Why Law - and What Do I do With It?

Leaving a teaching position to attend law school in 1996, I had decided that while I enjoyed the life of a scholar, studying law would better situate me to make a difference. Since entering Columbia Law School, I have been professionally engaged in law-related projects ranging from the practice of corporate law to leadership of New York City Bar Committees. These efforts have been directed at shaping programs or policies that better align with my understanding of our better angels. 

The lectures from our 1991 course on the history of the  Laws of War  were published by Yale University Press (1994, 1997).

The lectures from our 1991 course on the history of the Laws of War were published by Yale University Press (1994, 1997).

My professional contributions to legal scholarship started with a course on the laws of war that I co-taught with Sir Michael Howard and Dr. George Andreopoulos back at Yale in 1991. While we were teaching the course on the laws of war in a history department, Yugoslavia was violently falling apart. The ensuing atrocities gave rise to the establishment of an International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia - the first international criminal tribunal since right after the Second World War. The Yugoslav tribunal along with the Rwanda tribunal that quickly followed, gave birth to the modern international criminal law. Our book surveying the history of the Laws of War was widely recognized as an essential resource for lawyer, judges and scholars.  

Columbia Law School

In 1996 I choose to attend Columbia Law School because of its outstanding strength in international law and international affairs. I had previously taught as an adjunct professor at Columbia's renowned School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), and I hoped to return to that teaching. In addition to the marvelous SIPA faculty that includes Bob Jervis and Dick Betts, I felt that Columbia's Law School offered the best international law faculty then available. I took ConLaw and then Human RIghts Law from Lou Henkin.  Lou shaped both fields, and may indeed go down in history as the most influential scholar of human rights law. He not only created the academic discipline but he did so in ways that made human rights real. He is commonly recognized as the "architect of the 1951 Refugee Convention."  Few people have changed me so much - and for the better - as Lou Henkin.  

The rational study of law is still to a large extent the study of history.
— O.W. Holmes, Jr. The Path of the Law
José Alvarez, Lou Henkin, David Schizer, Alice Henkin, Rosemary Barkett & Harold Koh

José Alvarez, Lou Henkin, David Schizer, Alice Henkin, Rosemary Barkett & Harold Koh

I took a course on the Laws of War co-taught Telford Taylor - and discovered that he as the basic text the book we had edited. I took Trade Law from Michael Young (now president of the University of Washington) and Merit Janow (now dean of SIPA), International Banking Law from Nick Kourides, and International Law from Lori F. Damrosch (now a long-time friend and currently the President of the American Society of International Law). I enjoyed collegial interactions with Oscar Schachter and José Alvarez. That's what it was like to study international law at Columbia in the late 1990s.  

Teaching Law

I have been teaching law-related topics for over two decades - in colleges, graduate schools and in law schools. As I said above, I started teaching the laws of war in the history department at Yale College back in 1991. Since that time, I have taught some variation on this topics at Columbia's SIPA and the law school and at Pace Law School, at undergraduate colleges (Sarah Lawrence and Hunter), and at the Air War College.  More recently I have been teaching human rights law as well, at Sarah Lawrence and now at Hunter.  

Notably, after Telford Taylor passed away and his teaching partner took a leave, I was asked to teach The Laws of War and War Crimes Tribunals at Columbia Law School. Teaching that course at that school was a remarkable experience. Many of those students have gone on to do important work in the fields of human rights and humanitarian law. One of the proudest moments of my career occurred when attending a lecture at the law school early in my first semester. Just before the program began, Lou Henkin came down from the podium to greet me with a warm handshake, a smile and this: "Welcome back, Colleague." 

My Pace class, autumn 2006

My Pace class, autumn 2006

Later, at Pace Law School for nine years, I taught a variety of law courses. Each year I taught the Introduction to US Law for the international students. I love teaching this course - not because it is substantively interesting but it transforms the way foreign trained lawyers look at the law. The US legal system is unique, rich in history, fascinating in the ways it plays out, and full of opportunities to teach skills.  

Debevoise & Plimpton

During the summer of 1998 and then 1999 to 2003, I practiced corporate law this the global law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton.  I spent most of my time working on projects related to raising private equity funds and then mergers & acquisitions of insurance companies.  These are outstanding practice areas, and I was honored to be working with such skilled and decent lawyers. Along the way, I also edited the firm's volume on M&A in the insurance and private equity sectors - working under the supervision of Wolcott "Dick" Dunham, the dean of the field.  

New York City Bar

The Association of the Bar of the City of New York was founded in 1870 to root out corruption among judges, promote professionalism in the practicing bar and to improve the laws of New York. It currently has over 24,000 members and over 150 committees.  I joined the City Bar while an associate at Debevoise & Plimpton. In the summer of 2002, my first committee, International Security Affairs, took on the question of what to do in the face of an impending but unauthorized war in Iraq. Along with a summer associate, Larry Lee, I drafted what became the City Bar's official position in a report concluding that without Congressional authorization (and absent an imminent threat to the US), President George W. Bush did not have legal authority to order the invasion of Iraq. A month after the report appeared, President Bush did go to Congress. And I was hooked on service to the City Bar - as a way to promote a more robust rule of law order at home and abroad.   

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
— Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

In 2006 I succeeded Martin Flaherty as chair of the renowned Committee on International Human Rights, one of the City Bar's most active and influential committees. This committee had famously documented the CIA's secret extraordinary rendition to torture program. As I assumed the chair, the committee was finalizing a comprehensive analysis of Indian anti-terrorism laws and their many tensions with basic human rights. During my term, we produced dozens of amicus briefs, protest letters, public programs, and formal reports - addressing human rights issues from Pakistan to Zimbabwe, from China to Northern Ireland. The issues we covered were likewise diverse, from a major report on acid violence in South Asia to a letter to Congress urging amendments the Military Commissions Act, from a letter to President-elect Obama's transition team urging greater constructive engagement with the International Criminal Court to a missive to the All China Lawyers Association expressing detailed concerns about harassment of rights lawyers.  Many of these documents are available here.  

This two-volume book of NY City Bar reports addressing legal issues in the post-9/11 world was edited by Jim Silkenat (immediate past president of the ABA) and myself. All royalties go to the City Bar Fund.

This two-volume book of NY City Bar reports addressing legal issues in the post-9/11 world was edited by Jim Silkenat (immediate past president of the ABA) and myself. All royalties go to the City Bar Fund.

In 2009 I was appointed chair of the Council on International Affairs, the City Bar's umbrella entity that coordinates the work of its many foreign and international law committees. I had already served on this Council for six years, three as an at-large member and three as chair of the Committee on International Human Rights. In fact, I had worked with former chair Jim Silkenat to edit The Imperial Presidency and the Consequences of 9/11  a two-volume compilation of the City Bar's reports addressing the so-called "Global War on Terror."  

During my three-year term, we put on some terrific programs that cut across many committees, regions and bodies of law. I also organized and led (in a formal sense) the City Bar's delegation to explore relations with the municipal bars of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The delegation included jurists such as Judges John M. Walker, Jr. (Second Circuit) and Sidney Stein (SNDY) and Professors Jerome Cohen (NYU), Liz Wickeri (Fordham), Maggie Lewis (Seton Hall) and Bob Hornick (U of Arizona) and lawyers Scott Greathead and Sarah A. W. Fitts. Our hard hitting report on the conditions for lawyers and the roles of bar gained significant attention in the past few years. We also ensured a relatively smooth process for committees reviewing each others' work and for gaining co-sponsorship.  Once my term ended, I was elected by the membership to the Nominating Committee.

As chair of the City Bar's Asian Affairs Committee, I often meet with leading Chinese lawyers and judges, here the officers of the bar of Shenzhen.

As chair of the City Bar's Asian Affairs Committee, I often meet with leading Chinese lawyers and judges, here the officers of the bar of Shenzhen.

In 2013, I signed up for a three-year term to chair the Committee on Asian Affairs - originally established by Jerome Cohen as the Committee on Chinese Law.  I am working with this relatively small committee to build stronger relations between the municipal bars of Beijing and Shanghai and New York. We regularly meet with delegations of Chinese lawyers and judges in search of opportunities to reform our respective legal systems and to share insights about opportunities to improve the practice climates.  For me, the City Bar remain a uniquely important institution, adept at defining the rule of law and enabling talented people of good will to promote it.  During my term, the Committee produced several reports and letters, all available here.  

Having served three nearly consecutive terms as a committee chair, I was expecting some time off, but then the new President, John Kiernan, asked me to chair the blue-ribbon Task Force on National Security and the Rule of Law - an offer I could not refuse.  I have been a member of this Task Force since it was founded shortly after 9/11/01 in order to lead the City Bar's response to terrorism and US counter-terrorism policies and practices, many of which it protested as violating the letter and spirit of the law.  I look forward to working with some extraordinary lawyers as we seek to restore some of the liberties sacrificed to fear over the past 15 years.  Since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, this Task Force has regularly issued letters and reports arguing that some of his positions run contrary to long-standing law.  Beyond issuing the letters and reports, we also work to educate the public by organizing public programs and statements such as a November 24, 2017 letter to the editor of the New York Times pointing out the powerful constraints on the President's authority to initiate war.  

My term ended, I found myself “kicked upstairs” to the City Bar’ Executive Committee in the summer of 2019.