Dawn Kim, Contributing Photographer

On Thursday afternoon, swarms of excited students crowded outside the Sterling Law Building, waiting to watch former Secretary of State and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 exit the school. 

Clinton returned to her alma mater this week for an event titled “Conversation on Leadership with Dean Heather K. Gerken.” Around 400 people attended her talk so it was a good idea that the organizers used tiered seating for schools. The event was hosted by the Tsai Leadership Program. The event was closed to press and the public, with Law School students or affiliates — faculty, staff and visiting fellows — allowed to attend. Some undergraduate students with affiliations to the law school could also register for the event.

“Secretary Clinton’s conversation with Dean Gerken was a remarkable, perhaps even once-in-a-lifetime experience that we were privileged to bring to students,” wrote Mary Herrington, executive director of the Chae Private Sector Initiative for the Tsai Leadership Center. “For us at the Tsai Leadership Program, it was an honor to host the Secretary and hear her definition of leadership, and especially to hear stories of her own development as a leader.”

During the event, Gerken posed both prepared and extemporaneous questions, with topics ranging from Clinton’s material work as a senator and cabinet member to her decision to run for public office.

The talk was part of a week of events centered on “transformational leadership” organized by the Tsai Leadership Program at the Law School. The program’s goal is to expose law students to innovative leaders across fields, ultimately broadening the focus of a traditional legal education.

According to Alvaro Perpuly ’23, Clinton’s talk was a unique window into the life of public office and political work at the highest level. 

“As someone interested in public service,” Perpuly wrote to the News, “it’s inspiring to hear stories of resilience and leadership like hers – someone who’s dedicated her life to fighting for others despite major challenges and pushback.” 

Perpuly said attendees filled up both levels of Levinson Auditorium, which offers a 450-person capacity. Students who did not manage to attend the talk crowded outside the Law Building to see Clinton for themselves. 

Shaezmina Khan ’23 told the News that she originally wanted to attend the event based on her interest in foreign policy, but also found value in hearing Clinton reflect on her career.

For Khan, Clinton’s message affirmed that students do not necessarily need to have to set a “rigorous itinerary” for the course of their lives while in college or law school. 

“It’s really nice to see people that graduated from institutions that you are at right now and hear about how they envisioned their trajectory when they were your age,” Khan told the News. “[Clinton] said when she was in law school, she had absolutely no idea what she was going to be doing after. So we don’t have to have everything planned out. Processing everything on the way is very, very helpful.”

Now — almost fifty years since Clinton graduated from YLS — she has served as the United States’ First Lady and Secretary of State. Clinton was also the first female Senator of New York. As the 2016 Democratic nominee for President of the United States, Clinton is also the first U.S. woman to receive a presidential nomination from a major political party. 

Khan noted that Clinton’s position as a prominent female figure in United States politics made the event particularly meaningful for her — and, Khan said, for many of the other women in the room. 

“She’s the first woman to do many different things,” Khan said. “She was very, very bold as Secretary of State and when she was running as the first [prospective] female president … She was a trailblazer and opened a lot of doors, whether we agree with her policies when she was under Obama or not.”

Clinton spent a total of four years in New Haven: three at the Law School — where she was one of 27 women in her class of 235 — and a fourth, after graduation, at the Yale Child Study Center. 

While at the Law School, she served on the editorial board of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action, which the Hartford Courant describes as “the radical counterpart to the mainstream Yale Law Journal.”

“It’s just such an exhilarating experience to hear from someone who has not only sat in the seats you’re sitting in, but also served in the highest levels of government,” said Yash Chauhan ’26, who also was at Thursday’s event. 

This is not Clinton’s first time returning to Yale. In 2017, she came back to the Law School for a discussion with Gerken about the 2016 election — in which she won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, leading to Donald Trump assuming the presidency. In 2018, Clinton was the class day speaker for the undergraduate class of 2018. 2018 marked Clinton’s second time speaking at Yale’s graduation weekend; she also spoke at the 2001 ceremony

Tsai has also hosted Rhonda Joy McLean LAW ’83 and author Gretchen Rubin LAW ’94, among others. 

The program launched in November of 2021, funded by alumni donations from Joseph Tsai ’86 LAW ’90, Clara Wu Tsai, Eugene Ludwig LAW ’73, Carol Ludwig, Michael Chae LAW ’97 and Alexa Bator Chae LAW ’97. 

Anika Arora Seth is the 146th Editor in Chief and President of the Yale Daily News. Anika previously covered STEM at Yale as well as admissions, alumni and financial aid. She also laid out the weekly print edition of the News as a Production & Design editor and was one of the inaugural Diversity, Equity & Inclusion co-chairs. Anika is pursuing a double major in biomedical engineering and women's, gender and sexuality studies.
Ines Chomnalez writes for the University desk covering Yale Law School. She previously wrote for the Arts desk. Ines is a sophomore in Pierson College majoring in History and Cognitive Science.