Conference Honors Professor John C. Coffee Jr. for His Scholarship and Academic Contributions

Legal scholars, regulators, and practitioners, including SEC Chair Gary Gensler, explored Coffee’s prolific work on securities regulation, white collar crime, class actions, and corporate law.

Man in tie at podium in front of Columbia Law School banner

In the course of more than 40 years of writing and teaching, John C. Coffee Jr., Adolf A. Berle Professor of Law and director of the Center on Corporate Governance, has influenced so many areas of the law that to cover them all, a conference in his honor required a full day, five panels, two dozen speakers and panelists, a federal judge, and the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“Jack Coffee is a leading scholarly presence in four distinct fields: securities law, white collar crime, class actions, and corporate law,” said Jeffrey N. Gordon, Richard Paul Richman Professor of Law, who organized the conference with one of Coffee’s former students, Charles Whitehead ’86, who is Myron C. Taylor Alumni Professor of Business Law at Cornell Law School. “There are very few of us who stand out in one field, and Jack has written seminal work in four of them. That’s a remarkable achievement. Attention ought to be paid.”

Whitehead added, “Jack continues to shape generations of law students as an educator, mentor, and role model. My hope is to impart to my students, in a modest way, the same spark and appreciation for the law that Jack passed on to me.”

Welcoming the participants to the March 22 conference, Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, called the Law School’s thought leadership in corporate and transactional law a point of pride. “This stellar reputation—all these things that we are so proud of—is due in no small part to the contributions of Jack Coffee,” she said. “Part of what has kept Jack at the cutting edge since he joined the Law School in 1980 is his ability to continually make his work timely and relevant and accessible.

Woman in brown dress with man in tie and jacket
Dean Gillian Lester and John C. Coffee Jr. at the conference in his honor.

In keynote remarks, delivered virtually, SEC Chair Gary Gensler highlighted Coffee’s 1984 paper, “Market Failure and the Economic Case for a Mandatory Disclosure System,” and discussed its relevance to SEC disclosure rules for public companies, including recent disclosure requirements relating to climate risk, cybersecurity risk, and executive compensation. 

“There still are those who would like to whittle away at the SEC’s disclosure regime,” Gensler said. “There are participants in crypto securities markets that seek to avoid these registration requirements. No registration means no mandatory disclosure.”

In calling for mandatory rather than voluntary disclosures, Coffee “was on the side of the founding principles of our modern securities law,” Gensler said.

“I’m with Jack on this,” Gensler continued. “[His] views have stood the test of time. Full, fair, and truthful disclosure helps protect investors, lowers cost of capital for issuers, and promotes efficiency in the markets.”

Adjunct Professor of Law Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York described Coffee as “not only a brilliant and accomplished scholar, an inspirational and prodigious teacher, and an influential and courageous public figure, but also one hell of a guy.” Rakoff and Coffee have long co-taught a seminar on white collar crime. 

Although he could not join the conference in person, Rakoff asked Merritt B. Fox, Arthur Levitt Professor of Law, to deliver prepared remarks on his behalf. Rakoff described Coffee’s contributions to corporate and securities law as “both creative and pragmatic. In other words, he identifies the problem, analyzes it, and then proposes a solution that is both original and effective. And I don't mind admitting that his ideas have helped me decide some important issues that have come before me as a judge.” 

Man in jacket and red tie at podium
Professor Merritt B. Fox delivering remarks on behalf of Judge Jed S. Rakoff at the conference.

Panel discussions covered areas of corporate and securities law where Coffee’s work has been especially influential: corporate crime/white collar crime, class actions, gatekeepers/securities law, corporate governance, and M&A/tender offers. As Gordon and Whitehead, the conference organizers, put it in the event materials, Coffee’s insights have ”helped shape and reshape our understanding … leaving an indelible mark among scholars, judges, regulators, practitioners, and, of course, students.” 

Coffee offered remarks at the conclusion of the conference. “It’s been a wonderful experience,” he said of the day’s discussions. “I think I have gotten more compliments today than I've gotten in my first 79 years on this planet. Let’s do this again next year.”

John C. Coffee Jr. Scholarship Fund

The Law School is pleased to announce that an endowed scholarship has been established, with the support of alumni and friends, in honor of John C. Coffee Jr. As a member of the Columbia Law faculty since 1980, the scholarship recognizes the indelible mark he has made on the Law School and wider legal community. The Fund will provide financial aid to a rising 3L or LL.M. student enrolled at the Law School with an interest in pursuing a career in securities law or finance.