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.Continue reading “Alli Gerkman, Lawyer Who Worked To Reform Legal System, Buried In Michigan”