March 01, 2018

Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken

By Cynthia Cwik

Heather Gerken became the 17th Dean of Yale Law School on July 1, 2017. She is the first woman to serve as Dean of Yale Law School. Beyond this milestone, she is a leading scholar on constitutional law and election law. She has also created and still runs an innovative clinic, the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project.

Cynthia Cwik: How are you spending your time as the new Dean of Yale Law School?

Heather Gerken: I’ve been on a listening tour with the alumni to set the agenda for the next five years. It’s been extraordinarily helpful, and I’ve been touched by how devoted the alumni are to the school.

Cwik: What has surprised you most about your work as Dean?

Gerken: The work is so varied! One day, I’m talking about a strategic plan for the next 20 years; the next, I’m deciding on which ceiling tiles should be installed in our new dorms.

Cwik: As Yale Law School’s first female Dean, what suggestions do you have for women considering entering traditionally male-dominated fields, such as science and technology?

Gerken: Go for it! I’ve been working in male-dominated fields for years. It’s strange to be the only woman sitting at the table or speaking on the panel. But remember how much harder it was for the women who preceded you and how much easier it will be for the women who follow you. I would also encourage women to seek out male as well as female mentors. Many of the most important people in my career have been men, and I’m grateful for their help. Sometimes people think their mentor needs to be just like them. As a result, they are closing off a lot of people who can help guide them.

Cwik: How is Yale Law School focusing on science and technology issues?

Gerken: Science and technology are touching so many parts of the law that it’s easy to lose track. There is a great deal of important work being done by organizations like the Information Society Project, the Solomon Center, the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, the Yale Journal of Law & Technology, etc. We have an extraordinary group of professors working directly on issues related to the Internet, science, and technology. But the work of our faculty extends well beyond intellectual property and the like. For instance, Gideon Yaffe is a premier philosopher who does important work in neuroscience. Scott Shapiro and Oona Hathaway are international law scholars doing work on cyber conflict. The list goes on and on.

Cwik: What can law schools do to ensure their law students are prepared to deal with emerging topics in science and technology?

Gerken: There’s a lot more work to do, and I think law schools are generally behind on this front. This is, in fact, one of the issues I’m discussing a great deal with our alumni who are seeing firsthand the effects of science and technology—machine learning, big data, you name it—on the day-to-day work of lawyers.

Cwik: What keeps you up at night when it comes to your job? Why?

Gerken: Issues like these. Legal institutions generally, and law schools in particular, are slow to change. Yale has never been a place to play catch-up. It’s always been in the lead. So how do we lead on these issues? How do we make sure that we are making decisions that will ensure that the law school is as remarkable an institution in a century as it is now?

Cwik: What is the best career advice you have received?

Gerken: The best career advice I’ve received is the same advice I’d give to lawyers interested in just about any career: be open. Almost every lawyer I’ve known has made a substantial career change at some point along the way. It was certainly true of me. I never intended to be an academic, and yet it feels like the job I was built for. One of my colleagues, Jean Koh Peters, says that your career will always “tap you on the shoulder” at some point. For the students who think they know exactly what they want to do, it’s a helpful reminder to be open to alternative possibilities. And for the many, many students who are a bit panicked because they don’t know what they want to do, it should be reassuring because we all find our way. u

By Cynthia Cwik

Cynthia Cwik (chcwik@jonesday.com) is a litigator with the San Diego office of Jones Day and past chair of the Section of Science & Technology Law. She graduated from Yale Law School, and served as president and chair of the Executive Committee of the Yale Law School Association.