Gillian Lester, who was appointed the dean of Columbia Law School last week, is eager to bring her expertise from Berkeley to Morningside Heights.
Lester, the acting dean of the University of California, Berkeley Law School, said in an interview on Wednesday that it was "a privilege to follow a dean like David Schizer."
"I think that the best way for me to honor his legacy is to maintain the momentum he set as I take the Law School into the next era," Lester, who will become the 15th dean of Columbia Law School and only the second woman to hold the position, said. "I think the school is in great shape."
As she prepares for her West Coast move—Lester will begin her tenure in January 2015—Lester discussed some of her priorities for the Law School, including training law students for both private-sector and public-sector careers.
"I think Columbia will shine most brightly if it's training students both for careers in public life and public interest work where they can have real impact on the society around them, as well as training graduates who enter into law firms where they will be doing new work within the private sector, and there, too, having the tremendous impact that generations of Columbia law graduates have had," Lester said.
Of the Law School class of 2013, 333 students joined private law firms, while 55 joined government or public interest fields, according to the employment summary that Columbia provided to the American Bar Association.
Lester, who graduated from Stanford Law School and the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, began her teaching career at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1994, and joined the faculty at Berkeley in 2006. Her work focuses on employment law and policy and she has conducted research on the welfare state, paid family leave, and distributive justice—but she said her intellectual interests expand well beyond that.
"I'm interested in issues of social welfare, I'm interested in public law generally, I'm interested in taxation," Lester said.
Rebecca Schonberg, Berkeley Law '12 and a law clerk at a district court in Denver, Colorado, took Lester's class in employment law and said Lester was very accessible.
"She doesn't have up a lot of barriers. As a professor, I think she is very direct and open with students. I think it's a very open classroom environment to talk about issues from a lot of different sides. She is interested in hearing a lot of different perspectives."
Schonberg was also Lester's research assistant in 2012. She added that Lester "is really interested in how laws and policies shape people's lives and how people think about issues and of course how people thinking informs legal policy decisions that are made."
"It was very interesting work," Schonberg said. "It was timely and had to do with the financial crisis."
Lester said her experience at Berkeley has been "enormously rewarding."
"Berkeley is a place where we face challenges as a public institution with bold ideas and continued commitments to a great university, and I think that that experience can only better prepare me for being in any university environment as a leader," she said.
Lester will be followed to New York a semester later by her two children and her husband, Eric Talley, also a professor at Berkeley Law.
Because Lester has spent the bulk of her life on the West Coast, she said that the decision to relocate represents a major change for her and her family, but one that they are happy about.
In his graduate fireside chat last week, University President Lee Bollinger called Lester "a fine scholar, a very popular teacher, a very effective teacher, and an emerging academic leader," and said Lester was "very interested in integrating the law school into the University. There are a lot of connections already but there could be plenty more."
Though Lester said she will need to come to Columbia before developing any concrete goals, she also cited better integrating the Law School with the rest of the University as one of her goals.
"I think a law school is a critically important part of any great university, and it's a synergistic relationship between the Law School and the University," Lester said. "We will only become better in the Law School by taking advantages of the riches of the campus, and the campus will only become better by being in conversations with people in the Law School."
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