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  • James Townsend

Obituary for Alli Gerkman

July 25, 1978–August 31, 2019

Alli Gerkman, the Portland, 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 the profession, 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 the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), Alli worked to modernize the system of legal education and practice to make it less cumbersome, less dispiriting, and less expensive. During her eight years at IAALS, she 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.”

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 tumors with the same grit, tenacity, and grace that encompassed all of her life. She cultivated the furrows of her relationships with friends, family, and colleagues with more depth and urgency. She was determined to keep her characteristic optimism, her ready laugh, and her sense of fun. She climbed 14,000-foot Rocky Mountain peaks, ran marathons, 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, and 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.

Alli was born in Lansing, Michigan on July 25, 1978, the only daughter and oldest of three children. As a kid growing up in Portland and Mason, MI, she played the saxophone and piano, and trained for two summers at the Interlochen Summer Music Camp in Northern Michigan. At Portland High School she ran cross country and at Mason High School, she played on the tennis team. At both schools she was known for her mastery of spoken and written language and her slicing sense of humor.

Alli earned her law degree from DePaul University College of Law in Chicago in 2003 after spending 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 in Littleton. She spent the next three years with CLE International in nearby Englewood.

In January 2009, Alli made a directional change when she was hired by the Colorado Bar Association CLE to manage content on the organization’s website, 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 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 more attentive to the needs and 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 people. She was a masterful debater, and she inspired those around her to think big and never be intimidated. But even more important, she had a way of helping others see things more clearly, challenging them to do and be their best, and convincing them to explore things further before cementing their opinions.

Alli is survived by her father Ernest Gerkman and grandmother Theresa Gerkman of Portland, MI; mother Betsy Alles and stepfather Eric Pekrul of Frankfort, MI; brothers Chris Gerkman and Jake Silas; nieces Jaynee and Leah Gerkman; and sisters-in-law Erika Gerkman and Carissa Silas, all of Michigan. And Demi, her beloved dog.

Donations on Alli Gerkman's behalf be sent to the Ionia County Animal Shelter.

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