Tanya Hernandez

YLS year: 1990
Current Job: Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law


What do you do and how did you get there?

I graduated from the Yale Law School in 1990.  Upon graduation, I worked for two years in the federal district court in Puerto Rico clerking.  I then worked in impact litigation in women’s healthcare for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York.  Following my work at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, I worked for the HIV unit of Brooklyn Legal Services that only took in clients that were HIV positive or had full-blown AIDS.  The HIV unit offered a holistic way of addressing the housing needs, the family law needs and the estate planning needs of our clients.  I entered into academia in 1995, teaching Trusts and Wills straight from my practice in the HIV unit.  I also focus on a number of issues related to comparative discrimination and Critical Race Theory.  I have taught at St. John’s University Law School, Rutgers’s Law School, Newark, George Washington Law School, and now Fordham Law School.

What was your experience clerking in Puerto Rico like?

It was fascinating to be operating within the U.S. federal legal system in a location in which the mainland U.S. can be viewed, by many, as an imposing power.  That was really a little disconcerting.  At the same time, the federal court is also the seat of U.S. civil rights.  It was quite an affirming process to assist the judge in administrating Title VII claims. I think it is important for Yale Law graduates to be present in all of these spaces.

What is the day-to-day like as a legal academic?

It can vary quite a bit.  I think what surprises most people is how much time it takes to prepare a class.  In order to be anywhere near prepared to talk about cases in class, I need to do a lot of other reading to place the cases in context.  What is the most coherent way to extract doctrine from the cases and to think about development among the cases?  There is so much movement going on in law and I am always rethinking material.

A large portion of my day is also spent meeting with students.  What are their needs and thoughts and questions about their own career development?  What’s happening in the law school?  I give a lot of guidance in these matters as well.

Finally, part of my time is spent engaging in matters relating to the governance of the law school, figuring out what the rules and regulations should be and how the building and its services should be available to students.  A large part of this happens in faculty meetings.


What was most valuable about your YLS experience?  What is the most important lesson you took away from your time at YLS?

I learned it late, unfortunately: the importance of actually establishing relationships with faculty!  The networking is invaluable.  It is life sustaining and it should start early.  I was not hip to that game.  I did not come from a professional family and I did not see how important it would be.  Like any profession, law is not only about what you do, but about who knows what you do and how you do it.

Did you have a particular faculty mentor during your time at YLS?

The person who played the most significant role would be Harlon Dalton, who was my small group Professor.  Professor Dalton showed me the way in which scholarly work could interact with the real world.  I found that to be an invaluable model, one that I treasure to this day.  I greatly admire his activism.

What skills do you rely on now that YLS did not emphasize enough?

I notice a huge difference between my law school colleagues and my business school colleagues.   The faculty at the business school was given the skill of how to build relationships, how to network.  I don’t think that I got that in law school and that is a very important part of this career, both for working in academia and for being a lawyer generally.


What expected or unexpected professional obstacles have you faced?  What has been your biggest challenge?

That we still have to deal with gender imbalance with regard to pay.  Unless you teach at a public institution, your salary, how you compare to everyone else, is not transparent.  I see this as an ongoing issue: women’s work isn’t as valued and we have to find a way to make ourselves viewed in the same light as our male colleagues.  I think we need to be more vocal about this and to share our experiences with each other.  I think too often, especially in high-powered careers like law, women act as individual agents and not as members of a community of female lawyers.  When you act as an individual agent, you are in isolation without the same power base with which to have your voice heard and to effectuate change.  Many of us need to be open about the ways in which we have experienced this bias.

How do you balance your work and your personal life?  Throughout the course of your career, how has this changed?

While I’ve been in teaching I’ve gotten married and had two children so there certainly have been changes.  While there is more flexibility in law teaching now than in the past, there are still many of the same traps that many female employees experience.  Talking too much about care-taking responsibilities doesn’t serve you well.  A male colleague could say these things and it has nothing to do with his skills.  A female talks about care-taking responsibilities and people perceive this as reflecting upon her skills and abilities.  I am cognizant about how much I share about my scheduling needs being affected by my own children.  This is an unfortunate reality about still living in a gendered society.


What is the most direct path to where you are in your career?  If you could redo it, is there anything that you would change?

The path has changed somewhat over time.  When I began thinking about legal academia, the magic recipe that people would share is that one should be on Law Journal, do a clerkship, and publish something while working on the Journal.  These accomplishments were seen as indicators that you would be a good risk to take on as an untenured faculty member.  Now it’s a buyers market.  More and more writing is being demanded of people and this seems to be a requirement for getting in.

Despite the new standards, I don’t regret the path that I took: being in practice.  I feel I’m a better teacher because I’ve actually lawyered.  It matters to me that what I write about be what matters to people.

Why do you think that practical experience has not historically been looked upon as a positive factor or a necessity for one seeking to enter legal academia?

Academics tend to think that if you practice for too long you become too tainted and too linear so that all you think about is how a rule applies instead of what needs to change in law; that you stop seeing the big picture.  This may change over time with economic constraint changes in academia, but probably not at the Yale Law School.

YLS is sometimes criticized for putting too much emphasis on the theoretical over the practical.  Did you find that this was true when you were a student at YLS?

My small group experience was incredible.  We were writing briefs and arguing—it was great.  I did clinical work when I was at Yale as well.  When you seek it, you can get the practical experience that you want.

Speaking of the importance of publication as a qualification in legal academia, did you publish anything while at YLS?

I was on the Yale Law Journal and at the time you had to “write-on” to be a member of the staff.  Each interested student would write a whole Note as part of the evaluation process.  I wrote a Note on unconscious bias in prosecution and it was also accepted for publication in the Yale Law Journal.  The topic of unconscious bias is one that I continue to work on and write on today.

Do you have any advice for YLS students who are beginning to think about the legal writing and publication process?

It is an act of passion to do this work.  I tell students to think of something that they care about because it’s a long process.  You want something that will carry you through even the boring parts, even the bluebooking.   Ultimately, you don’t mind going through the fifth round of edits because the issue is so important to you.

What traits impress you the most in young lawyers?

Organization and conscientious follow-up.  Lots of people are talented and lots of people have huge knowledge bases, but if you are disorganized and do not have a professional ethic then it is all for naught.  Your talent base and knowledge means nothing if you are too disorganized to file a document on time or to get information to a client in a timely fashion so that it is meaningful and helpful.

You touched on pay discrepancies already, but do you see any additional differences in the challenges that men and women face in legal academia?

The classroom experiences of men and women are different. I don’t think I’m saying anything new, but when a woman walks into the classroom, she is not immediately perceived to embody the epitome of what a law professor looks like.  There will be more questioning and more pushback.  I feel less of a luxury to be relaxed in the classroom—hence the extra time spent prepping—and feel the need to be as authoritative as possible.  These are not bad things to do.  It is always better to be better prepared.

Do you have any general advice for the women at Yale Law School?

They have so much to contribute!  This is a great time to be graduating.  The time is now: we need new fresh power.  The people out there protesting show that they do care.  Having a new generation of concerned and committed female lawyers is a great thing.