Matthew Diller returns to Fordham Law as a Dean with big plans and bigger principles.
In 2009, New York State’s judicial system was facing a crisis. Budget cuts had severely hampered the capacity of the courts and had diminished the resources of legal services providers. Low-income New Yorkers who needed the courts to preserve their homes, retain their health care coverage, and secure their children’s educational rights were not being served. In confronting courtrooms overflowing with indigent clients in financial free fall, the state’s newly appointed chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, needed a team of leaders in the legal profession to help devise solutions. He appointed a task force. Matthew Diller figured as one of Chief Judge Lippman’s central players.
By then, Diller had ascended the academic ranks from professor and Associate Dean at Fordham Law to Dean at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. A former staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, he had worked to restore Social Security benefits to those cut off during the Reagan administration and had fought the State of New York to provide adequate housing grants to families on welfare. In the 1990s, Diller had written extensively on the plight of the poor in the courts and overseen the development of several public-interest legal clinics. In other words, he was the perfect person to serve as chair of the task force’s Law School Involvement Working Group, for which he assisted with a conference and a report that examined how law schools could play a role in access to justice issues.
Now, as Dean of Fordham Law, he will integrate those same justice-centered principles into his leadership of the School.
“Fordham Law has long been committed to the ideal of access to justice,” Diller says. “Thousands in our society do not have the benefit of legal representation—even on issues that are critical to their lives. Our Law School is an engine for justice. We teach students the value of service and the importance of justice. We provide opportunities to act on these values.”
Diller is committed to expanding service-oriented initiatives and using the collective efforts of the School to bridge the lack of access to the justice system in our society. It is an ideal he has been passionate about for the entire length of his career.
“Matthew Diller fits wonderfully well into the idea of a school that emphasizes service. He is a fighter for equal justice and brings a total understanding of the ethos of our profession,” Chief Judge Lippman says. “In a world where economic prospects for lawyers are certainly improving, he must instill in the DNA of our lawyers the idea of service and correct a disconnect: that it’s not about getting the highest-paying job, but helping the most vulnerable of society.”
Local School with Global Impact
Overseeing a community of more than 250 professors and administrators, guiding a 1,300-member-strong student body of diverse backgrounds and experience, setting fundraising goals to address economic exigencies, and respecting the century-old traditions of an institution while simultaneously moving it forward—the responsibilities of the Fordham Law Dean are not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, Diller has a Fordham-forged constitution.
“Fordham Law is where I grew up, and it still has many of my mentors and many of my colleagues,” says Diller, who first joined the faculty in 1993. “Returning to the Law School after six years, I am struck by how distinctive Fordham is, how close-knit a place it is. We are a law school that is not just in New York City but of New York City.
“Like New York City, we are diverse and intensely local, yet we have a global connection. We emphasize engagement—with the key legal issues of the day—and the impact we have on the world around us.”
Aiding the Next Fordham Lawyers
While Fordham Law boasts a beautiful new nine-story home, Diller must, among other priorities, attract a talented and diverse student body that will keep the building “vibrant and humming with activity.” Fordham remains one of New York’s selective law schools, and it must keep pace with its peers in terms of financial aid. While the School awards three times the amount of financial aid it did seven years ago (the average grant in 2015 was 25 percent larger than in 2014), student-cost considerations remain a top priority.
Diller is committed to keeping a Fordham Law education attainable for anyone with a mind for the law and a heart for service. “Enabling students to afford the benefits of a Fordham education is essential to continuing to build our community into the future,” he says. To that end, he recently unveiled an ambitious fundraising project—the Dean’s Scholars Initiative—with a goal of $25 million in scholarship funds, $10 million of which will go to the endowment, providing $10,000 in permanent financial
aid to 40 students per year in perpetuity. The remaining $15 million, directed to an immediate impact scholarship fund, will provide $10,000 in financial aid resources to 300 students annually.
In addition to addressing the affordability of a legal education, Diller is also concerned with reimagining its academic structure to reflect the realities of a changing legal market. Fordham Law has already added courses that focus on public law, international law, and interdisciplinary understandings of law and legal problems, as well as expanded clinical courses and externships in order to expose students to more of what lawyering involves.
Diller wants to expand this practice-oriented pedagogy to Fordham’s corporate and finance law program. “We must teach students the skills they will ultimately be using in corporate law settings, not simply feed them the knowledge of the field,” he says. Diller is also interested in integrating more transactional work into the clinics, which have traditionally been focused on litigation.
Diller displays a deep appreciation for the importance of corporate and finance law and knows that Fordham is well positioned both academically and geographically to continue to burnish its reputation in these areas. “Fordham Law School is among the great business law schools in the country,” he says. “I am excited to work with the Corporate Law Center and our superb corporate law faculty to deepen the School’s ties with law firms large and small as well as in-house counsel.”
His excitement comes at the right time. Many law firms are now looking to law schools to prepare students for practice in a more comprehensive way than in the past. Firms are no longer willing to pay for what they view as on-the-job training. Law school deans, then, must look to adjust the curricula accordingly while remaining true to their core academic principles. Diller is responding to these demands.
“It is critical that our academic program be able to flex and adapt to the evolving nature of the legal profession,” he says. “Fordham lawyers are prized for being not only smart but also practical, and our curriculum must reflect equally well these dual qualities of our students.”
“Matthew has a willingness to take a hard look at things, and he’s interested in solving problems,” says Proskauer Rose Partner Michael Cardozo, who served as former Corporation Counsel for the City of New York under Michael Bloomberg.
Seeds of Justice
Diller’s problem-solving approach to the law and legal education stems from his own personal and professional experience. A product of New York City public schools, Diller graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law in 1985. He then clerked for Judge Walter Mansfield of the Second Circuit of New York and later took a job at the Legal Aid Society of New York. While he was at Legal Aid, Diller’s eyes were opened to the noble function the law could play in the lives of New York City’s poor. “Growing up middle class in Queens, I had never seen or experienced that level of poverty in New York City. It had a profound effect on me,” Diller says. “I also had the opportunity to see the difference a great lawyer could make in these individuals’ lives. Lawyers were consistently trying to find solutions where they didn’t exist before.”
Diller now calls Park Slope home—he has lived in Brooklyn for the past 30 years—and is married to Katherine “Kit” Kennedy, who codirects the energy and transportation program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (and who has taught at Fordham Law as an adjunct). They have two sons, Peter, a freshman at Kenyon College, and Michael, who works at the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit headquartered in New York that designs programs and performs research to help create a more effective and humane justice system.
At Legal Aid, Diller worked in the Civil Appeals and Law Reform Unit, where he took on several nearly unwinnable cases during the “first full flowering of homelessness in New York.” As a new lawyer, Diller was part of a team that argued in McCain v. Koch that the city had failed to provide adequate shelter or develop standards governing shelter for families. A few years later, in Jiggetts v. Grinker, Diller and his team won on appeal permanent and injunctive relief for families whose housing grants didn’t bear the market value costs of their apartments.
“All these cases were very formative in my career. They gave me a sense of the power of the law,” Diller says. “People turn to lawyers for help with some of the most difficult and important issues they face in their lives. The decisions made by lawyers have profound consequences, and at Fordham we want to instill in our students that sense of impact—the fact that they can make a real difference in people’s lives.”
An Academic Home, and a Homecoming
After seven years at Legal Aid, Diller began teaching civil procedure, administrative law, and public interest law at Fordham in 1993. He eventually became the Cooper Family Professor of Law and codirector of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics. Ten years later, he moved into the Dean’s Suite as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. One of his mentors, Distinguished Professor Michael M. Martin, was also serving on the decanal staff at the time. “Working with Matthew in such a capacity was a pure pleasure,” says Martin, who later served as Dean of the School. “His understanding of the faculty’s needs was unmatched, and he was extraordinary in working with everyone toward achieving the School’s full potential.”
In 2002, Diller received the Eugene J. Keefe Award for outstanding contributions to the Law School. Dean William Michael Treanor awarded, in 2009, a departing Diller the Dean’s Medal of Achievement, calling him “the heart and soul of this Law School” for the past 16 years. Later that year, Diller became Cardozo Law’s sixth Dean. “I knew that Cardozo was a remarkable school; I had watched it develop from my office 50 blocks away,” Diller says. “Cardozo has incredible scholars and a very collegial atmosphere, and I was lucky to have been a part of it.”
In the summer of 2014, when Michael M. Martin, who had been Dean of Fordham Law since 2010, decided to step down, the University began a national search to find his successor. The School fielded nearly 700 CVs and hundreds of additional informal inquiries, according to search committee chair Professor John D. Feerick (who himself had been dean from 1982 to 2002). Ultimately, Joseph M. McShane, president of Fordham University, tapped Diller.
When Diller was officially appointed in January 2015, Father McShane cited his “rare combination of vision, practicality, experience, integrity, and a deep and proven commitment to justice and the service of others” as qualities that made him the ideal candidate to lead Fordham Law into the future. “In Dean Diller we have someone who has met many of the challenges facing legal education in the current climate and who has built a reputation as a strong fundraiser. Moreover, he is a consensus builder who can bring people together to move an institution forward.”
Outcomes and Influence
In moving Fordham Law forward, Diller wants to focus on the preeminence of the faculty and the important work of its centers. “I will work to expand our impact by supporting superb faculty scholarship and the work of our centers and institutes—to get our ideas out into the public sphere and into the hands of those who make critical decisions that shape our legal system,” he says.
“In the past, Matthew’s good judgment and unshakeable values were instrumental in helping direct the Stein Center,” says Sally Bellet ’76, whose grandfather Louis Stein ’26 established the center that bears his name. “Now he will use those same qualities to lead the Law School into an even brighter future.”
In addition to the work of the School’s centers, career outcomes are foremost in Diller’s mind, as the legal marketplace continues to recover from the larger economic downturn. While he is committed to carrying the Fordham message to traditional employers, he wants to encourage students to consider alternative legal careers in areas such as compliance, entrepreneurship, and fashion law, and will explore more partnerships with other Fordham University schools to foster cross-disciplinary job paths. Diller also wants to ensure the Law School “remains a good citizen to the city” and keeps its distinction as the go-to school for New York City government.
“Matt has that capacity to wade out in the swirling waters, be the center of calm, and cast away,” says Executive Director of the City Bar Justice Center Lynn Kelly, who worked with Diller at Legal Aid and, incidentally, knows about his penchant for fly fishing. “He’s a very hands-on litigator, yet he can step back and stand in the stream until he is ready to go for whatever comes by. His is a temperament well-suited for the era we’re in.”
In the End, Service
An era characterized by rapid change is not without its challenges, but Diller’s values are immutable and his perspective long-range. “Matthew views his role in a very broad way, that he is part of the pursuit of justice and that all of us in the judiciary and academia have part of that noble goal,” says Chief Judge Lippman. “He’s very much a part of this struggle to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake under the law.”
Chief Judge Lippman’s comments square perfectly with Diller’s unshakeable belief in Fordham Law and what is perhaps his most important priority.
“At Fordham Law, we engage in service—using our education, skills, talents, and passion—to help others who are facing pressing legal issues or who cannot otherwise accomplish their dreams,” Diller says. “We solve problems with clients at the center. This approach produces lawyers who are serious about the role of law in the world.”