Columbia’s Summer Program in American Law: An Annual Tradition

Law School faculty members continue to introduce American legal system fundamentals to students and lawyers abroad.

Professor Bert Huang is one of many Columbia Law School faculty members teaching American law in Amsterdam this summer.
One of Columbia Law School’s more enduring traditions reconvenes this month in the Netherlands: the Columbia Summer Program in American Law (CSP), an intensive, month-long introduction for lawyers and legal professionals.

This summer, 43 students from 19 countries—including Albania, China, India, Israel, Turkey, Syria, and Venezuela—will study with seven members of the Law School faculty who each specialize in one or more facets of the American legal system.

Now in its 55th year, CSP was conceived by the late Professor Hans Smit ’58 LL.B., a Dutchman and expert in international arbitration who joined the Columbia Law School faculty in 1960. The program’s setting alternates annually between Leiden University and the University of Amsterdam, which is this summer’s venue.

Smit, who died in 2012, “felt the education he received as a Columbia law student was dramatically different from the way law was taught in the Netherlands and other civil law countries,” explained Professor Ed Morrison, the Charles Evans Gerber Professor of Law, who has helped teach the program periodically since 2004 and has either directed or co-directed it for more than a decade.

CSP introduces lawyers and law students trained outside the U.S. to:

  • The fundamentals of American law;
  • The common law tradition, which emphasizes judge-made law, established through adjudication and precedent; and
  • The Socratic method, in which professors ask students questions that aim to highlight the issues in a case as part of a process that teaches students to think like lawyers.

Professor Kendall Thomas (left) chats with CSP participants.
An Enduring Tradition

CSP also emphasizes collegiality. Professors lunch with students daily, accompany them to concerts and museums, and sometimes even join them in soccer matches. Participants form ties that last careers and include reconnecting with one another at reunions. “Over the course of four short weeks, an amazingly durable community forms,” Morrison said. For some participants, CSP has become a family tradition. Over the years, at least eight students enrolled in the program after learning of it from a parent who had previously participated.

For the past three years, Hans Smit’s son, Robert Smit ’86, has joined the CSP faculty. He is a retired partner at Simpson Thacher in New York and, like his father, an expert in international arbitration, which he teaches in the program. CSP also counts the former prime ministers of the Netherlands and Poland among its alumni.

The Curriculum

Professors each teach a two-week course. Students take four required classes and two electives. The required courses this year are Introduction to American Law (taught by Professor Kendall Thomas), Civil Procedure (Professor Bert Huang), Constitutional Law (Professor Olatunde Johnson), and Contracts (Morrison). For the electives, participants choose from among Tax Policy (Professor Alex Raskolnikov), Corporate Law (Professor Eric Talley), and International Arbitration (Robert Smit, who also serves as an adjunct professor at the Law School).

Missing from this summer’s teaching line-up is Professor Mark Barenberg, the Sulzbacher Professor of Law and a leading expert in domestic and international labor and employment law, as well as constitutional law, the law of international economic institutions, and the relation between law and politics. He co-directs CSP with Morrison, and has been instrumental in keeping the program dynamic and relevant year after year.

The mandatory courses resemble American first-year law school classes, while the electives mirror classes U.S. students take in their second or third years. Participants can receive credits recognized by their home country’s university.

Huang’s Civil Procedure course features a mock trial staged at a local law firm. Students experience an American jury trial by participating as plaintiffs, defendants, lawyers, witnesses, and jurors. “These types of proceedings are wildly different from what most students see in their own systems,” Morrison noted.

Students enroll with a range of objectives. Some are deciding whether to pursue an LL.M. or some other advanced degree in the U.S., while others seek an introduction to the American legal system from top experts. Still others, said Morrison, have been accepted to an LL.M. program (including, in some cases, Columbia’s) and aim to get a head start on their studies and hone their English. At the end of the program, one student will be awarded the Hans Smit Prize, which recognizes outstanding intellectual performance and contributions to the group.

Though the program strives to address the needs of students, it yields benefits for the professors, too. Morrison credits CSP with improving his teaching, in part because the students, trained in other legal systems, ask unexpected, penetrating questions.

“They’re puzzled, seeing American law working in ways they don’t think make sense,” he said. “Their puzzlement forces me to think more clearly and deeply about American law. I am inspired to gain a mastery of the material that provides great dividends when I return to the United States.”

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Posted on July 18, 2017