Light & Verity

Law School gets first woman dean

Heather Gerken is an expert on election law.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Heather Gerken, an expert on election law who has taught at the Law School since 2006, will become the school’s 17th dean in July. View full image

Heather Gerken will assume the post of dean of Yale Law School in an unusual climate: at least in blue states, people have become more inclined to hug a lawyer than to slug one.

When President Trump signed an executive order barring travelers from majority-Muslim nations, attorneys sprang into action to resist—and Yale law students and faculty played a central role. Opponents of the ban saw the judicial branch as their salvation, and when federal courts blocked the ban, attorneys for the plaintiffs were treated with a rock-star status they weren’t accustomed to.

“I think this is an enormously important moment for law schools, and not just because the lawyer jokes have stopped,” says Gerken, who succeeds Robert Post ’77JD on July 1 to become the school’s first woman dean. As trust erodes in government, “we are actually in an institution that everyone recognizes as admirable. Lawyers manage to do something that most people in politics can’t do anymore—and that is fight the good fight and respect the other side.”

Gerken, who joined the faculty in 2006 and is the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law, received her BA from Princeton in 1991 and her JD from the University of Michigan Law School in 1994. After clerking for Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit and then US Supreme Court Justice David Souter, she worked in private practice as an appellate lawyer. She came to Yale after teaching at Harvard Law School between 2000 and 2006.

Gerken is well steeped in putting legal theory into action. She is one of the country’s leading experts on election law. She argues that federalism is a crucial part of democracy, as important a tool for progressives as it has traditionally been for conservatives. She also created the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project, a partnership between the Law School and the San Francisco city attorney’s office that initiates public-interest lawsuits. One such suit successfully challenged Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in California. (Gerken plans to continue as faculty adviser to the project.)

“She is not just some person who is a good speaker and will shake a lot of hands,” says Bruce Ackerman ’67LLB, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science. “She can do something that very few law professors can do: speak a language that ordinary people can understand.”

The new dean plans to preach what she practices. She says one of her goals is to keep Yale students practice-ready, though not at the expense of the school’s reputation for legal education: “I worry that the profession is so focused on training students to file briefs that it doesn’t teach them to practice thinking about the law.” She also wants to strengthen the school’s alumni mentoring network and increase its diversity.

As chair of a diversity committee, Gerken was responsive and sensitive to students’ needs, says William Eskridge Jr. ’78JD, John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence. And she has other talents, he notes. “She’ll be a great fund-raiser, which is, for better or for worse, one of the most important parts of the job.” He adds: “Heather Gerken is a brilliant scholar and professor, but in addition to that—and this is not necessarily the norm for a great scholar—she is also a brilliant organizer.”

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