The Law School 2009
The 2009 issue of the magazine of the New York University School of Law.
THE LAW SCHOOL 2009 49 faculty focus Making a Law Class of a Fine-Feathered Story P rofessor of law katrina wyman picked up the New York Times Sunday Book Review in February of last year without any particular academic intentions. The cover story that week was a review of Bruce Barcott’s The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, the nonfiction account of an American expatriate’s unsuc- cessful attempt to prevent construction of a dam in Belize that would wipe out the habi- tat of the endangered scarlet macaw. “After I read the book,” Wyman recalled, “I realized that it raises a lot of interest- ing legal questions.” Enough legal ques- tions, it proved, to become the focus of her semester-long Practice of Public Interest Environmental Law course. This class—designed for a group of stu- dent fellows who had spent the previous summer doing environmental law work for NGOs or government agencies—had been taught at the Law School for several years, but Wyman decided to give it a complete structural overhaul for Fall 2008. She con- tacted experts, most of them directly in- volved in the story documented in Scarlet Macaw, to see if they’d be willing to lecture to the class. “They were quite interested in coming to talk about their in- volvement,” Wyman said. She even managed to secure the participation of the author. Barcott talked with Wyman and her students via a confer- ence call from Seattle. Nearly every class meeting was aug- mented with a guest lecturer, including representatives from the Inter-American Development Bank, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Conservation Strategy Fund, all of whom had a direct role in aiding or end- ing the dam construction at the heart of the book. Dr. Joel Cohen—a Rockefeller Uni- versity professor who was not directly in- volved in the case but offered his expertise in population biology to the class—lauded his experience with the class, referring to the students as “wonderful.” “They were very engaged,” he said, “and asked smart, informed questions.” Students, too, appreciated the experi- ence. “I thought it actually worked very well,” said Maron Greenleaf ’10. Rather than focus on one theoretical topic, stu- dents were instead invited to see this one particular case from many different an- gles and to place their legal knowledge in a real-world context. “Using the one book provided a lot of coherence,” said Greenleaf. Wyman plans to repeat the class in the fu- ture—but with different books. She is, after all, inclined to innovation. A scholar of financial institutions, Geoffrey Miller, Stuyvesant Comfort Professor of Law and director of the Center for the Study of Central Banks and Financial Institutions, naturally wanted to investigate the origins of the current global economic recession. Miller thought law stu- dents might share his interest, so he created The Crisis of 2008 seminar. “Registration closed in about 20 minutes,” Miller said. “There is a tremendous demand for knowl- edge about how this crisis happened.” Miller came to the conclusion that the crisis was foreseeable. He likens the current global recession to the Challenger disaster of 1986, in which the space shuttle exploded shortly after takeoff due to faulty seals on the booster engines. “The design flaw made what happened inevitable, but no one saw it at the time,” he said. “In this case, the chal- lenge for law- and policy-makers who did not predict what would inevitably happen is how to take effective action to deal with the disaster and prevent further economic disasters in the future.” In response to the overwhelming inter- est in the course, Miller made the unusual but welcome decision to open up the first three sessions to the Law School commu- nity. These three-hour classes in January each focused on a particular aspect of the crisis. The first class examined prior finan- cial crises to gain historical background and appreciation for the scope of the di- saster. The second, co-taught with Gerald Rosenfeld, co-director of the Mitchell Ja- cobson Leadership Program in Law and Business, looked at the “subprime mortgage mess” of 2007: how it happened, what could have prevented it, and its consequences on the global economy. The third class, also with Rosenfeld, looked into the credit crunch of 2008 and the “dramatic events that followed,” including the near-failure of Bear Stearns, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, and the scramble for survival among large multinational companies like Citicorp, AIG, and General Motors. After the first three open classes, the course became a seminar for the 28 regis- tered students, who delved deeper into the course materials and conducted research and wrote papers on such topics as housing finance, banks, credit markets, insurance and securities, the effect of the crisis on Main Street, and the international dimen- sions of the crisis. Miller said one of the biggest challenges in creating this course was compiling ma- terials on what he called “a moving target.” Relying heavily on news ac- counts and government sta- tistics, “I had to make it up out of whole cloth,” he said. The classes made extensive use of multimedia materials, includ- ing news items in audio and visual formats and hundreds of PowerPoint slides created by Miller. But the effort was worth it: “This is the most significant eco- nomic downturn since the Great Depres- sion,” Miller said. “Fundamental damage has been done to the credit and securities markets. We face a very long recovery from the big bubble bursting. It is not going to be fast. We are all going to be living with this for a long time.” Anatomy of a Financial Meltdown mac aw: m artin Harve y / PH oto gr aPHer ’s cH oice / Pu n cHsto ck