Dennis Fan ’15: Former State and Federal Appellate Litigator Leads New Clinic

Fan is designing the Appellate Litigation Clinic for students to focus on federal and state courts in New York. 

Professor Dennis Tan in suit and tie sitting outside

Dennis Fan ’15 has dreamed about teaching at Columbia Law School ever since he was a student in its Mediation Clinic. “The clinic was absolutely formative,” he says. “What’s really amazing about Columbia Law clinics is that they put the students in the driver’s seat. You learn to make decisions, take on responsibilities, work through problems, and reflect on them. I’ve long thought that being a clinical professor of law would be the best job on Earth.”

On July 1, Fan began testing this hypothesis when he joined the full-time faculty as an associate clinical professor of law. He will create and direct a new Appellate Litigation Clinic that starts in the spring 2025 semester. Under his tutelage, students will represent litigants in federal and state appeals across New York state. 

Fan has effectively been preparing for this role for his entire career. After graduating from the Law School, he clerked for Judge Denny Chin on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit and Judge James E. Boasberg on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He then spent five years on the appellate staff of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Division, where he briefed cert-stage and merits cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and argued dozens of cases in federal courts of appeals, including matters relating to the national security regulations of foreign telecommunications companies and social media platforms, and presidential power disputes with Congress. During his time at the DOJ, he also served as counsel to the assistant attorney general at the start of the Biden administration, where he coordinated regulatory reforms to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the executive branch’s implementation of the American Rescue Plan Act, one of the administration’s signature legislative achievements. 

Fan left the DOJ in 2022 for the Office of the New York State Attorney General, where he served as senior assistant solicitor general through June 2024. He managed amicus curiae litigation with advocacy groups, private law firms, nonprofit litigation groups, and other state attorneys general for U.S. Supreme Court cases. 

His high-profile work for the AG included litigating firearms cases and arguing that the co-founders of the electronic cigarette company JUUL could get sued and be on the hook personally for damages, which helped lead to a $462 million multistate settlement that supports underage vaping abatement programs. Fan also coordinated appellate strategy and advised the legal team in the AG’s civil enforcement action against the Trump Organization. He successfully argued on behalf of the AG’s office to ensure that Ivanka Trump testified at trial, to defend the gag order in place against former President Donald Trump, and to secure a $175 million bond from the former President while he appeals the $454 million civil judgment against him.

And yet Fan was itching to challenge himself in new ways. With encouragement from one of his mentors, Bert Huang, Harold R. Medina Professor of Procedural Jurisprudence, he tested the academic waters as a Columbia lecturer in law, teaching the Legal Practice Workshop, beginning in fall 2022. “It was very rewarding not only to help students grow but also to develop a skill set that I didn’t have before,” he says.

Opportunities for Students

Fan is designing the Appellate Litigation Clinic to incorporate practicing in New York state courts so that students get as much hands-on experience as possible. “The New York state system ends up working a little bit faster than the federal system,” he says, explaining that it can be five to six months between briefing and argument in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. “In New York’s appellate courts, at least in Manhattan, it’s about one month, so you can set up a system where students are able to go through the briefing process very quickly, then get to a place where they can do arguments and have in-court experience.” 

Although there is prestige associated with arguing cases in federal courts, Fan emphasizes the need for students to be invested in state and local issues that affect everyday New Yorkers. Fan points out that state appellate courts rule on an array of significant matters with broad consequences. “A lot of consumer and employment issues don’t ever go through the federal court system,” he says. Other examples he cites are cases involving civil rights issues, police violence or misconduct, and state administrative challenges.

The Appellate Litigation Clinic will primarily work with plaintiffs. “There’s a huge justice gap in the New York state appellate system because New York is in need of a specialized appellate bar on the civil side,” says Fan. “What you have are the major law firms on what we think of as the defense side. So a Columbia student, with supervision, can have a big impact on a case.”

In addition to arguing cases, students will research and write amicus briefs for both state and federal cases. “There isn’t that much amicus participation at the state level compared to the U.S. Supreme Court, where there can be 50 or so amicus briefs on each side in a major case,” says Fan. “In the New York Court of Appeals, you get one or two, even in a pretty important or interesting case, so the judges take them seriously because the parties aren’t always making all the arguments they could be making, raising all the issues that can be raised.”

Academia in His DNA

Fan was born in Chicago, where his parents, who are from China, were graduate students. After the student-led protests and government crackdown on demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989, his parents were not eager to return to China. They considered moving to Australia and sent Fan to live with his grandparents in China for a few years while they figured things out. But they ended up staying in the United States, where his father is now a medical physicist at Edward-Elmhurst Health and his mother is a librarian at the Naperville Public Library. “I was shipped back from China and grew up in a Chicago suburb called Western Springs,” he says. “It’s not really known for anything except that [novelist] Jonathan Franzen was born there. And, coincidentally, we both went to the same small liberal arts college on the East Coast.”

At Swarthmore College, where Fan majored in political science and minored in mathematics, he was captain of the rugby team. “It wasn’t because I had a particular passion for the sport,” he says. “I thought, what are things that I don’t personally think I can do, and I’m going to challenge myself to do them. It’s a mentality that has served me well several times.”

Fan led another sort of team at the Law School as editor-in-chief of the Columbia Law Review. He was also a James Kent Scholar and Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar. He received the Jane Marks Murphy Prize at graduation for displaying exceptional interest and proficiency in advocacy in clinical offerings as a participant in the Mediation Clinic led by Clinical Professor of Law Alexandra Carter ’03. While Fan honed his editing skills at the Law Review, he says he received master classes in good writing as a law clerk and hopes to provide the same for his clinic students. “Judge Chin was an incredibly clean and brilliant writer. He taught me about getting to the point without wasting words,” says Fan. “Judge Boasberg is a beautifully descriptive writer whose flowing opinions are really colloquial. He reads a lot of fiction and believes good legal writing should be as compelling as good fiction.”

Writing well is the sine qua non of appellate litigation. “An appellate lawyer needs the ability to be a really good storyteller,” he continues. “Being an appellate lawyer is a lot about having what I think of as a closed universe of information but then weaving a narrative through that. The real skill isn’t about building information—or creating more information or finding more information—but about telling the best story with a set amount of information.”  

Fan says that mentoring and inspiring the next generation of lawyers is one of the most exciting aspects of becoming a clinical professor. “I think that clinics, especially at Columbia, are doorways to public interest work,” he says. “When you have wins at the appellate level, they are long-standing and pass the test of time. So it matters that we have as many really qualified attorneys working for children’s rights, disability rights, employee rights, or consumer rights as we have working for big corporations.”