Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Gillian Lester Reflects on Her Deanship

As she prepares to step down from her leadership role, Dean Lester discusses nearly a decade of innovation and progress at Columbia Law School.

Women with red hair and glasses in her office

When Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, joined Columbia Law School in 2015, after serving as interim dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, she sought input from alumni, faculty, staff, and students in developing a vision for the Law School’s future. She identified four major priorities for her deanship: recruiting faculty, expanding experiential learning, increasing student financial aid, and upgrading facilities.

The resulting initiatives and improvements have been manifold and transformative. They include launching and closing the ambitious five-year Campaign for Columbia Law, which exceeded its goal and raised $325 million; hiring more than 25 new full-time faculty; adding six innovative clinics, a one-week January Term, and dozens of new courses and externships to the curriculum; expanding the Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) for J.D. graduates pursuing public interest careers; establishing more than 100 endowed scholarships; and finalizing plans for a reimagined Law Library that will dramatically enhance the student experience and the intellectual life of the Law School.

In a wide-ranging interview, Dean Lester discussed these topics and others, revealing how her scholarly concerns and personal ethics informed her goals for the Law School, and why serving as dean was a labor of love.

What was your initial impression of Columbia Law School when you arrived? Did it prove to be true?

When I came to Columbia, I asked both staff and faculty what their sense was of Columbia Law School’s identity. Many said the people at the Law School are good at blending theory and practice. And it’s true: Columbians are very good at taking important, original, scholarly ideas they have developed and then applying them to the real world in ways that have impact. This really is in the DNA of Columbia Law School. 

You’ve seen more than 6,500 J.D., LL.M., Executive LL.M., and J.S.D. students graduate from the Law School. What makes them extraordinary?

Members of the faculty sometimes joke with one another that none of us could get into Columbia Law School today. We learn as much from students as they learn from us. It’s a well-rounded person who comes to Columbia—brilliant students who’ve done interesting things, from a very broad array of paths. Some have climbed mountains figuratively and overcome a lot to get to Columbia. Some have climbed mountains literally. The students are worldly in their collective experiences. And once they get here, they become still more worldly. They learn from each other. They resonate with each other. Over and over again, students tell me they came to Columbia as curious and left feeling that they knew so much more about what the world had to offer and what they could offer the world.

Columbians have always had tremendous influence in the path of society. Our graduates are asked to lead—whether they set out to become leaders or whether being a leader never occurred to them. Be it in our governments, the private sector, or communities in need, the world turns to Columbia Law graduates and asks for their leadership. And our graduates rise to it. Columbians have always made a difference, and it is deep in the core of our identity that Columbians serve society.

The median 1L financial aid award has increased 136% during your deanship. Why has making a Columbia Law School education more affordable been so important to you?

My scholarship is in the area of income inequality, access to social opportunity, and social mobility. I started studying the workplace. But over time, I became focused increasingly on distributive justice. There’s little that’s been more meaningful to me during my time as Dean than being able to help open doors to Columbia Law School for people from every socioeconomic experience and for them to be able to come here, to get this life-changing education, to go into the world and have opportunities at every turn to lead, to have a voice. Financial aid is the pathway to that. It was a key priority of the Campaign for Columbia Law: to raise dollars for financial aid, both to bring people to Columbia and to open career opportunities by helping students with loan repayment assistance. This is close to my heart.

More than 25 new full-time faculty have joined the Law School since 2017. What characterizes the “new guard”?

Our newest faculty are an amazing group. They are brilliant. They are incredibly ambitious. They’re really collegial. They are already emerging as leaders of their generation, and I know they will shape the conversation going ahead. They are entry-level and mid-career scholars whose expertise includes domestic and comparative constitutional law, corporate governance, criminal justice, financial regulation, international law, intellectual property, and labor law. We’re part of a great university, and many of the young academics coming up through the ranks with both J.D.s and Ph.D.s have an interdisciplinary skill set, and they find the opportunity to interact with the faculty of Columbia University really attractive. Another exciting development is the growth of our experiential faculty. We’ve hired some fantastic lawyers—people who’ve done really impactful work in practice before coming to Columbia and continue to do so here—and they are a gift to our students.

How did you cultivate support to raise $325 million in the five-year Campaign for Columbia Law?

The alumni have risen to the call in so many ways. Many of our alumni remember the ways in which their Columbia Law education transformed their lives and the doors that opened for them. Some of them didn’t have a lot of means, and for some of them, it was pretty hardscrabble even while they were here; their stories of sacrifice for a Columbia Law education are remarkable. When they look at this next generation, they want to give back. They want to help. And even for people who don’t have a story of hardship, they’re inspired by this generation of young people wanting to go out and make a difference.

It was thrilling to accomplish the goals of the Campaign for Columbia Law. Our alumni and other supporters were inspired by our identity—how Columbians have always led, have always assumed positions of influence, and how society has always turned to Columbians. People recognized and understood that Columbia cannot rest on its laurels. We need to stay hungry. We need to stay ambitious. We need to continue to feel an urgent sense of responsibility for the society around us. Our alumni and supporters really responded to that, and they gave—and they gave generously. They were inspired by our faculty, they were inspired by our amazing students, and they were grateful for what their time at Columbia had done for them.

Why was it so important to invest in more robust support for the Law School’s public interest/public service community? 

When I came to Columbia, it was clear that there was a significant community of students, faculty, and alumni committed to working in public service and public interest, but I felt that song was not being sung loudly enough. I wanted to be part of the collective project of telling the story of Columbia Law’s great tradition in public service and public interest work and to double down on bringing resources to the table to expand scholarships, financial aid, and loan repayment assistance. There are always resource needs for people who are going into this type of work, which doesn’t pay as much as work in the private sector. One outcome is the fantastic Max Berger ’71 Public Interest/Public Service Fellows Program, which provides a home for training and mentoring people who want to do this important work, but there are also increased opportunities and benefits for all public interest/public service–minded students. It’s part of Columbia’s relationship with our communities at every level—in the neighborhood, in New York City, across the country, and around the world—that we give back to underserved communities and that we seek out talented generations of leaders who can do this work.

The annual Alumni of Color gathering and the Women of Columbia Law initiative launched during your deanship. Why was it important to create these opportunities for alumni and students?

When I first arrived at Columbia Law—while I was out meeting with alumni, listening to people’s hopes and aspirations for the school and its next era—I learned that there wasn’t a nexus created by the school to enable alumni of color to come together after graduation. Not only that, it seemed like a missed opportunity for our remarkably diverse student body to interact with and find mentorship and inspiration from those who came before them. So in the first year I was Dean, we created the Alumni of Color annual gathering—which led us to establish the Eric H. Holder Jr. Scholarship Fund. And since then, the event has grown almost exponentially. 

We have student organizations that focus on women in the profession and women’s achievements, but the Law School didn’t have a structured way to connect our alumnae with each other and with current students. There is still very much a glass ceiling for women in the profession. It’s immensely important for women who are entering the profession to have mentors and role models. We had our inaugural Women of Columbia Law event in the fall in New York City and a second event this spring on the West Coast. It was almost impossible to choose among the talented, accomplished women who have graduated from Columbia to speak on panels. It has been a tremendously successful initiative, and there’s great enthusiasm across the board for its future.

You have led the school through multiple unprecedented challenges over the past few years. What lessons have you learned?

Sometimes a leader’s most meaningful opportunities for learning and contribution happen when faced with unanticipated challenges. Beyond any single decision or crisis situation I have encountered, what will always stay with me are the ways this community has shown empathy, flexibility, and resilience when confronting adversity and unpredictability. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work alongside students, faculty, staff, and alumni of such character. The strength of our community gives me a deep well of hope for the future. 

One of your most visible accomplishments will be the newly reimagined Law Library. Why is this project so crucial?

Columbia’s Law Library was not on par with a great law school or our library’s great collection. So I set out, together with a dedicated group of faculty and administrators, to develop a vision for the future of the library. We needed to increase the number of seats for students, improve our technological capacity, and provide spaces for group collaborations. It was important to create a beautiful place with gravitas that conveys the majesty of the study of law and the work we do when we go into the world around us, a space where people can feel the grandness and importance of that enterprise. We’re looking forward to fall 2025, when we’ll be able to open the doors to a beautiful new space.

What has serving as dean meant to you?

I’m indelibly transformed by having had a chance to do this work. I’ve learned something about what humans are capable of, what great lawyering looks like, what inspires and motivates great contributions to society. And so I’ve become more of a citizen of the world, more aware of the possibilities for law and the way it can transform society through the examples I’ve seen in the Columbia community. 

What has given me the most joy as dean is the relationships with people that I’ve formed along the way—getting to know alumni, learning their stories, and then partnering with them in supporting the school. I have incredibly rewarding relationships with faculty and the Law School staff who’ve worked collectively to advance our mission of excellence in scholarship, excellence in pedagogy, and supporting the next generation as they enter the profession. And every day, I am emboldened by the enthusiasm and ambitions of our students. It’s the teamwork, the collaborations, and the feeling that all of these achievements are shared accomplishments that we have done together that gives me joy.

Looking ahead, what do you see in Columbia Law School’s future?

The Law School is poised to exceed, if that is even possible, the ways in which it has shaped and changed society. This is a deeply engaged community of people who see the power of the tools they have and the urgent challenges that the world presents, and they are ready to lead. I think the next decade is going to be a time of tremendous acceleration and excitement for the Law School.

The interview has been edited and condensed.


Highlights of Dean Lester’s Tenure

Dean Gillian Lester and Professor Eric Talley at 2018 West Coast Dinner

Dean Lester and Professor Eric Talley Make Gift to Support Students and Recent Graduates

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Jerome Greene Hall through open gates seen from Amsterdam Avenue

Jerome L. Greene Foundation Honors Dean Lester With $5 Million Gift

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Dean Lester on AI and the Future of Work

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“Philosophical Foundations of Labour Law” Co-Edited by Dean Lester Is Published

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Exterior of Jerome L. Greene Hall featuring the sculpture Bellerophon Taming Pegasus

More Than Two Dozen Faculty Hired by Dean Lester Since 2017

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Dean Lester Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

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Dean Gillian Lester: Year by Year

Three women in nice clothes

A Year of Firsts

Assumes deanship on January 1. “Columbia Law School has a powerful heritage and is poised to pursue bold new ideas as it helps shape the future of the legal profession,” she says at the time.

• Presides over her first annual Medal for Excellence awards ceremony, bestowing the Law School’s highest honor to Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum ’53 and Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan ’91. 

• Delivers her first graduation ceremony address at Columbia Law; the keynote speaker is Charles Fried ’60, former solicitor general of the United States.

Above (left to right): Medal for Excellence recipients Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan '91 and Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum ’53 with Dean Lester.

Group of women laughing at a reception

New Beginnings

• Launches the Alumni of Color initiative, which celebrates the leadership and accomplishments of Columbia Law’s alumni of color. 

• Inaugurates the Lawyers, Community, and Impact series, which hosts timely discussions about the legal and social ramifications of current events. 

• Announces a $1.5 million gift from Jim Millstein ’82 and Ira M. Millstein ’49 to establish the Millstein Public Service Fellowship for recent graduates who have secured positions with the federal government in the area of financial regulation.

Above: Dean Lester with guests at the inaugural Alumni of Color event.

A birds-eye view of gala at a museum

Ambitious Endeavors

• Kicks off the five-year Campaign for Columbia Law at a gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a keynote address by Montana Gov. Stephen Bullock ’94.

• Announces a $15 million pledge from the Jerome L. Greene Foundation for new scholarships and support for the Law School’s public service community. 

• Launches the cross-disciplinary Davis Polk Leadership Initiative, designed to prepare students to succeed as leaders across a wide range of sectors.

• Introduces J-Term, an annual series of one-week electives offered each January, between the fall and spring semesters.

Above: The Campaign for Columbia Law launched at a gala at the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

5 women and one man standing on a stage

Expanding Opportunities

• Celebrates the 25th anniversary of the investiture of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 to the Supreme Court.

• Announces enhancements to the Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) and guaranteed summer funding for students pursuing internships in public interest or government work during the summer after their 1L or 2L year. LRAP remains a priority throughout her deanship.

• Launches the Max Berger ’71 Public Interest/Public Service Fellows Program.

• Introduces the Executive LL.M. Program in Global Business Law, the first new degree program the Law School has offered since the inauguration of the three-year joint J.D./MBA degree in 2010.

Above (left to right): NPR’s Nina Totenberg, Judge Robert Katzmann, Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59, Dean Lester, and Elizabeth Glazer ’86 at a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Ginsburg’s investiture to the Supreme Court.

Woman with two men sitting on chair at a panel discussion

Making Strides

• Announces that 50 new scholarships have been established with the completion of the Greene Scholarship Challenge, which matches $5 million in gifts from alumni and friends.

• Launches the TrialWatch program, a collaboration among the Law School, the American Bar Association, and the Clooney Foundation for Justice, which will train and send monitors to observe legal proceedings in nations where human rights may be at risk.

Above (left to right): Dean Lester in conversation with Microsoft’s Brad Smith ’84 and Professor Tim Wu at a Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series event.

Woman in academic regalia at podium

Unprecedented Times

• Leads the Law School through transition to online classes and remote operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For her service on the Columbia President’s Advisory Task Force on COVID-19, she is recognized in 2022 with the university’s Nicholas Murray Butler Gold Medal for distinguished contributions in academic administration. 

• Establishes an Anti-Racism Steering Committee of faculty, administrators, and students as part of the Law School’s efforts to advance a school-wide anti-racist mobilization and redouble its commitment to social and racial justice. 

• Announces that $5 million has been raised to endow the Center for Chinese Legal Studies in the name of Hong Yen Chang 1886, in honor of the Law School’s first Chinese graduate and the first Chinese American to be admitted as a lawyer in the United States.

Above: Dean Lester speaking at the 2020 virtual graduation ceremony.

Woman in face mask in front of a microphone

Future Focused

• Establishes the Racial and Social Justice Fellowship Program, Anti-Racism Grantmaking Program, and Academic Scholars Program.

• Announces a $3.3 million gift from Max Berger ’71 to endow and name the Public Interest/Public Service Fellows Program.

• Launches the Constitutional Democracy Initiative, which investigates democracy’s crises through scholarly commitment to facts and reasoning.

Above: Dean Lester welcomes the Class of 2024 at Orientation.

Woman at podium with signage behind her

A Year of Milestones

• Concludes the Campaign for Columbia Law, which raises $325 million, exceeding its $300 million goal and realizing significant accomplishments in areas of priority, including by creating more than 100 endowed scholarships and a dozen named professorships; hiring new full-time clinical faculty members who have created cutting-edge clinics; launching innovative experiential learning initiatives; and supporting a transformative renovation and reimagination of the Law Library.

• Announces a $5 million gift from Albert E. Cinelli ’55 that endows a fund to support business law and a $5 million gift from Brad Smith ’84 and Kathy Surace-Smith ’84 to endow the Smith Family Human Rights Clinic, following their $1.25 million gift for the clinic in 2017. 

Welcomes the most diverse incoming class in the Law School’s history; students of color represent 52% of the J.D. Class of 2025.

Above: Dean Lester celebrates the culmination of the Campaign for Columbia Law.

A panel discussion among women on a big stage

Committed to Community

• Launches the Women of Columbia Law initiative, which brings together alumnae and other members of the Columbia community from across generations and professional pathways to learn, network, and engage on topics of common interest.

• Unveils a land acknowledgment plaque in Jerome L. Greene Hall that memorializes the Indigenous history of Columbia’s campus and the Law School’s ongoing commitment to justice.

Above: Dean Lester introduces a panel at the inaugural Women of Columbia Law event.

Women in academic regalia

A Fond Farewell

• Speaks at a dedication ceremony where the U.S. Postal Service unveils a stamp created in honor of Constance Baker Motley ’46.

• Delivers her final Class Day address; the keynote speaker is U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke ’00.

• Receives the Harlan Fiske Stone Society Award, presented each year by members of the society to honor an individual who has demonstrated what it truly means to be a loyal supporter of the Law School.

Above: Dean Lester leads the procession at Class Day, followed by keynote speaker U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke ’00.