By Rachel DeLetto
Herma Hill Kay, former dean of Berkeley Law and professor for more than 50 years, has received the Association of American Law Schools’ (AALS) 2015 Triennial Award for Lifetime Service to Legal Education and the Law.
Appointed to the Berkeley Law faculty in 1960, Kay was among the nation’s first female law professors and dedicated her career to fighting for equality in legal education and for women’s rights under the law. To celebrate this most recent achievement, faculty members, students, alumni, family, and friends gathered at the law school to honor a transformational member of the community.
“Her persistent effort for well over a half century has been to make what was once momentous no longer out of the ordinary — law faculties and student generations that reflect the full capacity, diversity, and talent of all of our nation’s people,” said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a touching video message for her longtime friend.
Over the course of 56 years, Kay has been a prolific scholar, advocate, and teacher in the areas of family law, conflict of laws, and sex-based discrimination, as well as the first female dean of Berkeley Law (1992 to 2000) and, in fact, of any elite law school.
Seminal voice in family law
In an article she penned for Ms. JD’s First Women Lawyers series, Kay said she “decided to teach law, rather than become a practitioner, in order to devote my life’s work to law reform focused on helping the law realize its highest aspirations.”
And that she did. In the late 1960s, Kay was a member of California’s Commission on the Family and helped paved the way for the state to adopt a no-fault divorce statute in 1970, the first of its kind in the United States. Later, she co-authored the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, which has become the standard for no-fault divorce nationwide. She is also co-author (with Professor Kenneth Davidson and Justice Ginsburg) of the seminal Sex-Based Discrimination casebook, now in its seventh edition, as well as dozens of other writings.
“If you have a family law casebook, you know about Herma because she is all over the pages of every single one,” said Professor Melissa Murray who spoke in gratitude of Kay at the celebration.
Murray recalled her first day of work at Berkeley Law ten years ago, when Kay vowed to postpone retirement until Murray achieved tenure. “It was such a profound moment of friendship and generosity; I think I started to cry a little. Stalwart as ever, Herma said ‘Just don’t take too long about it.’”
It is this generous spirit that friends, colleagues, and students point to as her true legacy. Professor Emerita Eleanor Swift—who served as associate dean during Kay’s tenure as dean—said her mentorship, encouragement, and support has helped innumerable students and junior faculty members thrive in legal academia and beyond.
A quiet inspiration
One of those students is Kay’s granddaughter, Jessica Brodsky ’17. Brodsky said Kay has been a quiet inspiration throughout her life. “She was always adamant that I do what makes me happy and not what others wanted. Though, admittedly, she was elated that I chose to attend law school at Berkeley.”
“Herma spent her entire life advancing women as whole persons within the law through her work in family law,” said Elizabeth Cabraser ’78. “It’s a debt that all of us owe her, particularly those of us that are living our lives, this time around, as women.”
Professor Kay has received many awards throughout her long career. But, according to Swift, the AALS Lifetime Service award is an especially distinctive honor, as Kay is the first woman to receive it. Kay joins a select company of legal giants that includes Professor of Law and Counselor to the President, Vice Dean Norman Dorsen of New York University (2006); Judge, Professor, and former Dean Guido Calabresi of Yale Law School (2009); and the late Professor Derrick Bell of New York University School of Law (2012).
Sharp and devoted as ever to her students, Kay continues to teach Family Law every semester. She is currently writing a book on women law professors in the U.S. during the 20th century, with an emphasis on the 14 women who began teaching prior to 1960, the year of her own appointment to Berkeley Law faculty.
In the wise words of Justice Ginsburg, “Berkeley Law, legal education, and the legal world are beneficiaries of her selfless efforts.”