material, that’s all for the better.”

To further students’ engagement with tax law and courtroom presentation, Joyce organized the inaugural Albert R. Mugel National Tax Moot Court Competition, which has drawn teams from law schools nationwide to UB Law since 1974. He also was instrumental in creating the format for UB School of Law’s intramural Charles S. Desmond Moot Court Competition, a rite of passage for so many of our second-year law students.

man speaking into a microphone at an event.

Joyce receiving the Edwin F. Jaeckle Award in 2003.

The School of Law and the Law Alumni Association honored Joyce with UB Law’s highest accolade, the Edwin F. Jaeckle Award, in 2003.

In addition to his teaching load, as well as the informal mentorship and guidance he shared with students both in and outside of his classes, Joyce led the New York State Law Revision Commission from 1985 to 2000, and was an active member of a committee that advised the state Legislature on estates, powers and trusts law and the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act. More recently, he often testified as an expert witness in trustee surcharge litigations, and partnered with his daughter in the law firm of Joyce & Joyce Associates, from 1997 to 2023.

Professor Joyce, who lost his wife of 56 years, Rita, in 2016, is survived by his daughter, Mary S. Joyce ’90 of Harwich, Mass., and his son, Michael P. Joyce ’94 of Boston. At the suggestion of his family, donations in tribute can be made to the Professor Kenneth F. Joyce Excellence in Teaching Fund at UB Law School.

Reflections on Ken Joyce’s influence

black and white photo of Prof. Joyce speaking with a law student after class.

Prof. Joyce speaking with a law student after class.

Remembering Professor Ken Joyce, many of his former students and colleagues have tried to put into words what made him such a presence in O’Brian Hall, both in and out of the classroom. Here’s a sampling of their reflections:

Joseph Belluck ’94, a partner in the New York City firm Belluck & Fox LLP: “He was a larger-than-life personality, but so humble. It wasn’t that he was easy on his students. He would hold you to account for the work that you needed to do. But he was one of those people who made everybody he interacted with feel better. In some way large or small, you walked away from the time you spent with him feeling better about yourself and your capabilities and life.

“There are certain things I learned in that class that I have taken with me. One of them is a favorite saying, ‘Cash is cash.’ It’s just a great phrase for many different situations.”

John Comerford ’95, a partner with Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford LLC in Buffalo: “Ken had a mind like no other, and I don’t say that lightly. He was such a fan of the rule of law—he was always committed to starting with the statute.

“He could weave almost effortlessly between black-letter law and the theory of law. That’s what made him special, that ability to break it down so you could comprehend it, but also to understand the theoretical underpinnings of the law.

“You looked forward to going to his class. People were excited to attend. He took esoteric areas of law and turned it into almost SportsCenter. Law school can be a stressful place and a stressful time, but his class was really a warm fire.”

Professor Marjorie Girth, a faculty colleague of Joyce’s for two decades at the law school: “Ken always loved teaching and loved engaging his students in the learning process so they could become very good lawyers in general, and in particular, tax lawyers. In everything he did, Ken attempted to engage the people to whom he was speaking, whether it was the law reform commission or his classes. The risk people ran with Ken was that he seemed so genial and so kind, but if you took that as a reflection of his teaching style, you were going to find he had a razor-sharp mind behind all of those smiles.”

David Manch ’70, now retired from Lewis Roca in Phoenix, Arizona; he made a major gift to establish the Professor Kenneth F. Joyce Excellence in Teaching Fund: “Anybody who had Ken Joyce remembers him. He had the remarkable ability to teach with intense enthusiasm, and he had an incredible mastery of his subject matter. That combination of enthusiasm and mastery made it really special. Ken taught tax in such a way that you could really understand the principles behind things.”

Amy Habib Rittling ’95, a partner with Lippes Mathias LLP: “He had such a larger- than-life presence and personality. He really broke the mold in terms of your typical law school professor.

“No one knew the theory of the law better than he did. He was so smart, just an incredibly brilliant professor. But he had a joyous way about him. In class he had that great intelligence and great wit, but he also made you feel like you could succeed. It was that rare combination of challenging his students and demonstrating his incredible knowledge and yet making you comfortable.

“And I remember him just walking down the halls in O’Brian, beaming, smiling, warmly greeting every student. He was such a positive force in the law school, whether you were in his classes or just experiencing his positivity and presence outside.”