Come September, Stanford Law School’s class of 1998 will have produced not one, not two, but three deans of top law schools—and all three are women.
Kimberly Yuracko, the incoming dean at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, and Kerry Abrams, who will assume the deanship at Duke Law School in July, both received their Juris Doctors from Stanford in 1998. Columbia Law School Dean Gillian Lester was on the Palo Alto campus from 1992 to 1993 working toward her Doctor of the Science of Law (JSD), but didn’t defend her dissertation until 1998. (She taught at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law in between.)
“We’re very proud that three people who did a lot of their training here are now going to be trying to sustain and improve the legal education at three great institutions,” said Stanford professor Mark Kelman, who all three deans cited as a mentor who helped them launch their academic careers. “Columbia, Duke and Northwestern are great law schools, and they will shepherd them forward.”
The trio of deans said in interviews this week that they didn’t know each other as students, but they have found professional inspiration and support from one another since their time on campus.
“Gillian gave me tremendous help and mentorship when I started out in law teaching, and I tried to be helpful to Kerry when she was on the entry-level market a few years after me,” Yuracko said. “It is a really nice group and a very nice connection to Stanford.”
Abrams said that Yuracko’s support helped her navigate the transition from litigator to legal academic. Lester too made an impact, though from afar.
“Gillian’s book with Kelman ["Jumping the Queue: An Inquiry into the Legal Treatment of Students With Learning Disabilities"] came out when I was a law student,” Abrams said. “It was inspirational to me to see someone publishing with one of my favorite professors. It was one of the things that made me think, ‘Maybe I can do this.’”
Lester said that Kelman put Yuracko on her radar early on.
“My first awareness that she had come on the scene as a new scholar happened because we shared a mentor at Stanford,” she said. “It was through Mark Kelman that I started to learn about and read her work. The Stanford connection definitely forged a link between Kim and me early in our careers.”
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While Lester co-authored a book with Kelman, the professor’s ties to Yuracko extend even farther back. He tutored Yuracko at the University of Oxford when she was a junior there. Abrams took his property course.
“He was the person who convinced me to stick with law school when I had doubts,” Abrams said. “And he was one of the people I went to years later when I was thinking about moving back to academia, to ask his advice.”
But Kelman is quick to say that the trio’s success is not because of his mentorship. Rather, he recognized their potential early on.
“What made them so much fun to work with as a teacher is precisely what other people are noticing now and making them deans,” Kelman said. “I didn’t cause it. I noticed it. They were really intellectually energetic, exciting, thoughtful people.”
Lester and Abrams said that Stanford’s relatively small size may be a factor in their success in the legal academy because it offered ample opportunity for faculty mentorship. They both stayed in touch with Stanford professors after graduation and got advice on entering the academy.
Lester knew she wanted to teach before enrolling at Stanford, and took a seminar co-taught by then-Dean Paul Brest and former professor Peggy Radin that was designed to help students become law professors.
“We would usually meet at Peggy’s home, which was very welcoming,” Lester said. “And we would put together papers that would later become possible job talk papers. We had to teach classes—we had to lead the seminar on different topics. We got exposure to what it is to run a class and what kinds of things we needed to start thinking about to have the necessary presentation skills for an academic context.”
Courses deigned for prospective law teachers are common now, but were still new at the time, she said. Lester added that the Stanford Law faculty also took students seriously and treated them much like colleagues
Kelman believes that the gender climate at Stanford at the time may also have played a role in how the then-students viewed their career prospects. Kathleen Sullivan, now a name partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, would become dean of the school the year after the trio graduated.
“It’s not surprising that women just before the turn of the millennium coming out of Stanford had high levels of confidence and high expectations,” he said. “Beginning in the mid-80s, I think this was a school where women were not just present but were held in high esteem and had positions of social power. I think they were coming out of an environment in which both expectations for and respect for women academics was in the air. I think it was in the air here earlier than it was in some other places. I think that probably helped.”