Monday, August 20, 2018


Dean Gerken Welcomes Class of 2021

On a beautiful summer’s day in New Haven, Dean Heather Gerken welcomed the newest class of students to Yale Law School during convocation ceremonies on August 20, 2018.

Of the 204 members of the Class of 2021, 46 percent are students of color, 27 percent are first generation professionals, and nine percent are the first in their family to go to college. Together with the Class of 2020 and 2019, the three class years encompass the most diverse student body in Yale Law School history.

The incoming class showcases a wide range of talents and backgrounds, arriving here from 12 different countries, 36 different states, and 77 different undergraduate institutions. Together, they have worked and lived in 63 different countries and read and speak 28 different languages. Altogether, the Class of 2021 holds 57 advanced graduate degrees in subjects that range from classics to forensic molecular biology.

“Learn in a fashion that is unselfconscious, uninhibited, and unflappable. You have to get knocked back in order to learn something new, and there’s no shame in failure.”
— Dean Heather Gerken.

Students sitting in the auditorium included a pro snowboarder, a block chain developer, and analysts from the FBI and the White House, among many other impressive backgrounds.

“Globally, you have a classmate who assisted Syrian refugees in Jordan; one who has helped develop microfinance policies in Sengal and South Africa; and another who has worked with rule of law projects in Central and South America,” said Gerken.

In addition to the Class of 2021, there are also 11 transfer students joining the Class of 2020 as well as 28 LL.M students, 8 new candidates for the J.S.D. degree, and one new candidate for the Ph.D in law.

After speaking about the remarkable members of the new class, Gerken offered poignant advice on what it means to be successful at Yale Law School.

“Learn in a fashion that is unselfconscious, uninhibited, and unflappable,” said Gerken. “You have to get knocked back in order to learn something new, and there’s no shame in failure.”

“Everyone will struggle to make heads or tails of an argument from time to time,” said Gerken. “Everyone will take endless hours to read just a few pages of a case. This is an entirely different skill set from anything you’ve done before, and nothing fully prepares you for it.”

Dean Gerken also told students that they can “get off the treadmill” as prior Deans have traditionally told incoming classes. However, adding her own twist to the classic advice, she urged the budding lawyers to continue to train hard and even sprint. 

“My advice is to get off the treadmill, sure, but instead of sitting still, run,” said Gerken.

“Run, but don’t race. When you race, you compare yourself to other people. Your success becomes dependent upon someone else’s failure. You are always taking a path chosen by others, not yourself...When you run, on the other hand, you do it for your own satisfaction.”

She added, “the real key about running is very simple: you choose your own direction.”

In keeping with that advice, Gerken urged students not to worry about knowing exactly what they want to do upon graduation — but instead take time to learn and explore as they carve their own map to success.

“Almost none of our extraordinarily successful alums knew exactly what they wanted to do until after graduation,” said Gerken. “Those many paths are open to all of you, but only if you are ready to choose your own. So keep your eyes, and your mind, open.”

In closing, Gerken told students to be kind to each other, even when facing intense disagreements, and to uphold the finest values of lawyering. 

“My final piece of advice is that from this moment on, be a lawyer and model the values that make ours an honorable profession,” said Gerken.

“If you want to make real change out in the world for your beliefs, you need to be able to think hard about your values and why they matter, look at the evidence, marshal a record, and persuade. And if you want to persuade, you need to be able to construct the best argument on the other side with sympathy, and then dismantle it with clarity. If you want to be a great lawyer, now is the time to start inhabiting that role.”