Outstanding Service

Columbia Law School professors are making an impact at the highest and most critical levels of federal, state, and local government. Back in Morningside Heights, students and colleagues reap the benefits of this real-world experience.

By Alexander Zaitchik

Fall 2011

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No tradition of our profession is more cherished by lawyers than that of its leadership in public affairs,” Harlan Fiske Stone, Class of 1898, said in an address delivered in the spring of 1934. Stone, of course, is known as a teacher, scholar, and Law School dean, but it is his public service position at the U.S. Supreme Court that many remember first. “The great figures of the law,” he continued, “stir the imagination and inspire our reverence . . . as they have used their special training and gifts for the advancement of the public interest.”


More than three-quarters of a century after Stone’s remarks, the Columbia Law School faculty stands as a paramount example of the substantial benefits that accrue when attorneys engage in service. For scores of faculty members, government experience has sharpened skills that aid in teaching and scholarship. “In the first three months of trying to implement an idea as policy, you learn more than you did in the entire design phase,” says Professor James S. Liebman, who recently finished a multiyear assignment overseeing reforms in New York City public schools.

The Law School has long attracted and valued scholars adept at both the design and the implementation of legal ideas. The current faculty roster embodies this tradition of public engagement and is robust with professors experienced at applying legal theories and principles inside the frictional, complex machinery of American democracy. These scholars working on behalf of the public good have acted as advisers and counsels to myriad government bodies—from the New York City mayor’s office to the U.S. Department of Defense.

The most recent graduation ceremony held at the Law School shone a spotlight on this Columbia tradition when George W. Madison ’80, general counsel to the Treasury Department, delivered the keynote address. He was preceded on that May afternoon by Professor Trevor W. Morrison ’98, who spent 2009 serving in the White House as special assistant and associate counsel to the president. “There is no higher calling for an attorney than to act on behalf of, and in pursuit of, the public interest,” Morrison told graduates after receiving the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching. “To function effectively and fairly [as] an institution of laws and not of men, government requires lawyers. Good lawyers.”

Good lawyers, Morrison did not need to add, like many of his faculty colleagues and former students.

For Professor Robert J. Jackson Jr., an expert in corporate governance who joined the Law School faculty last year, the opportunity for public service came at a historic moment. The Obama administration was in the process of responding to the financial crisis, and the Treasury Department sought counsel on the issue of executive compensation at bailed-out firms. Jackson, who attended business school before law school, was tapped in 2009 to advise the government’s new “pay czar” and current Law School Lecturer-in-Law Kenneth R. Feinberg. Soon, he was helping decide compensation limits at major companies like AIG, Citigroup, and General Motors. Even today, he seems a little surprised at this particular turn in his career.

“I’m a Wharton M.B.A.; I believe in markets,” says Jackson. “I never expected to be setting pay limits on the private sector from a government office.”

But the markets had failed, and just like the rest of the country, Jackson saw the need for government intervention.

“I was motivated in part by a sense of civic responsibility,” he says. “It was a rare moment for a corporate lawyer to serve his government, and for an academic to have a serious impact on real-world rules. In academia, we talk about important ideas, but making them work in practice is a different exercise. At Treasury, we took theories on incentives that were floating out there in the ether and boiled them down to actual decisions. Our work influences how I think about corporate governance today.”

His time in government, says Jackson, also gave him a better appreciation for parsimony when it comes to law and the writing of rules. “Making rules that were going to be presented to the public made me rethink the costs and benefits of complexity in regulation,” he says. “There were many good ideas from the academy that were intellectually sound, but too complicated to make work in a government office. I learned that there is enormous benefit in clarity and analytical simplicity. People reading [academic] papers want to dive into complex ideas, and today I have the luxury as an academic to write those papers. But when you want to move policy, you have to balance simplicity with intellectual completeness.”

Working to create ideas that are effective in the world as it exists can have a clarifying effect on personal values, as well as on textbook tenets previously taken for granted. This is the opinion arrived at by Professor Tim Wu, who has spent the past year working as a senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission. Long before accepting that position, Wu had wanted to spend time in public service. “I’ve always thought it’s healthy to work on things you believe in, and the FTC’s basic mission of protecting consumers is very easy to get behind,” he says.

Wu’s experience with the FTC has helped him test, reframe, and adjust his approach to regulatory issues. “As an academic, it’s important to gain exposure to the world outside our walls,” he says. “You can’t have good theory unless you have good data. While my primary duty is to try to help the agency and the public, being inside government is also a rich opportunity for what a scientist would consider primary research.”

That research has resulted in more nuanced ideas about how agencies and industry interact, and it has impacted Wu’s understanding about how government should relate to the private sector. “I used to be more of a fan of rulemaking,” he says. “But watching the FTC proceed through an adjudicatory process, I’ve come to think it maintains a healthier distance between the government lawyers and industry.”

Wu returns to the Law School full time next semester. He does not consider public service work as a “break” from academic work. Rather, it is a crucial complement and boost to it. “In academia, for meaningful output, you need meaningful input,” he says. “Academia is a theory-rich environment but somewhat fact-poor—so we gain a lot from close observation and exposure to facts. For a law professor, working in government is the equivalent of getting out into the field, not unlike an anthropologist studying tribal behavior. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.”

Jackson, a year off his stint at the Treasury Department, sees government work in a similar light.

“It’s absolutely critical to understanding how our work relates to the real world,” he says. “If the goal of an academic is to move the debate on issues they care about, public service is indispensable. When you think about where the rubber meets the road in terms of influencing the world around us, one has to make ideas that are appealing to us in the halls of Columbia Law School appealing in the halls of Congress. That’s the analytical challenge into which government experience provides insight.”

Whereas some professors enter government after years in academia—and test how their carefully constructed ideas play in the real world—others go in the opposite direction and find themselves attempting to give theoretical shape to years of accumulated government experience. This was the case for Professor Matthew Waxman when he joined the faculty in 2007 after six years spent in the federal government’s national security establishment.

An expert in national security law and international law, Waxman worked as a RAND defense analyst before attending law school in the late 1990s. Following a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice David Souter, he signed on as an aide to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. In 2003, Waxman moved to the Pentagon to work on Iraq reconstruction issues. When revelations arose of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, he became deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs. And when he left Washington, D.C., to join the Law School faculty, he was working as deputy director of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff.

Despite his circuitous route, Waxman always suspected he was destined for academia. The son of a neuroscience professor, he grew up on university campuses and has always enjoyed theory. But he says his years in government were crucial to his current work. “It’s difficult to understand national security law without understanding how institutions operate, or, for example, how policy officials within the executive branch interact with Congress,” he says. “It’s very difficult to get a firm grasp on the necessary details without spending some time within that machinery and seeing it up close.”

Waxman isn’t the only current faculty member with high-level experience in the foreign policy establishment. Professor Sarah H. Cleveland recently completed a two-year appointment as the counselor on international law at the State Department, where she worked closely with the State Department’s top lawyer, Harold Hongju Koh, supervised the department’s law of war office, and served as a liaison to the White House, and the Justice and Defense departments. After participating in high-level debates concerning everything from legal policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan to the military action in Libya, Cleveland has come to a similar conclusion as Waxman: There is no substitute for Washington experience. 

“You can’t possibly understand how the U.S. government functions and how decisions are made without having worked in government,” says the international law expert. “Just as clerking in a court gives you insight into the thinking process of the judiciary, public service helps you understand why things do or don’t happen in government, which is an extremely complex, organic entity.”

In her time at the State Department, Cleveland says she developed a more nuanced understanding of, and appreciation for, the balance of power as designed by framers of the U.S. Constitution over foreign relations, and how that balance affects the implementation of law and policies. “I certainly did not adequately appreciate the importance of Congress before I [began working] in the government,” says Cleveland. “I’ve been able to participate in all of the conversations around the action in Libya, and, as a result, have a better understanding of the role that the War Powers Resolution—which I’ve taught for 12 years—plays in the conversation between the president and Congress.”

Not all Law School professors who have served in government gained their experience exclusively at the federal level. Abbe R. Gluck, for instance, joined the faculty after a raft of high-level positions in the city and state governments of New York and New Jersey. Most recently, she served in the administration of New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine as special counsel and senior advisor to the New Jersey attorney general. Previously, she served in the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as chief of staff and counsel to the deputy mayor for health and human services.

Prior to law school, Gluck worked for U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes, who convinced her to earn a law degree because it would make her a better public servant. She decided early on to focus her work at the state and city levels.  “I found the issues at the state and local level more engaging,” she says. “As a young lawyer, you have more chance to effect change, and things move more quickly.”

Gluck, who writes mainly about statutory interpretation, civil procedure, and federalism, credits her experience in government with improving the caliber and value of her academic work. “I spend my time thinking about the role of local and state actors in national issues, and I would never have the perspective that I have had I not worked in state and local government,” she says. “My scholarship is very theoretical—how statutory interpretation doctrine has to change to accommodate the role states play in federal law—but my perspective is informed by experience at the local level. Working in government gives you a pragmatic sensibility, a lawyer’s intuition. This is important in writing good academic articles. Even the most theoretical articles should have some connection to the way the ideas play out in the real world.”

Professor James Liebman watched his ideas play out in the real world during an eventful stint as accountability chief overseeing reforms in the New York City Department of Education. It was not a position that Liebman, an expert on habeas corpus and the death penalty, as well as education reform, ever expected to fill. But when he received a phone call from then New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, against whom he had litigated in the 1980s, the opportunity offered was too good to pass up. Klein had been tapped by Mayor Bloomberg to implement a bold reform agenda, and he was familiar with Liebman’s scholarly work on institutional change and organizational structure in public education. As accountability chief, Liebman helped set the national reform agenda for giving individual schools and principals more power to affect, and more accountability for, the learning outcomes of urban public school children.

“What [Klein was] trying to do was very similar to what I had been writing about,” says Liebman. “It was exciting to be there at that time and influence the debate across the country. The reforms we were undertaking are now national models for how to decentralize power, hold schools accountable, and then replicate successful models for accelerating the learning of urban school kids. The experience also provided me with a richer set of examples for my scholarly writing than I had been working with before.”

What Liebman had planned as a two-year leave ended up turning into a partial leave of three-and-a-half years, during which time his staff ballooned from six to more than 200. Upon his return to teaching full time, Liebman created a program to prepare Law School, Business School, and Teachers College students for government work. The idea, he says, is to provide a pathway from professional schools to government education agencies.

“At the moment, we’re focused on public K-12 education,” says Liebman, “but later we plan to expand to the entire public sector—how to train and recruit staff for, evaluate, and understand the basic structure of ‘learning organizations,’ which improve by systematically observing and responding to their own successes and failures.”

When asked if they would return to public service in the future, most professors say yes, but are quick to note their appreciation for the distinct pleasures of academic life. They also note that they savor these pleasures most after a particularly grueling stint in government.

“I’m enjoying the luxury of exploring ideas outside the constraints of government,” says Robert Jackson. “In these halls, I am encouraged to find the best answer, not just the right answer for the moment.”

Trying to find the right answer for the moment, Jackson says, can be exhilarating, but also exhausting.

“I would not rule out temporarily returning to government if someday the right opportunity came along, but I am extremely happy here, and I’m not itching to go back in,” says Waxman, the national security law expert. “Sometimes I feel like I’m still catching up on those six years of sleep.”

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist who has written for The New York Times, among other publications.

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President Barack Obama meets with advisers, including Professor Trevor W.  Morrison ’98 (third from left), in the Oval Office on October 22, 2009.

Official White House Photograph by Pete Souza