UPFRONT & PERSONAL: A Discussion with UC-Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chermerinsky

Topics: Access to Justice, Diversity, Efficiency, Government, Law Schools, Leadership, Legal Education, Legal Innovation, Talent Development, Upfront & Personal


Today we continue our new feature on the Legal Executive Institute blog, “Upfront & Personal”, a column that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community. The column is created and written by Rose Ors.

Legendary legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, named earlier this year as the Dean of UC-Berkeley’s Law School, spoke recently with Rose Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about life passions and being a teacher and a lawyer.

Rose Ors: What are you most proud of about the way you lead your life?

Dean Erwin Chermerinsky: I hope that I lead my life in a way that really shows respect for others. I also really value kindness. I hope that I live my life in a way that treats all others with kindness and respect.

Rose Ors: What do you find most personally rewarding about your work?

Dean Erwin Chermerinsky: My most important work is as a teacher. What I love most is teaching. I love teaching because it’s the chance to interact with people, the chance to hopefully watch the light bulb go on, to challenge them to think, maybe in the best cases, to inspire them.

I’ve enjoyed and continue to very much enjoy being a lawyer. The chance to try to have a positive effect on people’s lives, and on society through the litigation that I’m involved in is important to me.

I’ve been a law school dean for 10 years now. I’ve spent most of that decade at the University of California, Irvine. Now am the law school at Berkeley, your alma mater. What I enjoy and care about most as a dean is the chance to have an effect on the people in the institution. I hope I had a positive effect on the people at UC Irvine, and I hope I’ll have that at Berkeley.

Rose Ors: How do you teach the importance of respect and kindness in your various roles?

Dean Erwin Chermerinsky: The most important teaching I do is by the example that I set. I have four children, the most important parenting that I do isn’t any advice I give to my children, though I give them a lot of advice. The most important parenting I’ve ever done is how they observe me behave. I think the same thing with regard to the classroom. The students remember who I am long after they’ve forgotten what I’ve said to them. I think the same thing goes with regard to being a dean. The example that I set and how I treat people is enormously important in an educational way.

If I want to be part of an institution where people treat each other with civility and kindness, I have to set that tone by treating people with civility and kindness. To me, it’s interrelated. I’ve always tried to create an atmosphere in my classroom where all students feel respected, they all feel they can express their views, and it’s, in that sense, a safe space for them.

Rose Ors: In light of all your experiences, what career advice would you give your 20-year-old-self today?

Dean Erwin Chermerinsky: When I was a couple of years out of law school, I worked for a public interest law office where the lawyer who ran the office was abusive. All that separated my office and his was a piece of plaster board, and he’d constantly yell at me through the wall. He was just mean and berating. I took the abuse without complaint. Then many years later, I was working with a lawyer in an appellate case and he started yelling at me. I said to him, “You can’t yell at me. I’m glad to have a conversation. We can disagree, but you can’t yell at me.” A similar incident happened when I was at Irvine. I went to talk to a faculty member and he started yelling at me. I said, “You can’t yell at me.” He kept yelling. I said, “I’m going to leave your office now. Glad to talk with you later today, but you can’t scream at me.”


UC-Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky

I wish I would have known as a lawyer at 27, to say to that attorney, “No. You can’t treat me that way.” I didn’t have the presence or the self-confidence at 27 to do that. I wish I could’ve told my 20- year-old-self that when people treat you badly, you have to say, “No, you can’t treat me that way.”

Rose Ors: I had a similar experience a number of years ago and it took a devastating toll. It’s important to give yourself permission to set boundaries.

Dean Erwin Chermerinsky: For years, I had nightmares about my experience working with that first man.

Rose Ors: What three things are you passionate about?

Dean Erwin Chermerinsky: I’m passionate about social justice. I care deeply about working to make communities, society and the world better. I’m passionate about legal education. And most of all and most important, I’m passionate about my family. I’m blessed.

Rose Ors: What does the perfect day look like to you?

Dean Erwin Chermerinsky: My perfect day is spending time with my wife, children and grandchildren. Then spending time getting work done. On vacation, I always wake up earlier than anybody else in my family, so I have a couple of hours to work. Then I spend the rest of the day with my family. I’m also a huge sports fan as is my family, so we spend a lot of time talking about sports or going to baseball and basketball games. It’s great fun.

Rose Ors: What person, living or dead, would you be thrilled to have over for dinner?

Dean Erwin Chermerinsky: My father. My dad died 24 years ago. He was only 65 years old. If I could have any opportunity to spend more time with him I would treasure it. He was enormously important as an influence in my life in every way. I wish that he could get to know all of my children, and all of his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren. I wish he could see that I’m the dean of Berkeley Law. My dad never went to college. It would make him very happy to learn where I am today.

Rose Ors: What advice would you give a newly appointed Dean Chermerinsky?

Dean Erwin Chermerinsky: I’m a newly appointed dean, but I have 10 years of experience as a dean. I have the tremendous benefit that I can use what I learned, but in a very different context. If I could give advice to myself 10 years ago (and hopefully I’m taking it now), I think the most important advice is to take a lot of time to listen and to learn. What I’m trying to do at Berkeley is spend a lot of time listening and learning about the institution.

Rose Ors: Who are the constituents that you are listening to and learning from at Berkeley?

Dean Erwin Chermerinsky: The nature of being a law school dean, probably any dean, is there are many constituents. I have the constituents of the faculty, I have the constituents of my senior administrators and staff. I have the students as constituents. I have the alums as constituents. I have the larger community that I meet as constituents. I have to be responsive to my provost and my chancellor whom I’m ultimately answerable to. I learn from all of them.