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Five New Faces: The Law School's Newest Faculty Members

Five New Faces

The competition among law schools for the best faculty members is stiff, and Columbia continues to attract gifted scholars and teachers. Following are portraits of five new professors who bring a wide range of expertise to the faculty, from comparative law to tax law to American legal history.

Lawrence Zelenak

Professor Lawrence Zelenak is the first to admit that students come to courses in tax law with low expectations. What he likes about his work is changing their minds.

                "It turns out that tax law is a pretty interesting topic," he explains. "There's a lot more to it than simply the technical aspects. It ends up being a class in civics, public policy, and economics - in addition to all that technical stuff. And then some students even discover they like the technical stuff. I've always enjoyed the fact that students are pleasantly surprised by it."

                Prof. Zelenak did not set out to specialize in tax law. After he graduated from Santa Clara University of California with a B.A. in English, he says it suddenly dawned on him that he was going to have to make a living somehow. Medical school was out, since he had not taken any of the prerequisites, so he enrolled in law school at Harvard and, on completion of his degree, joined the Seattle-based firm of LeSourd & Patten.

                "I didn't expect to practice tax law at the firm," he says. "But there was a partner by the name of Meade Emory who specialized in tax law, and who was a former professor with no one else to teach. I had a tutorial from him on the job. That was my real tax education."

                Prof. Zelenak went on to teach tax law at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., where he received the Leo Levenson Award for Teaching Excellence. In 1986, he joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina School of Law as an associate professor; he was made full professor four years later. Of his teaching career, he says, "I've always been lucky to have intelligent and motivated students. It's a great job when you are able to choose your area of research and go deeply into it."

                Prof. Zelenak is married to Jeanne Moskal, an English professor. In 1998, they came to New York with their daughter, Alice, who is now five years old, while Prof. Zelenak served as a visiting professor at Columbia. They weren't sure how they would take to the city, but were quickly won over.

                "We were surprised by how much we enjoyed New York," he says. "It was never boring. We went to the opera and theater frequently and put in several miles a week chasing our daughter through such wonderful places as the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine."

                Author of numerous articles on tax policy and of a forthcoming treatise on the income taxation of individuals, Prof. Zelenak has also served as an invited witness at U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearings on the marriage tax penalty and the alternative minimum tax.

                "The question of the marriage penalty doesn't sound complicated," he remarks, "but it is. There's no way to adjust the law that avoids making some group of taxpayers feel cheated. I suggested ways to adjust the compromise more fairly."

                Prof. Zelenak cites the income tax treatment of marriage as a good example of a tax topic that touches on fundamental human questions. "Even if all Congress is trying to do is raise some revenue, it turns out that it has to make decisions about the appropriate distribution of the tax burden between one-earner couples, two-earner couples, and single persons. You need some technical tax expertise to understand how different approaches distribute tax burdens among those groups, but the ultimate decision involves basic questions of values."

                Prof. Zelenak says that the complexity of such issues and the controversy surrounding them have kept him teaching tax law since 1983. "It's not a dead-end field. You know the subject is never going to go stale."   

Ariela Dubler

What's the connection between law, history, and women?  For Ariela Dubler, it's obvious: "People talk about women's rights without understanding how the law has created women's rights and affected the status of women," she explains. "In order to appreciate where women are today, you must look at the history of laws that have affected the status of women."

                Ms. Dubler first became interested in the intersection of history and law when she took a class in legal history as an undergraduate at Harvard. That class, she says, changed the way she thought about how life is regulated in modern society and the historical antecedents of those regulations. She received her B.A. in social studies from Harvard after completing a senior thesis titled "Women at Work: Prostitution and the Tools of Feminist Jurisprudence."

                Although Ms. Dubler's study of prostitution in the United States gave her insight into the legal and social issues it raises, she gained a much deeper understanding of how women and society are affected by prostitution when she received a Henry Luce Foundation Scholarship to spend a year in Thailand. There she worked in the Office of the Attorney General of Thailand and assisted with an educational program doing safe sex outreach to sex workers in the Bangkok bars.

                But this still wasn't enough for Ms. Dubler. "Historians ask different questions from the questions lawyers ask," she says of the direction her life took next. "I like moving back and forth between history and law because it allows me to ask questions about law over time. I value the combination of historical analysis and its contemporary ramifications." She completed her J.D. at Yale Law School and then enrolled in the Ph.D. program in history at Yale because she wanted the "methodological grounding" the degree would give her for continuing her work in legal history.

                Ms. Dubler is spending this year at home as a research scholar (and caring for her young son) before formally joining the faculty as a professor in July. She is completing her dissertation on the legal regulation of women living outside marriage in early 20th century New York. The essay examines the relationships between contracts, family, and women's rights. She sees her research as a prime example of the utility of historically examining legal questions.

                "I'm interested in the way the law took marriage as a model and used it to regulate relationships between people who weren't married. Many people assume that marriage has always existed as we know it, that it has been static throughout history but, in fact, marriage has changed over the centuries, and the law has had an impact in shaping marriage and the relationships of those who live outside marriage."

                Ms. Dubler has assisted in teaching courses in women's studies, history, and law at Yale and is looking forward to returning to the classroom at Columbia in the fall of 2002. She is married to Jesse Furman, a lawyer who works for a firm in New Haven and will clerk for Justice David Souter at the U.S. Supreme Court next year. They met in college and went through law school together.

                "I love teaching," Ms. Dubler says. "I particularly like teaching legal history because students tend to accept our laws and how they are structured without asking how we got to where we are today. Legal history gives you a means to question current laws, and that is invaluable."

Gillian Metzger '95

Professor Gillian Metzger '95 will have no trouble feeling at home on the Columbia campus. The daughter of history professor Walter Metzger, she grew up in Columbia faculty housing and says that the university has always been a part of her life.

                "From the beginning, with my earliest memories, Columbia was there, in the background. One illustration of the direct role the University played in my life as a child came during the transit strike. Columbia provided buses so all the faculty kids could get to school."

                A graduate of Yale with a B.A. in political science, Prof. Metzger initially embarked on a career doing political work as a legislative aide for District Council 37, a local union in New York. While she enjoyed the involvement with issues affecting the daily lives of people in the city (she describes herself as "a devoted New Yorker") she missed the intellectual engagement of academic work and enrolled in the equivalent of a master's program in philosophy at Oxford.

                "Studying at Oxford was very exciting," Prof. Metzger recalls. "Because I did not have a background in philosophy when I entered graduate school, it was a real mental challenge." In her studies, Prof. Metzger focused on moral and political philosophy and on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

                Returning to the United States, she went to work as a staff analyst for New York City. But she continued to search for a balance between her academic and political interests, a search that culminated with her enrollment at Columbia Law School. "The political and policy work was not theoretical enough for me, and the philosophy was not connected enough to the real world. What attracted me to law was that it combines both," she explains.

                Prof. Metzger clerked for Judge Patricia M. Wald, U.S. Court of Appeals, in Washington, D.C., after receiving her law degree, and then became a law clerk for Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg '59 at the U.S. Supreme Court.

                "When you work on a case before the Supreme Court, you know there's an important and meaty issue at stake," she says. "The briefs are great. The work is difficult, but you gain such a knowledge of law. On all fronts, it was a tremendously educational and exciting experience."  She describes this experience as a particularly useful training ground for teaching constitutional law. "If you're interested in the direction the law is taking, it's a unique opportunity to see the process up close."

                After her clerkship, Prof. Metzger served as a staff attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law. She handled cases dealing with felon disenfranchisement - before that issue became a topic of everyday conversation thanks to the recent contested presidential election - as well as on cases addressing campaign finance reform. Although she enjoyed her time as a litigator, Prof. Metzger says she is delighted to be back on Morningside Heights. "I am pleased to be at Columbia given my many connections to the University. Here I know I am surrounded by talented colleagues whose insights will be extremely helpful in my research and teaching."

                Prof. Metzger recently gave birth to her first child, a boy. Her husband, Michael Hyman, is the director of tax policy research at the New York City Department of Finance. After many years in Brooklyn, they recently moved to the Upper West Side.

John Witt

Growing up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Professor John Witt was surrounded by reminders of American history that fueled his passion for the subject. The Battle of Germantown proved that George Washington could effectively lead his troops even in traditional set-piece battles; two centuries later, Germantown saw history happen again as its population became rapidly more diverse, both ethnically and socially. Living within the history of his town, Prof. Witt gained an appreciation for the small moments that influence the course of future events in big ways.

                "The first petition against slavery was drafted by Germantown Quakers in 1688," he notes. "This appears to have been the first principled anti-slavery protest, in which they said that slavery in itself was wrong, rather than simply, ‘I shouldn't be enslaved.' The petition is just one example of what made Germantown such an amazing historical classroom."

                Prof. Witt lived in Philadelphia through his years in high school before he went on to major in history at Yale, where he completed a senior project on slavery in colonial New England. Drawn to further study in both history and law, he decided to enroll in two graduate programs simultaneously. In just five years, he completed his J.D. and Ph.D. at Yale, alternating semesters of study between the two. Others might find an academic challenge of this magnitude daunting, but Prof. Witt says it was a wonderful way to gain a wider perspective.

                "I am interested intellectually in the work going on in many history departments, but I found that being in law school requires the ability to talk across disciplines, to speak historically in contemporary conversation about the important legal issues of the day," he says. "This is not something historians are always able to do. I value being able to take both points of view."

                Prof. Witt assumed he would focus on early American history in graduate school, but found that he was increasingly interested in the creation of the modern state and legal institutions. He turned to the period from the Civil War to the New Deal, when such basic structures as the family and employer/employee relationships were established in their current forms. In his dissertation as well as publications for such journals as the Harvard Law Review, he has explored the making of American law and its implications for the shaping of social institutions.

                "Doing both degrees simultaneously gave me the time to think deeply about legal structures," Prof. Witt adds. "I was able to consider the relationship between politics, history, and law in a way I might not have if I were in law school alone."

                At Yale, Prof. Witt taught constitutional law in the undergraduate and law school programs and served as the senior editor of the Yale Law Journal; as a Golieb Research Fellow at the NYU School of Law, he conducted research on late 19th-century and early 20th-century American accident law. He also served as a law clerk for Judge Pierre N. Leval, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York. He was recently married to Annie Murphy Paul, a freelance writer specializing in psychology and American culture.

                "I am very excited about joining the Law School community and also about forging connections to different parts of the University," Prof. Witt says of his appointment to the Columbia faculty. "Columbia Law School has an extraordinary tradition in the study of legal institutions, and the University has long been a leading institution for the study of American history."

Katharina Pistor

Professor Katharina Pistor has long been fascinated by the evolution of legal institutions. Her desire to understand how systems adapt in emerging economies brought her to Russia just after the dissolution of the Soviet state and to East Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Observing the fragile lives of people adjusting to a new system of government left a lasting impression on her.

                "I saw people struggling to come to terms with all the changes," she recalls. "They had to relearn everything. Facing their own life risks in every respect and making all the choices with all the risks involved - jobs, apartments, and so on - was something they had never known. You could tell this was a shocking experience."

                A native of Germany, Prof. Pistor grew up in the industrial city of Essen and first considered a profession in law at an early age, when she saw how the legal system dealt with her foster brother.

                "I wanted to become a criminal judge, so I could be in the position to make good decisions," she explains. "But I also had a strong interest in comparative history and, after completing my legal training in Germany, I was no longer interested in doing just German law."

                In 1988, Prof. Pistor went to the University of London to study Chinese and Russian law. The timing of her entry into the Field of comparative law was auspicious. Perestroika under Gorbachev was at its peak in the Soviet Union, raising exciting questions about economic and legal reform in the country. Prof. Pistor completed her LL.M. degree at the University of London and returned to Germany for the three-year internship required of all German lawyers, but kept her eye on events in Russia while she studied the language. In 1992, she came to the United States and enrolled at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where she concentrated on legal and economic aspects of transition economies.

                In the early 1990s, the Harvard economists Jeffrey Sachs and Andrei Shleifer were advising the Russian government extensively on economic reform, and the campus air was thick with debate. Prof. Pistor spent the years following completion of her masters in public administration degree at Harvard traveling back and forth between Russia, Europe, and the United States. As a research fellow at the Central and East European Privatization Project and later as a research associate at the Harvard Institute for International Development, she conducted studies on privatization and the role of law in economic development. In Russia, she sat in the offices of the Ministry of Privatization to collect her data, fully aware that a few years earlier, she would never have been able to enter such a government building. She visited factories in remote provinces, making trips she describes as "unthinkable" under Communism.

                Her experience taught her immediately what it has taken many social critics the better part of a decade to realize: "It was a mistake not to consider institutions, particularly legal institutions, early on in Russia. The economic agenda was pushed before the establishment of legal and other institutions. Lots of opportunities were missed."

                Prof. Pistor has taught at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, where she was assistant professor of public policy. She also worked as a research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law in Hamburg. She is married to Carsten G. Boennemann, a doctor specializing in neuro-pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania/Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. They maintain apartments in both New York and Philadelphia.

                At Columbia, Prof. Pistor is looking forward to the opportunity to expand her research while teaching in comparative legal institutions and designing courses that examine the political economies behind legal systems.

                "Many of the issues that were significant in Russia 10 years ago are still important today," she notes. "What we have learned from transition economies holds important lessons for the functioning and evolution of legal institutions."