Ronald J. Riccio ’71: Leader, Mentor, Teacher, Practicing Lawyer
Ashley Hahn '18, who took Professor Riccio's Introduction to Lawyering class: "Professors like Ronald Riccio make me proud to be a Seton Hall Law student and proud to be in the legal profession."
Seton Hall Law is proud to name Ronald J. Riccio ‘71, Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus, its 2016 Distinguished Graduate. This is the first installment in a series spotlighting four key aspects of Professor Riccio’s celebrated career: practicing lawyer, teacher, mentor, and beloved leader of Seton Hall Law. Join us as we honor his many accomplishments at the Seton Hall Law Annual Alumni Dinner Dance on Friday May 6, 2016, at The Grove in Cedar Grove, New Jersey.
“I always had a desire to teach,” said Ronald J. Riccio ’71, Professor and Dean Emeritus, who led Seton Hall Law Law from 1988 to 1999. “I practiced law for 16 years before I became Dean. As a practicing lawyer, the work I do can have an impact on people, but it’s not always as immediate or as direct as the impact a teacher can have on a student. There is no better feeling of accomplishment than knowing I might have helped a student through a difficult time or to achieve his or her goals.”
This past semester, Professor Riccio was among a team of six faculty members who taught Introduction to Lawyering, a year-long intensive course acquainting first-year students with the fundamental skills of legal practice. Introduction to Lawyering teaches students core legal skills: writing, research, interviewing, fact analysis, client counseling, negotiation, and oral advocacy. Classes are small. Faculty serve as both instructors and mentors. Through the use of simulations, students step into the lawyer role, practice their skills, and make decisions that challenge them on intellectual, strategic, emotional, and ethical levels.
Professor Riccio’s decades of experience, as a trial and appellate lawyer, as well as General Counsel to McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP, informs his teaching style in the Introduction to Lawyering class.
“Teaching Intro to Lawyering allows me to provide, at the most basic level, practical skills training that impart to my students much of what I've been doing as a lawyer for the last 45 years,” Professor Riccio said.
Unlike many law school deans, Professor Riccio’s path to the deanship came through private practice rather than through academia. He attended Seton Hall University on a baseball scholarship, excelled academically and, “though I’d never met a single lawyer before starting law school,” he decided to pursue a law degree instead of pursuing a professional baseball career. “I have no doubt I made the right choice,” he said.
In the early 1970s, Professor Riccio was an original member of the law firm, Robinson, Wayne, Levin, Riccio & LaSala along with his close friend, Joseph LaSala ’72. “We grew the firm to about 40 lawyers over 16 years. It was successful,” he said. “Then in 1987, I was invited to submit my application in the search for Dean of our Law School.”
Professor Riccio began his teaching career during his second year as Dean. “I started by teaching Civil Procedure to first-year students. But I always wanted to teach Constitutional Law,” Professor Riccio explained. He found a mentor in Professor Eugene Gressman, one of the nation’s leading jurists and scholars who was teaching at Seton Hall Law. Professor Gressman’s knowledge of Constitutional Law was legendary. In addition to his many law review articles and the arguments he presented before the U.S. Supreme Court, Professor Gressman co-authored Supreme Court Practice, now in its ninth edition, the definitive guide to the Court’s intricate procedures and practices.
“Gene Gressman was a wonderful person, a true teacher and professor, and someone whom I greatly admired,” Professor Riccio said. “When I was Dean, I asked him if I could audit his first-year Con Law class. He generously agreed, and I would sit in the back of the room just like any other 1L and learn from him. Thankfully, he never called on me.”
Professor Riccio uses his practice skills and his life experiences to teach. “I teach the way I practice law,” he said. “A lot of what I do in the classroom – the communication, the depth of analysis, detailed preparation, and thinking on your feet – are the same as what I do in the courtroom and with clients. Key for me is blending rigor, compassion, and humor when I teach.”
In my Intro to Lawyering class, for instance,” he continued, “One day we had a simulation in which the students role-played as if they were associates giving me a report on a new client they'd interviewed and done some research for. I ran that class as if I was actually meeting with young associates in a law firm. I challenged them to think through the case: ‘What are your ideas? What needs to be done? What do you recommend? What don't you recommend?’ I want students to contribute and learn how to create – and I joke with them, ‘You can’t be potted plants!’”
Professor Riccio’s excellence as a teacher is recognized by students and faculty alike. He has been selected Professor of the Year by students five times, and he received the Catania Fellowship for Excellence in Teaching.
"Professor Riccio introduced us to much more than the study of law,” said Ashley Hahn '18, an Introduction to Lawyering student. “He welcomed us into the legal profession. Through his example, we learned the importance of humility, compassion, professionalism, and integrity. He taught us to be passionate about every aspect of our work – from researching law and crafting interview questions to finalizing a memo draft. Most importantly, Professor Riccio showed us how to utilize our passion and the study of law to help others. Professors like Ronald Riccio make me proud to be a Seton Hall Law student and proud to be in the legal profession."
Jason Castle '18, also in Professor Riccio's Introduction to Lawyering class, concurred. "I never felt like a student in Professor Riccio's class," he said. "He treated us all as if we were first year associates at his law firm. That approach enhanced our learning experience by creating a heightened sense of responsibility regarding the assignments we delivered and how we conducted ourselves. The assignments didn’t feel like course work being submitted for a grade – rather they felt like genuine work product being submitted to a senior partner for review. Professor Riccio fostered within each of us a desire to become great lawyers and as a result we stopped seeking good grades, and became inspired to produce great work."
Professor Riccio appreciates the combination of nervousness and eagerness that characterizes 1L students. Yet he also observes how they evolve as they begin to master skills and legal concepts. “They move along,” he explained. “It’s rewarding for me to see their progression. They're understanding how to read the cases and statutes. They're understanding the interrelationship between the law and the facts of their client's case. They're understanding the importance of meeting deadlines, of effective writing, of editing, of civility, of adherence to principles, and the fact that it takes a lot of time, attention and care to be a good lawyer. And, it never stops.”
Professor Riccio emphasizes the point to his students that the best lawyers, no matter how senior, remain owners of their finished product. “It’s tedious to meticulously edit a written work product, no question about it,” he said. “But as a lawyer, it is never enough to go through the motions or pass the buck. I write or edit everything that has my name on it. These are the skills that make people good lawyers. No lawyer should ever get to the point that he or she hands off the responsibility entirely to someone else.”
“The students and lawyers I work with, who find the greatest success, enjoy producing a finished product that they’re proud of,” he said. “They feel a sense of pride when their work product is the best it can be. And that remains true throughout their careers. They understand that there is never a substitute for careful preparation and that adherence to their principles can never be compromised.”