Yale Law School this week named its first woman law dean — professor Heather Gerken, a federalism and election law expert who’ll take the reins July 1.
Consistently ranked as the No. 1 law school by U.S. News & World Report, Yale is often in the public eye, and its dean has a megaphone most other legal academics don’t. (For proof, check out this recent op-ed by outgoing Yale dean Robert Post and Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow, which takes President Trump to task for his attacks on the judiciary and the rule of law.) And, as Gerken admits, the school’s long history and entrenched traditions mean change often comes slowly.
Yet, Yale’s position at the top of the law school heap means it isn’t struggling with the same challenges many other schools are, namely declining applicant pools and budget woes. In short, Yale Law School remains a hot ticket for whip-smart, ambitious aspiring lawyers.
On Wednesday, we caught up with Gerken to discuss her new gig, the challenges that await, and her hobby as an amateur novelist. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What appealed to you about this job?
I wasn’t sure I wanted the job a few years ago, mostly because being a law professor at Yale Law School may be the best job in the world. But two things really have motivated me. The first was serving on the diversity and inclusion committee two years ago. It made me realize how much I care about building an institution, and that I actually get sustenance from doing it.
The second piece is, I have a sense this is a moment in time when law schools are particularly important and relevant to ongoing debates. As someone who practiced for a fair amount of time, I feel deeply that law schools need to defend and protect the nonpartisan values of the profession. I want to be part of that conversation.
Are you talking about the political discourse surrounding President Trump? The “Trump Effect” if you will?
I don’t think it’s just the Trump Effect. I don’t mean just that lawyers on both side of the aisle believe in constitutional rights and due process. I think this is a moment in politics when people have lost the ability to do battle and respect the other side. One of the things that make lawyers part of an honorable profession is the fact that we’re able to go to war, then go out for drinks afterward. Part of that is the training that we provide our students. We teach people not just to recognize the flaws in their own arguments, but to recognize the strengths in the arguments of the other side. That’s something that’s missing from current political discourse. It has nothing to do with one administration or another.
Do you think it’s significant that you’ll be Yale Law’s first female dean?
I’m proud of it, especially because I have a 14-year-old daughter. But I will say there are a lot of firsts that came before me. Kate Stith was our interim dean. Tracey Meares is the first black woman ever tenured here. Cristina Rodriguez is the first Latino ever tenured here. I feel I’m walking along a path that has been walked by others before, and that makes it a lot smoother and easier to follow.
I enjoyed your 2015 New York Times blog post about writing vampire novels for your daughter. How do you find time for that side project, and are you still writing them?
I’m kind of a relentless worker bee. I would dream them up while I was exercising. And then at night, when I had put aside my work, I’d write the stories I’d made up earlier in the day into my computer, before I read them out loud to my daughter.
I’m now working on a different set of novels for my son, who’s 11, and has demanded a baseball and zombie novel. I’m about three-quarters of the way through the first one. I don’t think I have quite as good a feel for the zombie paradigm as I do for the vampire paradigm, but I’m working on it.
Can you tell me a bit about your goals and priorities for the law school?
I really do think this is time for law school to be part of a broader conversation about the value of the rule of law.
Internally, I’ll say that the things that are most noteworthy right now are that we have a school that is extraordinary and offers opportunities like no other place. But I really want to make sure that we offer them to everyone and that everyone feels entitled to access them. One of the things I learned most from chairing the diversity committee is the power of networks. Networks can be a pernicious force. Students who come here without the same cultural wherewithal — without lawyers in their family — I want to make sure those students have as much access to all the great gifts that this place provides as everyone else. Figuring out how to build up a robust mentoring network is one of my priorities.
What do you see as the biggest challenge of running one of the nation’s most prominent law schools?
One of the things about having a place that’s steeped in history is that it can be slow to move. If you get to run the best law school in the country, the one thing you don’t want to do is mess it up. Figuring out how to balance preserving what makes this place extraordinary and moving the law school forward into the 21st century — that’s a real challenge. It involves questions about tradition, questions about curriculum, questions about the way we prepare students to be professional in this world. It’s always a hard balance to strike.
What’s an area where you think the school can do better?
The one thing I’d really like to do is build stronger ties with our alumni. We have the most powerful professional network in the country available to us, and I don’t think we really take full advantage of it for our students. The alumni are wonderful — they’re like a standing army for us. They are eager to mentor our students.
One of the things I think is a signature strength of this place is that we have found a bridge between practice and theory. I think that would be a surprise to many people who associate Yale with a high theory-and-academic faculty. I did a count last night, and more than a dozen of my colleagues on the nonclinical side either teach a clinic, or do some kind of experiential learning or some important practice in the world. Meanwhile, our clinicians are so gifted that they both write and teach. We have a world where 80 percent of our students do clinics. That’s just not true anywhere else.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ.