OLD MISSION PENINSULA, MI — On a sun-bright day, with a breeze that stirred leaves and a hawk that wheeled overhead, family and friends paid their respects and laid Alli Gerkman to rest yesterday. In a graceful ceremony of poetry, letters, love, and song, about 50 people gathered in a small cemetery here to honor a life cut short by cancer, but filled with Alli’s courage, and distinctive spirit, her humor and splendid judgment.
Alli’s mother, Betsy Alles, is a close friend who asked me to write Alli’s obituary days before the death of her daughter on August 31. It’s posted here in Alli’s honor.
Alli Gerkman, the Michigan-born lawyer who settled in Colorado to make legal education more accessible to women and people of color, improve the skills of young lawyers, and restore honor and grace to a profession that is draining from both, won a prestigious honor in May from the Colorado Women’s Bar Association.
The Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award memorializes an early 20th century probate lawyer much like Alli, a woman and a leader who surpassed conventional expectations to become an agent of change for a profession that needed to be stirred.
As a senior director of IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, Alli distinguished herself as one of the young lawyers to watch as she worked to modernize a system of education and practice that had become too cumbersome, too dispiriting, too expensive.
In accepting the award, Alli, a graduate of a mid-level law school, explained the ironic freedom that comes with being underestimated. “I was good enough,” she said. “But not good enough for the most coveted paths after law school. I can say with absolute honesty that I was never interested in a big firm job. But whether I was or wasn’t, wasn’t particularly relevant when you consider that no big law firm would ever have hired me. My failure to tap into the well-born caste of our profession meant that I couldn’t qualify for the standard path of my career.
“That turned out to be my superpower. If there is no predefined path and no outcome expected of you in your career, you can do anything that you decide that you want to do.”
What Alli did was exceptional. During eight years at IAALS she developed a national survey then, based on the results, launched a national movement that identified strength of character, integrity, and willingness to work hard as virtues in new lawyers that are every bit as important to hiring and practice as expert knowledge of the law. She directed a national program, Foundations for Practice, that worked with law schools and a select group of law firms to develop a curriculum for teaching students what she called the “character quotient.” The intent was to better prepare young lawyers for the contemporary challenges of starting their careers, and to open law firms to a wider range of new hires.
“Alli’s footprints leave imprints,” said Rebecca Kourlis, the former Colorado Supreme Court justice who founded and directs IAALS. “Her personality leaves impressions. Her work leads to impacts.”
Alli’s work was cut short, however, by a rare form of cancer. She died in Michigan on August 31, 2019. She was 41 years old. But in the four years of her illness, Alli challenged the tumor with the same grit, tenacity and grace that encompassed all of her life.
She was tested in completely new ways. The medical treatments were grueling. In the first 40 months, Alli wrote, she endured multiple surgeries, 27 days of chemotherapy, 51 days of radiation, and “countless days of emerging treatments, including molecular and immunotherapy.”
“I know that this cancer will change my life,” she wrote. “It is one of the first things I knew as soon as I learned more about the severity of my diagnosis. It is an unmovable truth. But I can embrace that without letting the cancer define me and wash away who I already am—and who I will be. As I said to my colleague who wanted to know if she could let one of our organizational partners know what I’m dealing with, ‘Of course—as long as you make it completely clear that I am still in the game.’”
An accomplished public speaker, she added this in a speech in 2018: “I think about my own death all the time. I know I will die, in a way I never knew it before. But the most important reason to think about your own death is that actually makes your life better.”
She cultivated the furrows of her relationships with friends, her family, and her colleagues in and outside Colorado with more depth and urgency. She was determined to keep her characteristic optimism, her ready laugh and sense of fun that attracted a close group of friends and made her a delight to her family.
Alli was athletic and charismatic. She worked really hard at keeping in shape, maintaining her energy, and loving her life. She climbed 14,000-foot Rocky Mountain peaks, covered miles of trails on her mountain bike, and practiced yoga. She read widely and voraciously. A talented writer, her prose became more assured.
Her attention to her work also grew more intense. At IAALS, Alli led the program to improve delivery of legal services to more people, enliven legal education, and make the profession perform better. Her work was embraced by law schools, law firms, and bar associations across the country.
Alli’s renown grew. In 2017, she was awarded the Colorado Women’s Bar Foundation Raising the Bar Award for systemic improvements in legal education and the legal system. In 2018, she was honored as one of Denver’s 40 Under 40.
“Her special gifts were enthusiasm coupled with intellect and the capacity to communicate in a concise and powerful way,” said Rebecca Kourlis in an interview. “She was able to coalesce people around new directions and vision at the same time as she was thinking it all the way through and understanding the ramifications.
“She was one of those people who had command of the details and strategy and big picture, and could synthesize it all in a way that was compelling, and that motivated people to make changes in a big way.”
Alli Gerkman was born in Lansing, Michigan on July 25, 1978. She was the only daughter and oldest of three children. Her mother, Betsy Alles, is a marketing professional. Her father, Ernest Gerkman, owned a trucking company until his retirement. Her stepfather, Eric Pekrul, helped raise her since Alli was a young teen.
Along with her parents and stepfather she is survived by her brothers, Chris Gerkman and Jake Silas, nieces Jaynee and Leah Gerkman, and sisters-in-law Erika Gerkman and Carissa Silas. And Demi, her dog.
As a kid, Alli displayed her pluck and talent. She played the saxophone and piano, and trained for two summers at the Interlochen Summer Camp in northern Michigan. She was a capable athlete, too. At Portland High School she ran cross country and at Mason High School, Alli played on the tennis team.
At both schools she was known for her mastery of spoken language and her slicing sense of humor. “She just argued with everyone,” her mother joked.
Alli graduated from the James Madison College at Michigan State University in 2000 where she studied environmental economics and constitutional democracy. She earned a law degree at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago in 2003 and spent much of 2002 in Ireland studying at University College in Dublin.
She landed her first job and spent three years as an associate attorney and manager at Winzenburg, Leff, Purvis and Payne, a firm in Littleton, Colorado. She then spent the next three years with CLE International, a legal professional development group in nearby Englewood, specializing in emerging issues in law.
In January 2009, Alli made a directional change when she was hired by the Colorado Bar Association CLE to manage content on cbaclelegalconnection.com, the group’s web site, which she helped launch. Her work was honored by the Association of Continuing Legal Education in 2011 for ”use of technology in education.”
In 2011 she joined IAALS, starting as communications manager, then as director of communications, and later as director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers. In 2018, she was promoted to senior director.
Before her death Alli was working on a new project and report, “Think Like a Client,” to identify traits and behaviors clients value most in their attorneys. She worked with Avvo, a web site that rates attorneys, to collect a decade’s worth of client reviews and insights on how people think about their lawyers. Alli’s goal was to teach lawyers how to be ore attentive to the needs an expectations of their clients.
Making those changes, she said, would help establish new norms and standards for admission to law schools, legal education, and hiring at law firms that are more inclusive and align more closely to contemporary conditions in society, culture, and the law.
Her work gained strong momentum in the profession, in large part because Alli was excellent at motivating colleagues at law schools and law practices. She counseled them to think big and never be intimidated. “If nobody laughs at your idea it’s not big enough,” she said.
And Alli summed up her life this way: “Your work can only outlive you if you can find others to make it their work too.”
— Keith Schneider