New Dean Brings Wealth of Knowledge and Experience to Miami Law

New Dean Brings Wealth of Knowledge and Experience to Miami Law

Dean David Yellen
Dean David Yellen

Dean Yellen had every excuse to start slowing down.

The 65-year-old father of three and grandfather of three has already had a very successful and wide-ranging career in law and higher education.

As a lawyer, Yellen argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, served as counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, and worked for many years in reforming the country’s criminal justice system. As an administrator, he served as the dean of Hofstra University and Loyola University Chicago’s law schools, and as president of Marist College. He was frequently recognized as one of the most influential people in legal education.

“Absolutely nothing left to prove,” said Dan Rodriguez, a professor and former dean of the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. “He doesn’t need to do anything more to get on the Mount Rushmore of deans.”

Yellen was firmly ensconced in his role as CEO of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, an independent research center at the University of Denver that works nationally to improve the effectiveness of and access to the civil justice system. Then the University of Miami School of Law came calling.

During the interview process, he spoke about the changes he implemented during his previous stints as dean. He talked about his leadership style, which features more listening than talking. He spoke about the future of legal education, the need for more diversity and experiential learning, and the expanded role that Miami Law can play in South Florida and worldwide.

Sergio Campos, a civil procedure professor at Miami Law and a search committee member, said Yellen’s resume and performance throughout the arduous interview process separated him from the field.

“He’s what we need right now,” Campos said. “You have this feeling that everything is going to be just fine.”

Officially appointed in July, Yellen spent the summer transitioning to his new home in Miami.

In between packing and Zoom meetings, he read Ada Ferrer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Cuba: An American History” to start learning about the Cuban American community in Miami.

He has a long list of ideas for Miami Law, including expanding practical training for law students, growing programs in health law, focusing on international law and programs for non-lawyers, and shoring up the fundraising necessary to support.

But Yellen made clear that his first job on campus would be to get to know all of the people important to the school’s success.

Being an academic leader, whether dean or provost or president, I’ve always analogized to being a legislative leader. It’s not like being a CEO. You have to articulate a vision, build consensus, navigate competing interests and factions at times, and build from there. I hope I know how to talk to people across the institution from students, staff, faculty, alumni, the university leaders, and build as much consensus as is humanly possible.

Growing Up In Jersey

Born and brought up in New Jersey, Yellen’s grandparents were Jewish refugees who emigrated from eastern Europe to New York City in the early 1900s. One grandfather owned a butcher shop for decades, and the other led a more “eclectic” life that featured time as a horse jockey, a professional boxer, and a vaudeville tap dancer before settling into a job at a clothing store.

His parents, Arnold and Beverly, led a typical middle-class life. Arnold Yellen spent most of his career in the insurance business. Beverly Yellen rose from a secretary to a marketing manager at a company that sold calendars with daily inspirational messages and other business supplies.

They started their family young. David Yellen was born a day after his mother’s 21st birthday, and his brother Howard Yellen came three years later.

“They really grew up as parents,” David Yellen said. “I got to see them grow and evolve with adulthood as their careers developed.” His parents were “really ahead of their time,” with his mother working throughout his childhood and a father who did everything with his boys, from Yankees and Giants games for their birthdays to teaching them to body surf.

Beverly Yellen was the reader, encouraging the boys to read and talk about the books afterward. That combination culminated at the dinner table, where the four Yellens would talk about movies, politics, books, and sports.

“They were pretty adult conversations,” Howard Yellen said. “We would talk about Watergate; we’d talk about politics. Ironically, what we didn’t talk about was, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ My folks assumed that David and I would be successful in our own sense.”

David Yellen absorbed those lessons and put them to use throughout his 12 years in the New Jersey public school system. He excelled at sports—he threw a no-hitter in Little League, was a linebacker and captain of his high school football team, dabbled in track and field, and described himself as a “gym rat” who played pickup basketball well into his 40s.

But it was in the classroom where Yellen took off. He was president of the National Honor Society, excelled in his classes, and was accepted to Princeton University.

“David from the get-go was an extremely high achiever,” said Howard Yellen, who arrived at Paramus High School just after his brother went to college. Even though Howard Yellen went on to Vassar College and earned his J.D. from the UC Berkeley School of Law, he said his brother was “a hard act to follow.”

Law School and Marriage

Yellen graduated from Princeton and decided to do something different. He and a friend traveled the country in an old van, picking up work along the way to support themselves. He then worked in VISTA (the predecessor to today’s AmeriCorps), an organization that focused on litigation affecting children’s rights.

He then moved to Cornell Law School, earning his J.D. in 1984. But it was something else at Cornell that changed his life. He walked into a 1L contracts class and sat in the back as usual. But the professor ordered everyone from the last three rows to sit up front, placing Yellen directly in the sights of Leslie Richards, his future wife.

The professor was “fierce, scary to a lot of people.” But Yellen happened to click with him, freeing Yellen to become an active, talkative member of the class, often volunteering to answer questions.

“Turns out Leslie liked the way this long, curly-haired guy in class answered questions and explained things,” Yellen said. “That turned out to be me. She sought me out even though she was out of my league as a prospective dating partner.”

They became study partners and became friends. Before long, they were dating. The connection was so clear that after graduation, when a big law firm in Omaha, Nebraska, offered Leslie a job, David followed her there. A year later, they were engaged and moved to Washington, D.C.

That started a 36-year marriage, and each made sacrifices for the other’s career. They moved from city to city, school to school, and ground through long commutes to ensure each could continue rising in their fields.

Leslie Richards-Yellen has been a law firm partner, principal, and associate general counsel at the Vanguard Group and is currently the director of global diversity and inclusion at Debevoise & Plimpton, an international law firm based in New York City. She also served as president of the prestigious National Association of Women Lawyers.

Yellen laughs when talking about their differences. She’s the more “dynamic” one, he the more laid back one. She was the disciplinarian, he the more encouraging one. And then there’s Leslie’s background: her mother was an African American, and her father was born and brought up in Bolivia.

“On the surface, we’re very different. We come from different parts of the country, have different racial and ethnic backgrounds, different religions,” Yellen said. “But obviously, we had an awful lot in common in terms of values and approach to life.”

“I definitely felt we’ve always been one of those couples where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Leslie and David have three daughters: Jordan, 33, is a lawyer and mother of two young boys; Meredith, 32, is a physician, and mother of one; and Bailey, 28, is pursuing a Ph.D. in history at Columbia University.

Everyone who knows Yellen knows that nothing is more important to him than his family. He is known to interrupt almost anything when his daughters call, to check to make sure it’s nothing urgent.

Life as an Attorney

After finishing a clerkship in Nebraska, Yellen got a job at a Washington boutique litigation firm headed by the U.S. attorney in D.C. during the Watergate scandal. He then moved into government work, serving as counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

Working inside and outside the government gave Yellen a unique perspective that he capitalized on after Congress implemented the nation’s first federal sentencing guidelines.

Before that time, federal sentencing was a crapshoot where judges would impose whatever sentences they wanted, varying wildly from district to district. But with the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, a new field of law suddenly opened. Working with no case law or precedents, Yellen and a few legal experts jumped into that void and started writing about how a uniform system should look.

Marc Miller became one of those early pioneers by co-creating the Federal Sentencing Reporter, which served as a repository for the writings of Yellen and others.

“This is a defining generation of scholars,” said Miller, now the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law dean. “They helped build the field.”

Yellen wrote about all aspects of the new regime, including what kinds of evidence could, and should, be introduced in the sentencing phase of trials. He argued that evidence that hadn’t been proven in the trial phase shouldn’t be introduced.

“David’s always had a fantastic balance of policy—politics if you will—to the theoretical work,” Miller said. “Among his special gifts is seeing and articulating that interplay.”

Changing the Game

After clerking, private practice, and working for the House Judiciary Committee, Yellen began his academic career in 1988 at Hofstra Law School. In addition to teaching and writing, he remained active in criminal justice and sentencing reform. Through volunteer work with the Families Against Mandatory Minimums organization, he wound up arguing a federal sentencing case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He was appointed dean of Hofstra in 2001 and served for three years. While dean, he had the unique experience of parasailing with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was teaching in Hofstra’s summer program in Nice, France, when she decided to go on the high-flying adventure.

In 2005, Yellen moved to Chicago to take the helm of Loyola University Chicago School of Law. There, according to his colleagues and other law school deans, is where Yellen truly set himself apart.

Loyola Law School had already experimented with innovative programs by offering master’s degrees for non-J.D. students in the fields of health, business, and child law. Yellen decided to take those programs online.

The move came as a shock to many in the legal profession. Law schools didn’t need the added revenue because they were reveling in historically high numbers of applicants—over 100,000 a year at the time. Michael Kaufman, who was Yellen’s associate dean for 11 years, said part of the criticism was that putting law school classes online would diminish or cheapen the quality of the product.

“It took a lot of courage to think about taking a risk that could flop,” said Kaufman, who succeeded Yellen as dean of Loyola’s law school and is now dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law. “But he saw a market for it. He saw an opportunity to build on the strengths of the school, to make those programs accessible and affordable to people outside of Chicago.”

The move worked. Within a few years, law schools were emulating Yellen’s program. Kaufman said Loyola now has more online master’s students than J.D. students.

“I certainly benefited as dean from looking at what was happening across town,” said Rodriguez of Northwestern’s law school, which adopted its version of an online master’s program years later.

Yellen admits he was nervous about the transition.

"That’s the problem with being far ahead of your time: people think you’re crazy, and sometimes you are," Yellen said. "But every new idea has to have some early founders who are going to be, by definition, outside of the mainstream."

Kaufman saw it another way.

“Everything he touched turned to gold,” Kaufman said. “It’s not because he was lucky. It was because he had this judgement and this perception about what was going to be a winner.”

David Yellen
Dean Yellen at the University of Miami School of Law

That’s the problem with being far ahead of your time: people think you’re crazy, and sometimes you are. But every new idea has to have some early founders who are going to be, by definition, outside of the mainstream.

Diversifying the Profession

Yellen’s fellow deans say there were non-academic moves that further set him apart.

When Rodriguez became dean at Northwestern’s law school in 2012, he got a phone call he didn’t expect. Yellen, dean at Loyola’s law school at the time, invited him to dinner.

The schools were constantly competing for funding and students. Still, Yellen brought Rodriguez and the deans of all seven law schools in Chicago together for dinner at McCormick & Schmick’s, an opportunity for them to socialize and discuss the broader issues affecting legal education.

“Because of that gesture, it made it easier to pick up the phone and call my new friend who was the dean at DePaul or the dean at the University of Chicago to ask for advice because we had broken bread together,” he said. “Any one of us could have done that, but he did.”

Yellen also placed a high priority on diversifying the faculty and student body at Loyola. In 2010, he recruited Josie Gough to become the school’s director of experiential learning, a role that evolved into the school’s first assistant dean for inclusion, diversity, and equity.

Kaufman said Yellen was ahead of the curve with that decision and displayed a “sense of moral clarity” by pushing hard to bring more minority students, staff, and faculty into the school.

“This was way before George Floyd, way before it became the thing to do,” Kaufman said.

Yellen said he was reacting to an obvious gap in the legal field at the time. It was no secret that white men dominated law firms at the time and desperately needed more women and people from underrepresented backgrounds and cultures.

He also credits his wife for illuminating the path. Leslie Richards-Yellen was the chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Hinshaw & Culbertson law firm during most of his time at Loyola. She helped him understand the day-to-day process of making sustainable change.

But Yellen shudders when he hears Kaufman and others sing his praises.

“I wasn’t remotely alone among law school deans,” he said. “The vast majority of law school deans for a long time have been concerned, unhappy, embarrassed—pick any number of words—about lack of diversity in the legal profession. The challenge was finding the resources to do it right.”

Bolstering Legal Education

That broader responsibility to the legal profession helps explain why Yellen has chosen to take on so many additional roles.

While Yellen was still serving as dean at Loyola, the American Bar Association committee asked him to take on responsibility for reviewing the association’s law school accreditation standards and regulations. What Yellen described as a “service to the profession” was, in the words of Rodriguez, a “hugely controversial role” that pitted the committee members between the ABA and law schools around the country.

“You’re almost guaranteed to alienate people from a variety of perspectives because you can’t keep everybody happy,” Rodriguez said. “He didn’t get a feather in his cap, but it matters to the profession.”

Yellen used his position to advocate for eliminating the LSAT requirement for all law students, arguing that allowing schools to accept students based on their GRE scores or other metrics would open the field to a broader range of students without diminishing the standards of the profession. The ABA has just recently adopted that stance.

Yellen also pushed for more transparency into student debt and for more experiential learning requirements.

“It was a chance to give back to this world of legal education that means so much to me,” Yellen said.

Yellen left Loyola in 2016 and became president of Marist College. Over his three years there, he oversaw the development of plans for a new medical school, a new campus in Manhattan, and the college’s first-ever doctoral degree program.

Three years later, Yellen left Marist and took another job that allowed him to bolster legal education and Americans’ access to justice. At IAALS, he helped guide the institution in its quest to improve the U.S. legal system.

During that time, Yellen was performing yet another job to help the field—working on the re-accreditation of Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School—when he bumped into an old friend: Nell Newton.

Newton was the interim dean at Miami Law at the time, and she knew the school was looking for a full-time dean. She told him about the position and explained how Yellen would be the perfect fit for the school.

“The appeal was not just a great law school in a cool place, but one that was poised for a new chapter where what I’m good at and what I like to do in higher ed leadership might be a really good match,” he said.

Taking the Reins at Miami Law

Yellen says he needs to spend more time talking with faculty, staff, students, alumni, fundraisers, and others before he sets a long-range plan for Miami Law under his watch, but he has a few ideas in mind.

In general terms, our job will be to enhance an already great program of education for our students, support the scholarship and public service by our faculty that sets this law school apart, build our reputation nationally and internationally, and grow our programmatic revenue and fundraising to pay for all of this.

He wants to bring an idea from Loyola and introduce master’s degree programs for non-lawyers. For example, given the stature of the Miller School of Medicine and its affiliation with the Jackson Health System, Yellen envisions a master’s degree in health law.

“That could be people who run hospital systems, where so much of what they do is complying with government regulation and litigation management,” he said. “I’m deeply convinced we have a real opportunity in the online space and non-degree lawyer programs.”

Yellen also wants to expand Miami Law’s international law program. With the U.S. economy becoming more global by the day and Miami’s unique position as the gateway to the Americas (and beyond), he wants to explore ways to bolster that program to recruit more international students and provide a more robust learning experience for U.S. students seeking international work.

He also wants to learn more about the burgeoning tech scene in Miami to see if that’s an area where Miami Law could help train the next generation of tech lawyers.

All those plans are still very much in the idea phase, but one area he knows he wants to expand is experiential learning for 2L and 3L students. Yellen praised the 10 clinics already operating at UM but wants more simulation-based training on both the litigation and transactional sides. He wants to establish more externships, where students receive credit for their work for judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and not-for-profit organizations.

“Philosophically, I hope the day comes when every law student has a live-client clinical experience before they graduate,” he said. “I don’t necessarily expect to live long enough to see that, but that’s my aspiration.”

For now, Yellen is focusing on learning more about the U and its broader community. He’s also welcoming the rush of relatives planning trips to South Florida.