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Prof. Gargano’s takes on new role overseeing clinics and experiential education

Bernadette Gargano is going to need a bigger business card. 

After nearly eight years as vice dean for student affairs, the longtime UB Law faculty member and administrator, is embracing her new role as vice dean for experiential education and social justice initiatives, and director of Clinical Legal Education. It’s a wide-ranging area of responsibility that includes overseeing the law school’s eight legal clinics and three practicums, where students provide much-needed legal services to the community while building their own skills as practitioners.

A summa cum laude graduate of UB with a dual degree in English and women’s studies, Gargano also earned a master of arts degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her J.D., earned cum laude, is from Cornell Law School, where she edited the Cornell International Law Journal. She clerked in U.S. District Court and was in private practice in Buffalo before joining the law school faculty over 18 years ago. 

We asked Gargano to reflect on her new position and the ways in which experiential education enriches the law student experience.  

Over the years, you have served as director of the Access to Justice Clinic and the Federal Pro Se Assistance Program, both award-winning programs focused on civil rights litigation. Do you think clinical legal education is best suited to civil law cases, or is it equally applicable to criminal law?

Clinics can manage criminal or civil cases. For example, we currently have a Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic (CJAC) run by Professor Alexandra Harrington, who does wonderful work in this area. Unlike a firm or agency, all clinics have the unique challenge of making sure that we can effectively represent our clients while also providing a meaningful experience for our law students.  

You’ve taught in UB Law’s foundational LAWR (Legal Research, Analysis and Writing) program as well as directed it. Do you see an intersection between the skills students learn in that program and clinical work?

Absolutely. The skills learned in LAWR are the foundation for practice in its many forms, including in clinics. I believe we have one of the strongest legal analysis, writing and research programs in the country right now. Our faculty are energetic, motivated, and collaborative through all three levels of LAWR that we offer.  

I have also been an advocate for our Advanced LAWR class, which I taught for over six years. Our interim dean, S. Todd Brown, is fully staffing our upper-level LAWR class, and it is wonderful to have leadership committed to each pillar of a strong legal education from what we call “doctrinal” courses to LAWR to Clinical Legal Education.  

I have worked at UB Law for quite a long time now, and I consider my colleagues in the staff and faculty to be one of the best parts of my job. We are committed to producing strong lawyers, through all our programs and initiatives, who also have a sense of professional and social responsibility.  I believe that commitment shines through many of our alumni and has for much longer than I have been part of the law school.

Where do you see the greatest need—in Western New York or beyond—for the work our clinic students can do?

 Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming need for free legal services throughout the United States in many different areas of the law. Right now, in addition to CJAC, we have clinics addressing housing and civil rights (Professor Heather Abraham) as well as domestic violence and related matrimonial work (Professor Judith Olin '85). We also have clinics related to assisting entrepreneurs in the local community to help with economic development and to safeguard intellectual property rights (Professor Matthew Pelkey '10) and another devoted to alternative dispute resolution through mediation (Adjunct Professor Steven Sugarman '85). Of course, there are many other tremendous needs right now, including immigration, health equity and reproductive rights, and voting rights.  

Besides overseeing the law school’s clinical program, your portfolio includes responsibility for social justice initiatives. What do you expect that to entail?

I hope to forge a stronger relationship between the local community and the law school and to educate beyond our four walls. The law, after all, is about people and their communities, not just lawyers. Right now, I am working with the Women’s Bar Association of Western New York and many of its members to bring awareness to the proposed amendments to the state Constitution, including reproductive rights and a state Equal Rights Amendment that addresses equality for all persons.  [See New York State Bar Association article on what the amendment will mean in New York.]

You’ve taught and worked in administration at UB law for 18 years. Taken as a whole, how have you seen students change in that time?

More students have a passion to be advocates for social justice than I ever remember. As the State University of New York’s only law school, I love that fact. We are truly bringing opportunities not only to our students but to all of those whom they will serve. That’s one thing that I love about clinics: not all our clinical students will work in legal nonprofits, but they will all carry with them an understanding of, and commitment to, the importance of working on behalf of vulnerable populations. They will always remember how meaningful their work was for their clinical clients, and I believe that they will continue to give back through pro bono work and service throughout their careers.