First a brilliant student and then a beloved professor at NYU Law, Troy McKenzie ’00 now leads his alma mater as the Law School’s new dean.
BY ATTICUS GANNAWAY
In late April, on the day of the announcement that Cecelia Goetz Professor of Law Troy McKenzie ’00 would be NYU Law’s 18th dean, Matthew Ahn ’14 tweeted about a vivid memory of McKenzie. Early on September 12, 2014, Ahn had embarked on his second attempt to break a Guinness World Record set by a British team who had traversed all New York City subway stations in 22 hours, 26 minutes, and 2 seconds. Around hour 13, after sprinting onto a departing F train at the Second Avenue stop, the disheveled and perspiring Ahn heard a familiar voice: “Oh, Mr. Ahn. Fancy seeing you here.”
It was McKenzie, Ahn’s former NYU Law Review and A paper advisor, in his customary suit and bow tie. Ahn explained his quixotic endeavor. “Without missing a single beat,” Ahn recalls, “he said, ‘You don’t think you’ll beat the British team’s time, do you? They had a really good route!’”
Another professor might have chuckled and then forgotten all about the matter. But late that night, Ahn received an email from McKenzie: “So how did it go?” Ahn’s continuing attempts to break the record (ultimately successful) crept into later exchanges as he pursued clerkships with support from McKenzie, whose commitment to student mentoring is legendary. Ahn credits McKenzie with helping him make his A paper sufficiently cohesive to publish as a Note in the NYU Law Review. “Now I’m teaching—so it clearly helped,” says Ahn, who is currently a visiting assistant professor of law at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.
Many students have such stories about McKenzie, describing him as a pivotal figure on their path to success. By the time McKenzie assumed the deanship on June 1, NYU Law had been his educational and professional home for most of the past 25 years. During that period, he has made significant contributions to the life of the Law School. A faculty member since 2007, McKenzie was awarded the Law School’s Albert Podell Distinguished Teaching Award just a year after he began teaching; he received NYU’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2020. He has also long embraced a set of administrative responsibilities almost as extensive as those of the top position he now holds: faculty director of the AnBryce Scholarship Program; faculty advisor of the NYU Law Review; member of half a dozen committees at one point or another, including the vitally important Academic Personnel Committee and Clerkship Committee; and faculty co-director of both the Institute of Judicial Administration and the Center on Civil Justice (CCJ). Two clerkships, several years in private practice, and a stint in government service during the Obama administration round out his résumé.
Watch a slideshow of photographs of Troy McKenzie at NYU Law:
Vice Dean and Charles Seligson Professor of Law Rachel Barkow led the search committee for a new dean during the 2021–22 academic year. “Troy had widespread and enthusiastic support from all members of our community,” she says, pointing out the multiple valuable perspectives McKenzie brings to the role. She adds, “He’s very much somebody who places things into broader historical perspectives and traditions and respects those, which I think is good for an institution.”
McKenzie, who studied chemical engineering at Princeton University before matriculating at NYU Law, has a remarkable ability to connect the dots, whether it’s in the classroom, in his scholarship, or in his broader interactions. “Troy has an engineer’s mind, deconstructing and reconstructing concepts and ideas,” says former classmate Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II ’00, president of the Law Alumni of Color Association. He adds, “Troy sees the thread that connects people, ideas, concepts, and experiences…. When people talk about how there’s more that unites us than divides us, he sees the mechanics of how that actually works.”
Bonnie and Richard Reiss Professor of Constitutional Law Samuel Issacharoff, also a CCJ faculty co-director, alternates teaching Complex Litigation with McKenzie and University Professor Arthur Miller. “Troy is an odd mixture of the old and the very new,” says Issacharoff. “He’s relaxed and jovial and filled with cultural references—primarily to 1990s rom-coms—to carry the day. At the same time, he shows up in class wearing a bow tie and conducting extremely old-fashioned Socratic-type inquiries: very precise, very demanding, moving the students incrementally across an increasingly complicated set of issues.” Using the Socratic method in his larger classes—Procedure, Bankruptcy, Complex Litigation—McKenzie avoids the brutal version wielded by The Paper Chase’s Charles W. Kingsfield: he tells panels of students in advance that they will be on call for a given session, letting them prepare accordingly. “I never use the Socratic method to humiliate or belittle students,” he says.
Miller, a towering figure in legal academia, praises McKenzie’s academic prowess unstintingly. “In terms of procedure and complex litigation, he’s on the frontier. He knows everything there is to know. I’ve been teaching procedure for 61 years, and I yield to him in his comprehensive knowledge of procedure,” Miller says. He adds: “His piece on bankruptcy and the relationship between bankruptcy and complex litigation is without any question the best piece on that subject in the literature.”
The interest in trains that surfaced in his encounter with Ahn, it turns out, is entwined with his scholarly focus. “Once I started an academic career,” McKenzie says, “it became very obvious that if you want to understand most of modern reorganization in bankruptcy, you have to know what happened to the railroad industry in the 19th century…. Much of what ended up becoming what we call Chapter 11 bankruptcy came out of judge-made doctrine and procedures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that were designed to basically save the railroad industry.” It’s a holistic insight that seems to spring naturally from McKenzie’s multidisciplinary expertise in bankruptcy, civil procedure, complex litigation, and the federal courts. He has published articles in journals such as the Stanford Law Review, the NYU Law Review, and the American Bankruptcy Law Journal on topics including bankruptcy and the future of aggregate litigation, internal and external governance in complex litigation, and judge shopping.
Issacharoff invokes McKenzie’s near-photographic memory to help explain his comprehensive command of case law—and of other facts. When the two had dinner soon after both had joined the faculty, McKenzie could recite the maximum speed of each New York City subway line as well as the location on each line where that speed was reached. “Many people have strange curiosities like this and know well enough to not reveal them in public,” reflects Issacharoff amusedly. “Troy delighted in it.”
Miller, too, speaks of good-natured ribbing that goes both ways. McKenzie reveals, with wry resignation, that “with any article I write, [Issacharoff will] say, ‘Where’s the choo choo?’”
Born in Jamaica, McKenzie immigrated to the United States with his family at age five and grew up in Irvington, New Jersey, the youngest of three sons. In high school, McKenzie took to math and chemistry but also enjoyed history and English. He chose Princeton for both its superior engineering school and its liberal arts strengths. In his sophomore year, he reluctantly accompanied his roommate to Justice Antonin Scalia’s Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered over two days on the Princeton campus. While he found Scalia’s talk interesting, McKenzie says he was most intrigued by the responses delivered by legal luminaries such as Ronald Dworkin and Laurence Tribe. “It was exciting,” McKenzie recollects. “It was challenging but also accessible at the same time.”
Ultimately, McKenzie declined an engineering position in industry and applied to law school instead. He was uncertain which school to pick until he heard John Sexton, then the Law School’s dean, speak during Admitted Students Days. When someone asked Sexton why they should choose NYU, McKenzie recalls, the dean listed some reasons not to attend NYU, telling those assembled not to come if they wanted a lush green campus or the validation of an Ivy League name. “It revealed a lot about him and about the character of the institution in an unexpected way,” McKenzie says.
McKenzie made an indelible impression at NYU Law from the start. When Herbert M. and Svetlana Wachtell Professor of Constitutional Law and Civil Liberties Helen Hershkoff wrote a letter in 2020 supporting McKenzie’s nomination for NYU’s Distinguished Teaching Award, she recalled having him as a student in Civil Procedure: “I could not help but notice how animated he was when talking with and listening to the other students in his row and how they seemed naturally to gravitate toward him.”
While McKenzie says he enjoyed his fellow students, he does remember being one of only five Black men in his class. His involvement in the Black Allied Law Students Association (BALSA) was key in giving him a greater sense of community, particularly through BALSA’s strong connection to its alumni. Fittingly, McKenzie is now a mainstay at BALSA’s annual dinners. Of his JD days, he says that “it would have been nicer if there were more [Black students] at the time,” but adds that today’s Law School “is more diverse in lots of ways, including in terms of professional background. It is also more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity.”
Former classmates invariably mention McKenzie’s intelligence and keen insight. Carol Kaplan ’00, who was Law Review editor in chief when McKenzie was an executive editor, remembers how “if Troy put his hand up and spoke, it was almost like that old ad on TV about [investment firm E. F. Hutton] where everybody stopped to listen.” Kaplan pinpoints a conversation in which McKenzie explained the far-reaching significance of bankruptcy law as the moment she could picture him as a professor: “It was the way in which he could pursue and digest something that anybody else might have responded to at the surface level, and he was diving fathoms below that.”
Derek Ludwin ’00, also an executive editor, describes McKenzie as “engrossed in the theory, excited about the law, but [he] always talked about it in such a nice way you never felt stupid.” Ludwin recalls not only his classmate’s talent for whipping articles into shape but also McKenzie’s preference that they listen to Steely Dan in the journal office. By the time McKenzie graduated, he had joined the Order of the Coif and won both the Paul D. Kaufman Award (for the most outstanding Law Review Note) and the Frank H. Sommer Award (for exceptional scholarship, character, and professional excellence).
McKenzie next embarked on back-to-back clerkships, for Judge Pierre Leval of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and for Justice John Paul Stevens of the US Supreme Court. “In addition to a really keen and fabulous intelligence,” says Leval, “he has a lovely sense of humor and a charming, radiant, smiling personality. He’s just the nicest person in the world.”
Eric M. and Laurie B. Roth Professor of Law Trevor Morrison, McKenzie’s immediate predecessor as dean, clerked for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg while McKenzie was also at the Supreme Court. “Everybody at the Court is smart, everybody knows a lot, but [Troy] seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge about historical figures in the law, historical trivia, or just about anything else,” Morrison recalls. “He wasn’t showy about this. He just seemed to know everything.”
In 2003, McKenzie returned to New York to join Debevoise & Plimpton, where he and former Law Review colleague Catherine Amirfar ’00 were both litigation associates. “He brought a lot of tactical brilliance to his cases,” Amirfar recalls, noting, “He was able to bring what were these almost three-dimensional chess games into real clarity for purposes of advising clients on what to do next in a big complex litigation matter.”
McKenzie enjoyed bankruptcy work in particular. “It tended to be pretty fast-paced and had a large variety of issues under one umbrella,” he says, “so that as a relatively junior-to-mid-level associate you could get a range of experiences in a relatively short time if you were doing bankruptcy work that you might not get if you were solely doing traditional litigation.”
He returned to Washington Square as a Furman Fellow in the 2005–06 academic year and then as a faculty member the following year. “Troy was considered a superstar when he went on the market,” says Dean Emeritus and AnBryce Professor of Law Richard Revesz, who hired him, “and we were very excited that he came to the Law School.”
Thomas Bennett ’12 took two of McKenzie’s classes and was his teaching assistant. “He stands in front of classes subscribed to the gills, with his head down, pacing back and forth,” says Bennett. “As he does so, he rubs his temples and unspools crystal-clear recitations of dense legal material in complete paragraphs entirely from memory. It is equal parts effective pedagogy and parlor trick. But the real magic happens in the heart of each class, during his Socratic questioning…. [McKenzie] always knows exactly when to step back, lighten the mood with a joke—which he always has at hand—or gracefully move on to the next student.”
While McKenzie’s teaching might appear effortless and extemporaneous, he spends hours preparing for every hour of class. The payoff is obvious in excerpts from students’ course evaluations: “Professor McKenzie really normalized the fact that sometimes the law doesn’t make logical sense, which was so, so, SO welcome in this first semester of law school.” “In class, he’s flawless. Flawless.” “Troy McKenzie is a national treasure.” “The best teacher I’ve ever had in my life and quite possibly the greatest known to man.”
McKenzie is also an indefatigable mentor whose five-minute check-ins often turn into two-hour catch-ups. As faculty director of the AnBryce Scholarship Program, which provides full-tuition funding and programmatic support to incoming NYU Law students who are among the first in their immediate family to pursue a graduate or professional degree, McKenzie advised all 30 AnBryce Scholars on various matters: academic, professional, personal. “Troy is more than an advisor,” says NYU Law Trustee Anthony Welters ’77, who established the AnBryce Program with his wife, Ambassador Beatrice Welters. “He is an actively engaged partner in the initiative and also with the students themselves, while at NYU and even after they’ve left NYU.” Even larger is the network of other current and former students whom McKenzie continues to help.
In addition to his advisory role with the Law Review, McKenzie has been heavily involved with the clerkship application process and has stepped up to bat for legions of students who ended up working in judges’ chambers. He has extensive connections to the bench through his faculty co-director position at the Institute of Judicial Administration (IJA), where he has long taught in the widely influential Appellate Judges Seminar every year. He also presents at events convened by such entities as the Federal Judicial Center and the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges.
“He cares about the judiciary,” says fellow IJA co-director Samuel Estreicher, Dwight D. Opperman Professor of Law, “he cares about principle in judicial decision-making, he gets along with people tremendously well…. I think there’s no better interlocutor to the judiciary from our faculty than Troy.”
McKenzie took public service leave for the last two years of the Obama administration when he was appointed deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). Kirti Datla ’12, who had worked with McKenzie as a Law Review managing editor, was an OLC line attorney at the time. “It’s an office that deals with very difficult national security issues—literal war and peace issues—but also really intricate administrative law issues, and he was just so enthusiastic about everything,” she says, adding, “The deputy role is tricky, and he was so good at it. Everyone loved him.”
In April 2022, McKenzie stood at a lectern in Greenberg Lounge during a ceremony to unveil a portrait of Trevor Morrison, the outgoing dean. It was the same room where, as an admitted student 25 years before, McKenzie had once sat on the carpet to listen to Sexton. Dean-Designate McKenzie began his remarks thus: “I want to open with a question: is it possible to be too successful as a dean? From my perspective, the answer is yes.” He explained to Morrison that “it would be really nice if you had just messed something up royally.” It was typical McKenzie: equal parts humility, self-deprecation, and wit. Recounting a robust litany of Morrison’s achievements that would make him a tough act to follow, McKenzie concluded, “There is still time for you to fail. Don’t do it for NYU, don’t do it for yourself, but please, do it for me.”
McKenzie says he didn’t pursue the deanship for egoistical reasons. “I love the Law School,” he explains, “and I realized when Trevor announced he was stepping down as dean that I should think very seriously about putting my name forward if I wanted to be in a position to help the place that I love.”
He has reluctantly relinquished his various directorships in assuming the deanship, and given up much of his course load—at least in his first year. He plans to co-teach one class this Spring: the Supreme Court Seminar, in which students examine matters pending before the Supreme Court and engage in simulations in which they decide cases in the role of justices.
Anthony Welters offers a reminder that a person with McKenzie’s talents has many options, and that McKenzie has turned down prestigious opportunities elsewhere. “He’s decided to make NYU Law his life’s work,” says Welters, “and that’s incredible.”
McKenzie has taken the reins during a time of continuing rapid change in academia and the legal profession. He mentions three priorities to start. Perhaps the most immediate one is the task of replenishing and continuing to sustain a world-class faculty at a moment of generational transition. He also underscores a continuing focus on student success and ensuring sufficient support for student financial aid initiatives. Finally, McKenzie is thinking broadly about how to educate students for the legal profession today. He wants to make sure, he says, “we are sending our graduates into the world equipped to handle basically any challenge that can be thrown at them as new lawyers.”
Those issues will continue to evolve in unpredictable ways, but McKenzie isn’t worried. “What’s great about NYU Law is that it’s a very kinetic place,” he says. “It’s a place where we’re responsive to the changing needs of the outside world, and who knows what that might mean in two years or five years or even 10 years? I think it’s important, though, that we’re always nimble and open to that type of challenge.”
Atticus Gannaway is senior writer at NYU Law.
Photo credit: Bob Handelman (opening portrait)
Posted September 8, 2022