In Fall 2021, NYU Law’s Board of Trustees added three new members: Leslie Abbey ’95, who is chief executive officer of Hot Bread Kitchen, a New York nonprofit that creates economic opportunity through careers in food, and who has spent years in leadership positions in nonprofits and city government; Judge Raymond Chen ’94, who sits on the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and, prior to taking the bench, was an intellectual property lawyer for the federal government and in private practice; and James Deutsch, co-chief executive and a portfolio manager at Gilder Gagnon Howe & Co., a broker-dealer and investment advisor in New York.
The varied backgrounds of the new members are emblematic of the broad range of professional experience among the 74 voting trustees overall. “The board encompasses a remarkably wide variety of careers, some traditionally in the law, some in business, and some in the non-profit world and government,” notes Board Vice Chair Florence Davis ’79. “A number of trustees have had careers or at least deep involvement in all these areas.” Says Chair David Tanner ’84, “The board is an important representation of what the Law School is and aspires to be. Our trustees are quite diverse and are a wonderful microcosm of what NYU Law graduates can accomplish.”
The nine new board members named last year included three partners at top law firms, three leaders of nonprofits, two business leaders—at an investment and a real estate firm—and a long-time private mediator. (One of those nine, Vanita Gupta ’01, subsequently stepped down as trustee after becoming US associate attorney general last April.)
The combined personal and professional experience of NYU Law’s board members provides an extraordinary resource for the school’s academic leadership. “The wisdom and insight of our board has been invaluable to me as we have charted the strategic direction of the Law School,” says Dean Trevor Morrison. “My predecessors and I have turned to our trustees time and again when thinking about how best to seize the opportunities and surmount the challenges before us, all with an eye to advancing our core teaching and research missions.”
In addition to their general board duties, many trustees focus on particular parts of the Law School based on their backgrounds and professional paths. Already, the newest trustees have ideas about where they’ll make their mark. Abbey says she hopes to focus on two areas: making the Law School more accessible to students who need financial assistance and supporting work in public interest. “NYU Law is a public interest powerhouse,” Abbey says. “It’s why I applied to the school, and why I was so thrilled to join the community as a student. I look forward to working with the team that is continuing to keep NYU a leader in this area.”
Judge Chen says he hopes “to promote government service, the value of clerkships, and strengthen alumni relations, particularly with the Law Alumni of Color Association.” The Law School, Chen adds, is “my legal ‘home’ and foundation that I continue to draw from.” He has served on the advisory board of the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy for three years and periodically returns to the Law School to attend events and give talks. Now, he says, he wants to do more.
Deutsch is the rare trustee who is not an alumnus—and indeed, not a law school graduate. But he has multiple ties to NYU Law, including his brother Benjamin Deutsch ’22. “When my brother enrolled at NYU, I started to live vicariously through him and was energized by the amazing things happening at the Law School,” Deutsch says. “I’m an outsider, so I have a lot of learning to do, but maybe I can also bring a fresh perspective.”
In fact, says Board Chairman Emeritus Anthony Welters ’77, “fundamentally, what the board does is to give perspective.” He explains: “You have an academic institution, but then you have this broad cross-section of real-world experiences that the trustees offer. If you are trying to develop a new program or structure, it’s good to know what the world is interested in, how what you do fits into that. And I think it allows for a level of interaction that ensures that the institution is not isolated from either the profession or society more broadly.”
Relatively few law schools have a legally constituted board of trustees. How NYU Law came to have a board of trustees in the first place traces back to the late 1940s, when the school became the beneficial owner of C.F. Mueller Company, a New Jersey-based pasta maker. The Law Center Foundation—now the New York University School of Law Foundation—was formed to receive distributions from Mueller and dispense them to the Law School. Mueller was sold in 1977, with the proceeds benefitting both the University and the Law School. (This is chronicled in depth in a 1977 New Yorker article titled “The Law School and the Noodle Factory.”)
Since its formation, the role of the Board of Trustees “has basically been the same on a much wider scale and with more intricate problems,” says Martin Lipton '55, who helped negotiate the division of the Mueller proceeds and ever since has played a central role in guiding the relationship between the Law School and University (he is a trustee of both). Today, among other things, board members oversee management of the Law School’s highly diversified $500 million endowment. To do that, the board taps the expertise of a number of trustees who have pursued highly successful careers in finance. “The expertise of the investment professionals on our board has been enormously valuable on the Investment Committee, and I believe that the strong performance of our endowment is a direct result of their input,” Morrison says.
With a physical plant that includes four academic buildings and two residence halls, NYU Law has been able to turn to trustees with deep experience and expertise in real estate for guidance. These trustees have also given generously to support the Law School’s physical expansion. The late Jay M. Furman '71, a principal at a major real estate development and management company, provided substantial funding for Furman Hall, which opened in January 2004; and current trustees Leonard Wilf LLM '77 and Mark Wilf '87, partners in real estate development firm Garden Homes, underwrote construction of Wilf Hall, which opened in 2010.
NYU Law’s dedication to public service is a commitment both driven and supported by trustees. Davis, for example, was a Root-Tilden (now Root-Tilden-Kern) Scholar. After practicing law for 20 years, initially at a firm and then in-house at two major corporations, she became president and a director of The Starr Foundation, which is involved in a wide variety of charitable initiatives. “I care deeply about the Law School’s commitment to students who want to pursue careers in public service and who could not afford to take public service jobs without scholarship help and the loan repayment assistance program,” Davis says. “This is where my late husband [also a Root-Tilden Scholar] and I focused our monetary donations to the Law School.” Elana Wilf ’12, a clinical fellow and staff attorney at Rutgers Law School’s Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic, is the latest Wilf to join the board and is a member of the board’s Public Service Committee.
Through philanthropy, trustees have also played a major role in making NYU Law more affordable, with their contributions often shaped by their personal experience. In 1998, Welters and his wife, Beatrice Welters, established the AnBryce Scholarship Program, intended for students who have faced challenging social and economic circumstances and are among the first in their immediate families to pursue a graduate or professional degree. In addition to covering tuition, the scholarship provides extensive community-building and career mentorship for participants. “My experience at the Law School helped me understand that there weren’t resources for someone from my background built into the infrastructure of the institution,” explains Welters, who founded and ran a health care company and now serves as executive chairman of BlackIvy Group, a private equity firm that invests in Africa. “Mentorship, guidance, counsel—it needed to be there in an ongoing way. That shaped how I thought about what kind of value I could bring back to the Law School.”
Determining the Law School’s scholarly focus and curriculum is the job of the dean and faculty, but there is still a role for the board to play. A decade ago, Welters, then board chair, was concerned that significant changes were taking hold in the legal profession. He appointed trustee Evan Chesler '75, then the presiding partner (now chair) of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, to head a board committee to assess whether the Law School was doing all it could to prepare graduates for an evolving legal marketplace. After a period of fact finding, the committee—whose members included trustees who were law firm leaders, general counsel at a range of large institutions, and others with deep knowledge of the legal marketplace—issued a series of recommendations for curricular enhancements. They included expanding offerings in global legal practice and in federal regulatory practice. Following faculty approval of central elements of the recommendations, the then-dean (now dean emeritus and AnBryce Professor of Law), Richard Revesz, announced the plans in October 2012. Among the changes were the introduction of semester-long study-abroad programs for 3Ls and the Washington, DC-based Legislative and Regulatory Process Clinic.
“To use a well-known phrase,” Davis says, “trustees serving on the boards of nonprofits are expected to give ‘time, treasure, and talent’ to their organizations. The NYU Law trustees manage to do all three, in varying combinations, depending on their personal resources and areas of expertise.” Board service is “a way for me to ‘pay it forward’ to current and future students,” says Abbey. “NYU Law gave me so much, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to give back to this wonderful community.”
Tanner, who spent most of his career in private equity and was elected board chair in 2018, notes he was initially skeptical that he was right for the role of trustee. But once persuaded to join the board, he says, “I was hooked. My engagement with the Law School has been more rewarding and fun than I could ever have imagined.”
Posted January 24, 2022