SAN FRANCISCO — When Christopher Edley Jr. joined UC-Berkeley School of Law as dean in 2004, "he came in like a blast of fresh air," said law professor Robert Berring Jr.

On Monday, the man who colleagues credit with modernizing Berkeley Law ­— expanding its faculty and improving its curriculum, research centers and student financial aid programs — announced he would step down early for health reasons.

Edley's second term as dean was due to expire in 2014, so his early departure surprised some colleagues. "He's had a series of health problems over the years, but he fights through them," said Berring, a former interim dean of Berkeley Law.

Berring, who teaches courses in contracts, legal research and Chinese law, added that one of his greatest accomplishments was getting Edley to lead the school nine years ago. Edley, a former member of the Clinton and Carter administrations, was recruited from Harvard Law School, where he taught for more than two decades. His academic work focused on administrative law, civil rights and domestic policy. Justice Goodwin Liu, who worked closely with the dean on a number of initiatives before his appointment to the California Supreme Court in 2011, said Edley made his mark at Berkeley in the face of a tough economy.

"Chris was dean during the most serious economic downturn the state and the nation had seen in a number of years," Liu said. "As other schools were cutting back, Chris was building."

Liu and others tied Edley's success to his knack for connecting with staff, faculty, students and alumni.

"He is very genuine, almost playful. He ingratiates himself with his audience by being honest about Boalt's ambitions," Liu said. "He comes across as authentic."

In his first two years at Berkeley, Edley launched a $125 million fund-raising campaign — a goal "everyone thought impossible," considering the economic environment and the fact that the largest amount of money the school had ever previously raised in a single campaign was $14 million, according to Robert Sproul, dean of development and alumni relations. However, Edley defied the expectations. "Now we're $4 million from the finish line, and we hope to finish it up by the end of the year," said Sproul.

Edley will step down on December 31, 2013, and he intends to remain at Berkeley Law as a faculty member.

Professor Gillian Lester will serve as acting dean, as Berkeley Law begins the search for a replacement. Lester previously served as acting dean while Edley was on sabbatical for six months last year.

"The school is in great hands," said Anne Joseph O'Connell, associate dean for faculty development and research and professor at Berkeley Law.

Contact the reporter at npierrepont@alm.com.