Reflecting on 200 Years: A Q&A with Dean Heather K. Gerken

As the first female dean of Yale Law School, Heather Gerken discusses its history, its future, and its “restless spirit.”
Heather Gerken speaking to a guest at a reception
Yale Law School Dean Heather K. Gerken

Heather K. Gerken made history when she was appointed as the first female dean of Yale Law School in 2017. She is one of the country’s leading experts on constitutional law and election law. A founder of the “nationalist school” of federalism, her work focuses on federalism, diversity, and dissent.

During her deanship, Dean Gerken has strengthened the School’s tradition of academic excellence, fortified support for the student body, and launched innovative new programming. Some of her most notable accomplishments as dean include the establishment of the tuition-free Hurst Horizon Scholarship Program, the launch of The Tsai Leadership Program, and the creation of two pipeline-to-law school programs to expand access to legal education. As one of the only deans in the country to lead a clinic, Dean Gerken also continues to champion the theory/practice connection. In honor of Yale Law School’s 200th anniversary, Dean Gerken reflected on the School’s history, its future, and its “restless spirit.”

branding for bicentennial

Yale Law School at 200

Learn more about the history of Yale Law School on our Bicentennial website.

When you reflect on the storied 200-year history of Yale Law School, what milestones or themes stand out to you?

When I look at Yale Law School’s timeline, I'm always struck by how much earlier things happened here compared to other institutions. This place was much more open to change in a way that wasn't true of other institutions. There's a reason why legal realism was so powerful here and why Yale played such a key role in transforming legal education. Those are the kinds of adaptations and changes that have made this institution so special. You see cycles sweep across every school during periods in history, but one of the things that is distinctive about our school is that we have always been open to critique, innovation, and looking at things in a completely new way.

One good example occurred during the late '60s, early 1970s, when campuses across the country were roiled by students' demands for change. The difference between Yale and our peers is that we listened to our students, sorted the good ideas from the bad, and made two fundamental changes to the School. First, we made a real commitment to clinics, and second we changed our grading system. Both of those things became distinctive features of Yale’s culture. Meanwhile, our peers have spent a long time trying to catch up. That openness to change has always been a real advantage for us. Because we have often been the first to do things, we became and remain a leader in legal education, a tradition I am proud to continue as dean today.

Dean Heather Gerken sits with a group of first year students in her office

Each year, Gerken meets with small groups of first year students in her office.

You often talk about the “restless spirit” of Yale Law School. In what ways do you believe it defines us as an institution?

This place has a restless gene. The Law School is always trying to figure out how to be a better version of itself and never rests on its laurels. Guido Calabresi often refers to this beautiful quote by Grant Gilmore ’43: “The golden age of Yale Law School is never now. It was always in the past and can be again in the future if we only do a few things right. Always trying, always striving, never quite there except in memory and hope.” It is the very first quote I used in my first letter to the alumni in the Yale Law Report after I became dean, because it captures what is special about this place and about the aims of my own deanship. I try to carry that spirit forward in the work we are doing here at the Law School to continue to lead the charge in legal education. I’m very proud of how much this institution has done over our history. But there is always more work to be done. We always have our eye on what the curriculum should look like for the next 100 years. There are always more ways we can give back to New Haven and serve communities across the globe. That combination of extraordinary potential and restless energy is what makes it so exciting to lead this institution.

What do you believe to be the catalyst for the modern Yale Law School?

It's hard to know exactly when the modern Yale Law School came to be, but there was a great transformation that happened under Guido Calabresi’s leadership. During his deanship, he hired what I consider to be one of the greatest generations of academics in the history of legal education. They were all great individually, but together they built an extraordinary intellectual culture that emphasized conversations across fields and made everyone’s work better. As a result of their work and the generations that followed, ideas are the coin of the realm here. Yale doesn’t ask who is best in a field; it asks who will transform a field. It is radically interdisciplinary and always on the hunt for big ideas. I can give you just one, small example of how that generation’s intellectual habits have stayed with us today. That generation emphasized a simple rule: everybody reads. That meant that they spent a lifetime reading each other's work. It also ensured that workshops are incredibly vibrant and compelling. At Yale, you would never walk into a workshop without having read the paper. We don't even let people present their papers at workshops. That is unheard of in most places because people are not doing the same shared work of intellectual citizenship. Here it's just built into the place.


In your opinion, what makes Yale Law School such a special place?

When I was trying to figure out whether to come here from Harvard, I had a big checklist focused on each school’s distinctive features. It was a difficult decision because I was really happy at Harvard. Harold Hongju Koh, who was the dean at the time, said over and over, “You should come to Yale because families beat armies.” I found it so moving, even though my husband pointed out, quite sensibly, that “families don't beat armies, they get creamed by armies.”

Yale Law School is proof that Harold was right. I remember thinking about what he said during the worst part of COVID-19 when we were barely able to have in-person classes. The Trump administration created a rule that international students had to be taking an in-person class or they would be deported. Our students were protected because, unlike many of our peers, we actually were holding in-person classes — six feet apart and with masks. But the other part of the ruling said that if you had to suspend in-person classes, international students had to self-deport immediately. The reason that provision mattered is that the only reason that you would suspend those classes in the middle of the semester was if COVID-19 was spiking and it was dangerous to be around other people. The idea that we would have to send our international students away, perhaps to a place where they might not have adequate healthcare, was horrifying. Alongside my deputy dean, I called every single faculty member to ask if they would teach a one-on-one class with one of our international students so our students could stay in our community. Every single faculty member said yes. One of them, who had serious health issues and shouldn't be anywhere near someone during a COVID-19 spike, said, “I will teach in the snow if I have to.”

Dean Heather Gerken stands with a group of student veterans on the front steps of the law school

Gerken with student veterans on Veterans Day 2023. Under her leadership, the number of veterans attending Yale Law School has tripled.

Why has bolstering the Law School’s commitment to public service been a major priority during your deanship?

One of the things I often share with prospective students is a quote by Adam Gopnik in Paris to the Moon, where he says, “There are two kinds of travelers. There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see, and the kind who has an image in his head and goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more.” Yale is built for the second kind of traveler. That's why students want to come here.

Public service is built into the bones of the place. Our commitment to clinical work is an extraordinarily robust commitment, and that work is done by clinical faculty and non-clinical faculty. We have built a curriculum in which students are constantly going back and forth between their classes, their professional work, and their clinics. The fact that so many faculty members are involved in service work — and that service is so deeply embedded in our curriculum — creates an expectation that our students will serve their communities in one fashion or another. We also have three times as many public interest fellowships as any of our peers, even the closest ones. A large percentage of our students are able to go out and do a year of public interest work on our dime. We have a wonderful loan forgiveness program. We pay for students to do summer fellowships. There's just extraordinarily robust support for public service work from beginning to end.


Why is offering need-based aid so important in legal education? 

We are at a critical moment when economic inequity is at the center of the conversation. Those economic barriers have closed the legal profession to many, many people for far too long. This is a time when the profession must open its doors. My view is that anyone who earns a seat at the table should be able to take that seat. We have to make it possible for students with needs to attend law school, and we also have to think about the extraordinary burdens that students from low-income backgrounds carry compared to their peers. We've had a best-in-class financial aid system for generations and one of the lowest debt loads for our graduates. But students with high need are loath to take on any debt for fear of adding more economic burdens to their families. That is why we are changing the model for funding legal education to ensure that our students who are low-income and experience debt as a familial burden can come to Yale tuition-free. Taking that debt off their shoulders gives these students the freedom to just be law students.

The fact that such a large percentage of the class is here tuition-free is extraordinary. It’s been awe-inspiring to see what the Hurst Horizon Scholarship Program has already done, with 75 students benefiting from it this year alone. And I’m enormously proud that we’ve been able to strengthen and fortify every one of our financial aid programs during my deanship. My goal is to inspire our peers to continue to do more on this front so that we truly can expand access to this profession.

Why has it been important for you to prioritize leadership during your time as dean?

I like to think of myself as a “change dean.” A “change dean” tries to change a place in order to preserve its best traditions. It turns out that leadership has always been our tradition. We've always trained leaders with a wide-ranging, eclectic approach to legal education. A YLS degree is a thinking degree, at bottom. In fact, the Law School is more like a university than any professional school I know. The School is committed to the view that whether you are a lawyer's lawyer or a lawyer writ large, you need to have a wide range of skills. You need to be a problem-solver. The Tsai Leadership Program builds on that tradition and doubles down on it. It is our chance to ensure that all of our students who are interested in taking a nontraditional career path have that path lit up for them. We are facing a future where our students are inheriting problems that are impossible to solve, and our job is to teach them how to find solutions. The Leadership Program ensures that these commitments are reflected in our curriculum, our mentoring, and our ability to provide students — especially first-generation professionals — the infrastructure they need to succeed and to connect them to the networks that they don't possess. Our aim is to build a curriculum for the next century, one that develops the next generation of broad-gauged lawyers and leaders who are ready to tackle the most pressing challenges of our time.

Leadership also means being able to engage across differences in good faith, especially in such polarized times. That is why I talk about these critical values at every orientation and throughout the year. As I say to our students, you cannot be a lawyer unless you can understand what’s honorable in your opponent’s arguments and the weaknesses in your own. I’m thrilled that through the Leadership Program, we recently launched the Ronnie Heyman Crossing Divides Program to further enhance our intellectual life and create new opportunities for our students to develop these important skills.

Bob Bauer, Ben Ginsberg and Heather Gerken seated at the front of a classroom talking to an audience

From left: Bob Bauer, former White House counsel under Barack Obama; Ben Ginsberg, former counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign; and Gerken at the first "Crossing Divides" event in October 2023.

Yale Law School has 13,000 alums, and the impact and breadth of their work is enormous. What's your view on why Yale Law School has been able to train and launch the careers of so many incredible people doing such a variety of things?

In some ways, it goes back to the way our school works from beginning to end. We've always aimed to bring the most talented people on the planet here. And we define talent in a much broader way than many of our peers. It is not as simple as, “How did you do on your LSAT?” or “Did you get this grade?” That is not nearly enough. We are looking for people who can think and who can do. And it turns out that if you take 200 of the most talented students on the planet and put them together, they make each other better and they help each other along the way.

There's remarkable talent in each individual student, but it's our community that has made our alumni what they are. If you talk to any alum who has had great success, they always talk about the way their Law School peers have shaped them and how they have helped each other throughout their careers. People don't love institutions, but our alumni love this place because it was deeply intellectual, it taught them to serve, and it contained such an incredibly warm community. That's the magic of this place. I had someone say to me that the alumni are too invested in the Law School. To me that's a feature, not a bug. The alumni are aware of everything going on. They're deeply invested in this place, and that’s all to the good.

Dean Heather Gerken standing with four female alumni

Gerken meets with a group of alumni in Washington, D.C.

What do you believe are the greatest challenges facing legal education and the profession today, and how do you hope Yale Law School will address them?

I think that the legal profession is going to be upended by global and economic changes, on the one hand, and technological changes on the other. We are way ahead of the curve in terms of the people that we're training, because we're not training people to do a job that is rote. We are training people to do a job that cannot be done by anyone but extraordinarily bright, wide-ranging people.

I also think higher education is under attack at this moment, as are institutions in general. The key for the Law School is to figure out how to hold fast to its values while a storm swirls around it. Keeping to the mission and not letting the noise draw one’s attention away from what really matters is the key to leading in legal education, and that's what we're doing.


What do you hope for when you think about the future of Yale Law School?

One hundred years from now, my hope is that Yale Law School still embodies the fundamentals that have made this place so special throughout our history — ideas are the coin of the realm, we care about excellence and humanity, and this is a genuine community. Those are the three keys to our success. If those don't endure, then we won't endure as an institution.

The future of the School will always rest with each generation carrying forward our best traditions. So I also hope that our next generation of graduates will continue to stay connected to YLS and give back in the way that our alumni do today. We have alumni who come back year after year to mentor students, volunteer, and make an impact through their incredible generosity. Their support has allowed us to create incredible mentorship and professional connections for our students and provide the best-in-class support for academic work, clinics, and students with financial needs. Our alumni know what the Law School gave to them, and they want to give some of that back to the next generation. It's that kind of intergenerational compact that ensures our School and community will endure for centuries to come. And it’s what makes me so honored to lead this place forward.