PUBLISHED:September 25, 2009

Matt Smith JD/LLM '11

If the first month of this school year is any indication, Matt Smith has a busy — and exciting — year ahead of him. As campus president of the newly-formed International Criminal Court Student Network (ICCSN), Smith organized a day-long training for Duke Law students in early September where staff from the International Criminal Court offered sessions on the court’s procedures for investigating and litigating war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

“We are the first chapter in the United States of this organization, which was started at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics about a year ago,” Smith says, who became interested in human rights after taking a class on the historical development of the notion of human rights as an undergraduate at Columbia College. “I think my interest in the ICC grows from its capacity to provide some teeth to the enforcement of human rights norms [and] I was just thrilled by the amount of enthusiasm and commitment the new class is showing already to human rights issues and international criminal legal issues. It’s going to be a very fulfilling and challenging experience.”

Smith is also a co-chair of the International Human Rights Law Society and an editor on the Duke Law Journal, where he’ll be writing a note this semester.

“With the International Human Rights Law Society, we made a tremendous amount of progress last semester discussing human rights issues with the law school,” he says. “Dean Levi has been incredibly innovative and very interested in working with students about subjects that make positive contributions to what we are already doing at the law school and that’s very exciting.”

Smith came to Duke Law after serving as an intern for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and working for the Pew Charitable Trust on their Pre-K Now program.

“My first attraction to Duke was the international law program,” he says. “To get a JD/LLM — to do both degrees at the same time — was an amazing opportunity. I knew that I wanted to do law that had an international focus. And I agreed with the faculty that I spoke to here that said that international law is becoming an increasingly important part of every lawyer’s practice.”

Accessibility of the faculty was also an important factor, Smith says. “Because I went to a fairly large institution as an undergraduate, I often felt that I didn’t have the chance to get to professors as much as I wanted to. Here at Duke, I’ve found that the faculty is incredibly receptive to having students approach them and work with them.”

During his 1L year, Smith engaged in independent research projects with Professors Weistart, Dugard, and Tigar on issues ranging from unconscionability to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Those projects, along with the course work for the JD/LLM degree, have been highlights of Smith’s time at Duke Law.

“The opportunity to study international law in your first year of law school — which is a very formative time — is important because, as you are going through your understanding of American law, it is extremely useful to have as a reference point the entire body of legal systems that exist throughout the rest of the world,” he says. “I think too often legal education in the United States is not fully cognizant of foreign law.

“It’s helpful to see how we solve problems in ways that are similar to or different from the ways that other legal systems solve problems,” he continues.

Smith adds that the opportunity to study and practice law abroad is appealing, as well. He spent the summer after his 1L year in Geneva, Switzerland, working with International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), a nonprofit organization seeking to promote the legal rights of citizens in developing countries, and studying at the Duke-Geneva Institute in Transnational Law.

“The work that I was doing [with IBJ] mostly involved doing research on Indian criminal law and criminal procedure to find provisions of the Indian procedure code that attorneys can use to get to their clients early to prevent them from being tortured,” he says. “That was obviously an eye-opening experience.

“It’s amazing to study human rights law, to study the law in general in the U.S. context, and to look at the safeguards and procedures we have in place. … Then to look at a situation like India, where if a person accused of a crime is captured, in many states there is a very high probability that they will be tortured if they don’t confess. Unfortunately that is the case all over the world.”

Outside the classroom, Smith says he is excited about the opportunity to mentor students in the 1L class this year and to continue learning about the law through everyday interactions with other students and professors.

One of Duke Law’s best characteristics, he says is “the quality of people and the sense of people learning the law as a collaborative communal project. Going to Parker & Otis and having coffee on a Saturday morning with a friend to talk about what happened that week and then getting into a discussion about the duty to disclose and contract law has been a very casual interweaving of relaxation and social relationships with academic growth and intellectualism that I think we do very well here.”