Trailblazer: U-M Law alumna to become 1st female dean of Yale Law School


By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

When she first came to teach at Yale University Law School in 2006, Heather K. Gerken wasn’t sure she wanted to become the dean.

However, it was announced in February that Gerken, who has been the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale since 2008, will become the dean of Yale Law in July. Further, Gerken will become the first female dean of Yale Law.

“I’m honored, but I keep in mind the many firsts that came before me – the first women who attended the law school, the first women faculty, the first African American woman tenured there (Tracey Meares). My path was made smoother by all the people who came before me,” said Gerken, 48, who lives in New Haven, Conn. with her family.

A Massachusetts native, Gerken graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University with her undergraduate degree in history in 1991. From there, she attended the University of Michigan Law School on the prestigious Darrows Scholarship, where she graduated summa cum laude with her juris doctor in law in 1994. In fact, Gerken stated she was in the first class of Darrows Scholars. That same year, she was inducted into the Order of the Coif, an honors society for United States law school graduates. While at U-M Law, Gerken was the editor-in-chief of Michigan Law Review.

“It was a great job – intellectually stimulating and a chance to work with wonderful people,” she fondly recalled.

During her undergraduate days at Princeton – where she currently serves on the Board of Trustees – Gerken was very active in the Student Volunteers Council. However, she was concerned that the service work the SVC was doing wasn’t addressing the deeper structural problems plaguing the communities it served. This gave her the impetus to go into law.

After law school, Gerken clerked for Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court in Los Angeles. She later clerked for Justice David H. Souter of the Supreme Court of the United States.

“The justice is a remarkable person, and I was honored to work for him,” she said. 

Souter, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and retired in 2009, was one of three dissenting justices in the historic Bush v. Gore case who voted to allow the 2000 Presidential Election recount to continue. However, the majority voted to end the recount, which then led to George W. Bush winning the state of Florida, then eventually being elected as the 43rd President of the United States.

“(Souter) is a judge’s judge, a courtly lawyer who manages to be both a serious intellectual and a pragmatic decision-maker. He reads everything, is open to new ideas and new arguments, and yet is not swayed by the political winds that waft through the court,” said Gerken. “Justice Souter is the reason why some of us, familiar with the court’s many shortcomings, still believe in the institution.”

After her tenure with Souter ended, she was an appellate lawyer at the law firm of Jenner & Block, LLP in Washington, D.C. During her four years at Jenner & Block, she wrote an article, “Understanding the Right to an Undiluted Vote,” which was published in the Harvard Law Review.

“I’d been working on a giant pro bono case and it settled. Being a New Englander, I thought I should keep working every minute, so I decided to write an article in my spare time. I would go in on a Sunday morning and then realize that 8-10 hours had gone by without my noticing. That’s when I realized that I was destined to be an academic,” she explained.

Her academic career began in 2000 as a Constitutional law professor at Harvard University Law School. In addition to Constitutional law, she also specializes in election law.

“I think they are the most interesting subjects on the planet, but I suppose everyone thinks that about their area of expertise,” said Gerken. “For me, they were a chance to focus on the issue I cared most about – equality.”

Gerken is assuming the deanship at Yale Law during a tumultuous time in American history as many Yale Law scholars are publicly challenging President Donald Trump’s policies in court.

“Yale has always – and will continue – to defend rule-of-law values, which run deep within the profession and across partisan lines. But much of what you’ve seen coming out of the law school is related to a far simpler value in the profession: defending one’s clients. Our students and faculty are doing what all lawyers do – protect those they’ve promised to serve,” explained Gerken.

When she becomes the dean in July, Gerken plans to call every single newly-admitted law student personally, as well as meet with as many students, alumni, faculty and staff as possible in order to set Yale Law’s agenda for the next five years.

“When you are the dean of Yale Law School, your first goal has to be to preserve what makes it so remarkable,” she said. “But while we beat out all the competition on just about any measure, Yale has never been satisfied with the status quo, which may be why my list of long-term goals is too long for an interview – maybe even too long for a deanship.”

Gerken continued: “I’d like to use (the deanship) as an opportunity to talk about the core values of the profession and talk about the many ways in which Yale has bridged the practice/theory divide… Every day is a gift, because every day I get to see the remarkable things my students and colleagues are doing.”