Brad Smith ’84 and Kathy Surace-Smith ’84 Endow Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School

The $5 million gift will enable the newly named Smith Family Human Rights Clinic to expand its work around the world.

Black and white photo of Brad Smith ’84 and Kathy Surace-Smith ’84

“Law school is where you learn to think like a lawyer,” Brad Smith ’84, president and vice chair of Microsoft, said at a 2015 conference celebrating Columbia Law School clinics. “But it’s clinical education that really teaches you to act like a lawyer.”

Smith and his wife, Kathy Surace-Smith ’84, understand that firsthand. As students at Columbia Law, they participated in a clinic representing low-income clients facing deportation. The experience had a lasting impact on their lives, their careers, and their perspectives on the law. Now, the Smiths have reinforced their commitment to clinical education with a $5 million gift to endow the Human Rights Clinic, which will be named in their honor.

This is the second significant gift the Smiths have made in support of the Human Rights Clinic. Following their $1.25 million commitment in 2017, they had the opportunity to meet with clinic students and faculty and learn more about their work, needs, and aspirations. Those conversations moved the Smiths to do more.

“The enthusiasm of the students, the excitement in their voices, the passion they had—we felt this was a really important contribution we could make,” says Surace-Smith, senior vice president for human resources and legal affairs at biotechnology company NanoString.

Smith agrees. “Columbia Law School is a national and global leader in human rights law,” he says. “It became apparent that a larger gift—and an endowment—would create a long-term, sustainable foundation for the Human Rights Clinic not only to continue but to grow.”

The Smith Family Human Rights Clinic, as the clinic will now be known, is a cornerstone of Columbia Law School’s commitment to the study and practice of international human rights law around the world. Under the guidance of the clinic’s professors and supervisors, students focus on social justice advocacy to address the global power imbalances that drive economic and political inequality, exploitation, threats to physical security, poverty, and environmental injustice. Recent projects include working to ensure accountability for civilian casualties in Yemen and for war crimes in the Central African Republic; safeguarding freedom of expression and conducting trial monitoring in Southeast Asia; and promoting access to sanitation in the rural United States. 

“The Human Rights Clinic is one of the most innovative and effective clinics of its kind,” says Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law. “Through their generosity and dedication to clinical education, Brad and Kathy have cemented the clinic’s role in our community and around the world for generations to come.”

Sarah M. Knuckey, Lieff Cabraser Clinical Professor of Law, director of the clinic, and faculty co-director of the Human Rights Institute, says the gift from the Smiths will allow the clinic to expand class sizes, deepen social justice community building and mentoring, hire more fellows and supervising attorneys, increase travel funds for experiential learning, ensure clinic NGO partners in the global south can access advocacy opportunities, and enhance public programming and training about human rights. 

“This gift is an incredible investment in the social justice work Columbia Law students do each and every day and in the work of many future generations of human rights leaders,” Knuckey says.

The Smiths have a long history of engagement with the Law School. In addition to their support of the clinic, they serve as co-chairs, with Alison S. Ressler ’83, of the five-year, $300 million Campaign for Columbia Law. In 2004, they created The Smith Family Opportunity Scholarship, which supports J.D. and LL.M. students from countries that are underrepresented at the Law School.

The Smiths also have found ways to integrate their commitment to public service, human rights, equity, and corporate responsibility into their professional lives. Surace-Smith, a Columbia University trustee, works with NanoString leaders on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. As board chair for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, she helps support the organization’s mission to fight inequities in health care.

Smith, who leads corporate social responsibility initiatives at Microsoft, is co-founder and chair of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), an NGO that provides representation for unaccompanied refugee and migrant children negotiating the immigration process. His book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age (co-written with Carol Ann Browne, Penguin, 2019), addresses how the ubiquity of digital technology has the potential to threaten human rights and other aspects of our lives, societies, and economies. In 2019, Microsoft lent its support to TrialWatch, founded by Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute and the Clooney Foundation for Justice, by offering lead financial support for the program and by creating an app for trial monitors to use as they observe legal proceedings in countries where human rights are at risk. 

The couple’s dedication to and work with organizations focused on human rights has, Smith says, “left me with two strong convictions: One is, the world needs a new generation of lawyers who understand human rights law. And another is the important role clinics play in giving a voice to people who might otherwise be voiceless.”

Surace-Smith adds that their latest gift is meant to ensure that the clinic and its students can continue to help people around the world. “Really what we’re doing is expanding capacity,” she says, “enabling more of the good work that’s already being done.”