artistic collage of Dean Matthew Diller surrounded by life around Fordham Law
A Mind for the Law, a Heart for Students, and a Soul for Justice

The Legacy of
Dean Matthew Diller

“Empathetic.” “Nurturing.” “A mensch.” “A man of service.” These words come up again and again from Dean Matthew Diller’s colleagues, his former students, and Fordham Law alumni. During his nine years as dean, he has left an indelible imprint on the Law School by exemplifying a deep dedication to the idea that success as a lawyer means not just winning a case or negotiating a deal or even knowing the law inside out, but helping to create a more just world for everyone.
By Paula Derrow
Illustration by Franziska Barczyk
Though it was more than 30 years ago, Dean Matthew Diller still vividly remembers an encounter on his first official day as a junior faculty member at Fordham Law School in September of 1993.

“I walked into the building as a new professor and was wandering the halls, not quite knowing where to go, when I ran into John Feerick, who was the dean at the time,” says Diller. “And I remember him taking me to my office and, in his customary way, rounding up a stapler and a pair of scissors and other basic equipment for me. That made an impact on me in terms of how to be a leader and how to nurture people and develop the caring relationships that are the basis of building a community.”

Diller brought that same approachability with him when he became dean of Fordham Law himself in 2015. “Matthew is incredibly thoughtful and collegial,” says Tania Tetlow, president of Fordham University. “He is a man of total warmth, integrity, and empathy.”

Matthew Diller in the 1990s sitting in a chair next to a computer
Diller in the 1990s when he was a junior member of the faculty (above) and at the beginning of his deanship in August 2015 (below).
Matthew Diller in 2015 sitting in a chair next to an Apple computer

Nurturing Connection

Diller’s sense of empathy and his focus on fostering connection has shaped his approach to legal education. The 2008 financial crisis—and the difficulties he saw students encounter as he helped them find a footing in a challenging marketplace—left a lasting impression. “One thing that came out of that experience was the realization that at the end of the day, the students who struggled most were not the ones who were doing the worst academically, but those who were never able to form strong bonds to the institution,” he says. “And I knew that was something I wanted to focus on when I came back to Fordham in 2015 as dean—how to build and nurture connection—both because it’s crucial to success and because it’s not something you can take for granted.”

Reflecting on that period, Diller says the Great Recession brought him “back to basics” and “the importance of connecting with every student to make sure they are set up and pointed in the direction of success.”

To get there, Diller talked to a lot of practicing lawyers about what they were looking for in their new hires. “The feedback I was getting was nearly universal,” he recalls. “Yes, they wanted graduates with a strong knowledge of the foundational principles of law and strong analytical skills. That was a given. But what they were really looking for were people who were trustworthy, responsible, reliable, and service-oriented, and who would go the extra distance to get the job done. They wanted lawyers who view legal issues in the broader context of the client’s objectives and could provide counsel that goes beyond narrow tactical advice.”

Many of these attributes are referred to as “soft skills,” but Diller thinks of them as essential. And as dean, he was determined to make sure the Law School imparted what he calls a “broader package” of skills that would set up Fordham lawyers not just to be successful, but to be fulfilled in the profession as well.

Tania Tetlow headshot

Tania Tetlow

President, Fordham University
“He always assumes others’ good intentions.”
From my first day as president of Fordham, in July of 2022, I can say that Dean Diller was intensely welcoming. In fact, Matthew served on the search committee, and from the moment I interviewed with him, he made me want to come to Fordham. Besides welcoming me onto the Law School faculty and helping me understand the brilliance and achievement of that faculty, for the last two years he has very kindly invited me to his synagogue for the High Holidays, which has felt like a window into his soul and what motivates him. He is a man of deep faith, able to translate Fordham’s Catholic traditions into a wider ecumenical lens that encompasses not just Judaism or Catholicism but the broader values at stake. Whenever the two of us are navigating a tricky problem together, Matthew always leans into assuming other people’s good intentions, using his empathy and understanding to navigate squirrely issues. Working in a large bureaucracy, lots of folks can get wound up about small things. Matthew is always able to maintain a sense of humor at those moments and keep his focus on caring about people.

Casting a Lawyer’s Eye

One thing Matthew and I have in common—and another reason I like working with him—is the way he brings what I think of as a lawyer’s eye to his work. It’s a special combination of analytical skill and an ability to cut through complexity and focus on what matters most. Matthew feels intensely that we need to train our students to understand the kind of power they will have one day and seed them with the ethics and determination to make the world a more just place. The backbone of Fordham has always been creating opportunities for our students and inspiring them to do meaningful work. Matthew has made that even more manifest by putting strategies in place to make that happen.

The Courage of His Convictions

As I watch him engage with students, it’s clear how much he cares about making everyone feel a profound sense of belonging, both at Fordham and in the legal profession. He understands that some of our students come from multiple generations of lawyers and others do not, and that we have to do more to give the latter the kind of confidence it takes to unleash their unbelievable talent. His whole life embodies our motto—”In the Service of Others”—from the start of his career when he served clients as a Legal Aid attorney up until now, as dean, where he is able to be a force multiplier, training a generation of lawyers to serve their clients. His style as a leader is to find right and just solutions—his focus is on finding the right thing to do.

Matthew Diller shaking a students hand
Diller welcomes students to the first day of classes in August 2015 at the start of his tenure as dean.
Matthew Diller having a conversation with a student

A Dean with a Dual Focus

Those twin dimensions—first, to find ways to intentionally foster connection within the Fordham Law community, and second, to imbue Fordham’s students with the skills they’d need to shine in whatever area of law they pursued—became part of the fabric of what he hoped to accomplish. “I didn’t come in with the goal of building strength in specific areas of the law,” he says. “Instead, my thinking focused on these more cross-cutting issues about how students experience their time at Fordham and how they can thrive as professionals in whatever field they go into.”

Diller’s vision of reshaping the law school journey around connectedness and community became a key component of Fordham Law’s 2017 Strategic Plan, which called for the creation of the House System to foster inclusion. The program was launched in 2019 by the Office of Professionalism, which has spearheaded a wide range of programming to address the stress and disconnectedness too many law students—and lawyers—seem to feel.

With the House System, each incoming student is assigned to one of five “houses” or subcommunities of their peers led by a faculty advisor and bolstered with alumni and student mentors. Within each house, students participate in programs on wellness, career planning, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. As students advance beyond their 1L year, the Office of Professionalism steers students into Fordham’s upper-level peer mentorship program. “We pair 2Ls with 3Ls who give the second-year students extensive mentoring,” says Linda Sugin, professor and faculty director of the Office of Professionalism. The Office also hosts a workshop series for upper-level students that is a component of the Fundamental Lawyering Skills curriculum.

Matthew Diller speaking at a podium during a diploma ceremony
Diller speaks at his first diploma ceremony as dean in 2016.
The new emphasis on professionalism reflected Sugin’s vision for expanding the scope of legal education to include emotional support, leadership training, and essential skills that are not traditionally included in the law school curriculum. In additon to the House System and Peer Mentorship Program, Sugin reconceptualized aspects of the Law School’s orientation programming—adding a focus on professional identity development and emotional preparation for law school in the fall and organizing a new spring orientation spotlighting diversity, equity, and inclusion. She also launched a new professionalism fellows program—a leadership-training initiative that gives select upper-level students opportunities to work in the House System with faculty and administrators crafting programming, solving problems, and providing advice to first-year students.

“Of course, knowing the law is important, but it’s often other qualities that separate out the best lawyers,” notes Diller. “While I love a brilliant lawyer with a gifted mind, the most successful lawyers are not always the most brilliant. Fordham Law students are fantastically strong academically, and our faculty do an amazing job helping them sharpen their analytical skills. I wanted us to be more deliberate about making sure Fordham lawyers are strong in the additional dimensions that make for great lawyers, rather than hoping they’d absorb those qualities through osmosis.”

“I knew that was something I wanted to focus on … how to build and nurture connectionboth because it’s crucial to success and because it’s not something you can take for granted.”
Dean Matthew Diller
As someone who has spent his career advocating for a fairer justice system, Diller wanted students to understand how racism and inequity are built into the legal landscape. “In our professionalism curriculum and orientations, we focus on teaching students how to work across cultural differences so they are able to see the strengths of people who are different from them.”
Matthew Diller talking to a group of students
Diller joins students and their families for Family Day in 2018.
To bring greater attention to equal-justice issues, Diller launched the Access to Justice (A2J) Initiative at Fordham Law. The Initiative promotes teaching and scholarship in access to justice issues while also providing legal services to vulnerable populations, often through Fordham Law’s clinics. “Many of those who need lawyers the most can’t get them, which means that we as a legal profession are not meeting our responsibility,” he says.

His goal was to change that, with Fordham Law leading the way. “I consider Dean Diller to be a real trailblazer in this space,” says Norrinda Brown, associate professor of law, director of the Right to Housing Litigation Clinic, and a co-leader of the A2J Initiative. “Dean Diller was thinking about and doing this decades ago, when it wasn’t part of the conversation.”

She cites Diller’s landmark victory as a Legal Aid lawyer in the 1990 Jiggetts v. Grinker case, which held that housing allowances for people on public assistance had to reflect what landlords were charging. “His knowledge is so deep and wide that I consider him a real resource for those of us who are coming along now and building on the foundational work he has done.”

Lorena Jiron headshot

Lorena Jiron ’17

Supervising Attorney, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem
“His door is always open.”
I’m the first lawyer in my family, and, especially as a Latina, I felt as if there were very few lawyers around me who could share their experiences in law school. That made becoming a lawyer feel like this big, scary undertaking that I was going into by myself. And naturally, I assumed that as a student, you were supposed to hold the administration in reverence—they’re above you, the professors are above you, and someone like the dean is even further above that. That was my mentality back then. And then to discover that the dean showed up at every event—or, really, seemed to be everywhere all the time, always available and accessible—I think that’s very unique. It changed my mindset about the role of someone in the dean’s position. Whenever I requested a meeting with Dean Diller, whether as a Stein Scholar or as president of the Latin American Law Students Association (LALSA), he found the time to sit down, be present, and talk with me. And my friends felt the same way. If you had a question or a family crisis, Dean Diller’s door was always open.

A Passion for Public Interest

As someone who now works as a legal provider for the city—I’m on the housing team of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, where, among other things, we help people who are in danger of being evicted—having a dean whose background was also in public interest law inspired me. I come from a community that is historically underserved and lacking in resources in terms of being able to afford legal guidance, so I wanted to contribute. I don’t know if it’s a normal thing for a top law school dean to come from the public interest side, but you can only become what you see, and to know that Dean Diller took the same legal trajectory that I’m taking really made an impact. He made me feel we were all in it together—and that public interest law students were a priority for the school. He even showed up to our weekly Stein Scholar meetings, and whenever we requested something or needed support, the answer from him was always “yes.”

Bringing Latinas into the Law

As a Latina woman in a profession where less than 2% of lawyers are Latina women, I wanted to get involved in that community and to make sure Fordham Law School was a forerunner in terms of bringing more Latinas into the law. So, when I was a 2L, I suggested to Dean Diller that we host the yearly LALSA conference at Fordham Law to show that we were really behind the cause of advancing Latino students and lawyers. And Dean Diller was 100% on board. Basically, he said, “Whatever you need, we’re going to make it happen.” That’s a huge commitment to make to a group of students, not to mention a huge undertaking. But I felt very supported, and the process went smoothly. The conference was amazing and exhausting, and I could not have done it without Dean Diller’s support.

Navigating Challenging Times

Yet even with all of Diller’s experience as an administrator, nothing could have prepared him for the twin crises of 2020: the onset of a global pandemic that forced a lockdown in March, followed by the unrest and movement for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May of that year. “That spring and summer was the most stressful stretch in my two decades of law school administration,” he says. “There was no playbook for any of it, and of course people were looking to me for direction.”

But while he says he wasn’t necessarily feeling calm, students were depending on him to be the anchor in the storm. “I can project calm—it’s part of my temperament,” he says.

Kimathi Gordon-Somers, assistant dean of student affairs and diversity, who had joined Fordham Law just four weeks before the pandemic hit, recalls, “Working with Matthew through all the challenges and stresses was enlightening. At a time when others were unable to find their footing, I was amazed at how levelheaded he was as he guided our community through what had to be one of the most difficult moments in our history. When others around him were afraid and needed information, he delivered it in a way that was informative and made us all feel at ease, beginning every Zoom meeting by genuinely inquiring how we were doing individually.”

Matthew Diller with Loretta A. Preska, Sharon McCarthy, Joseph M. McShane at the kickoff of the 100 Years of Women celebration
Diller is joined by (left to right) Judge Loretta A. Preska ’73, Sharon McCarthy ’89, and Fordham University President Joseph M. McShane, S.J., at the kickoff of the 100 Years of Women celebration.
Matthew Diller with Sonia Sotomayor
Matthew Diller with Samuel Alito
Matthew Diller walking next to Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Clockwise from top left: Diller with Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor (2016), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2016), Anthony Kennedy (2017), Elena Kagan (2019), and Samuel Alito (2019).
Matthew Diller with Anthony Kennedy
Matthew Diller with Elena Kagan and others
Matthew Diller with Loretta A. Preska, Sharon McCarthy, Joseph M. McShane at the kickoff of the 100 Years of Women celebration
Diller is joined by (left to right) Judge Loretta A. Preska ’73, Sharon McCarthy ’89, and Fordham University President Joseph M. McShane, S.J., at the kickoff of the 100 Years of Women celebration.
Matthew Diller with Sonia Sotomayor
Matthew Diller walking next to Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Matthew Diller with Anthony Kennedy
Matthew Diller with Elena Kagan and others
Matthew Diller with Samuel Alito
From top to bottom: Diller with Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor (2016), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2016), Anthony Kennedy (2017), Elena Kagan (2019), and Samuel Alito (2019).
What also helped was Diller’s close collaboration with his crisis team at Fordham Law, leaders at Fordham University, and weekly Zoom sessions with law school deans in the New York area, a practice that continues today. “It was really a team effort, and the strength of that team was critical,” says Diller.

Says Feerick, “He took us through a difficult time with grace and effectiveness, keeping the student body closely connected with their education.”

An Enduring Impact

Under Dean Matthew Diller’s leadership, Fordham Law has launched an array of new programs, centers, and initiatives focused on advancing legal scholarship, enhancing the student experience, fostering diversity, and strengthening the educational mission of the Law School. These include:
Access to Justice (A2J) Initiative
Alumni of Distinction
Center on Asian Americans and the Law
Center for Judicial Events & Clerkships
Center on Race, Law and Justice
Dean’s Advisory Council on Diversity
English Language Institute
Eunice Carter Lecture Series
House System
Increasing Diversity in Education and the Law (IDEAL) Program
LL.M. in Real Estate
M.S.L. Degrees in Fashion Law and Corporate Compliance
Neuroscience and Law Center
Office of Professionalism
Pre-Law Institute
Program on Law Firm Management
Public Interest Advisory Council
Realizing Excellence and Access in the Law (REAL) Scholars Program
RISE: Leadership Academy for Women in Law
Scott Simpson Cross-Border Institute
Tanen Center on Leadership
Voting Rights and Democracy Project
Diller explains, “My immediate concern was the students—we had to make sure they could graduate, that our classes could continue so that students could earn their degrees. Second, we wanted to make the academic experience as strong as possible, and third, we strove to make student life and our community as robust as we could given the physical isolation that came with the pandemic. We made sure our policies were underpinned by the advice of medical experts so that we could explain and justify our decisions. That meant working closely with an epidemiological consultant whom the University made available to us. Clear and effective communication was also critical. We focused on figuring out ways to make people feel in the loop when everyone was isolated at home.” One solution was for Diller to shoot minute-long, informal videos on his iPhone that let students know he was thinking of them, and to meet with students in small groups to hear their concerns. “We needed to find a way for our community to stay connected,” says Diller.

Through it all, say colleagues, Diller’s characteristic compassion was a solace. “It was always really clear how much he cared about the students, faculty, and staff who were suffering,” says Sugin. “And I think that compassion gave people the confidence that he cared enough to get us through to the other side.”

Denny Chin headshot

Judge Denny Chin ’78

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; Co-Director, Center on Asian Americans and the Law; and Lawrence W. Pierce Distinguished Jurist in Residence
“A steady hand during challenging times.”
When Matthew Diller started as dean of Fordham Law School in 2015, the country—and law schools—were still recovering from the financial crisis. Then, in 2020, with COVID and the murder of George Floyd, the world changed again—and all of this impacted the Law School. During the pandemic, he really understood the challenges that our students and faculty faced and was always conscious of balancing those needs against the need to keep everyone healthy. For instance, he was sensitive to the fact that our first-year students in particular would especially be impacted by not having the same opportunity to meet in person with other students and faculty. So he made special arrangements for 1Ls to learn in person when things loosened up. And despite all of the challenges, the Law School has thrived during his leadership, our standing and reputation rising steadily during his tenure, especially among judges and law firms.

Acting the Part

Matthew cares deeply about our students and our society; whenever I see him interacting with our students after events, he’s warm and approachable. What defines him is his compassion. When he came on as dean in 2015, he resumed the tradition he started as a professor by commuting to work by bike all the way from his home in Brooklyn to Lincoln Center. A lot of deans tend to have big egos. Clearly, that’s not Matthew. Last year, for instance, the Black Law Students Association did a reenactment of the James Meredith case, in which the civil rights activist sued the University of Mississippi for the right to attend the racially segregated all-white school. Matthew took on the role of Judge John Minor Wisdom, and he did a terrific job. Some deans might not want to get as deeply involved, whether because of nerves or because they just want to stay a bit above it all. But he jumped in there, and it was great for students to see the dean of the Law School participating in such an important event.

Embracing Our Mission

One of the first things I did when I became a senior judge for the Second Circuit in 2021 was call up Matthew and ask how I could get more involved at Fordham Law and do more teaching. At the time, in the midst of the pandemic, there was a rise in anti-Asian violence across the country, and eventually I suggested that we start a Center on Asian Americans and the Law designed to focus on Asian American legal studies from an academic point of view. There is no other law school with a center like this one, and from the beginning, he was completely behind us, and he totally understood and embraced our mission. At our most recent event on October 4, 2023, he gave remarks on what we were trying to do, and when it was my turn to speak, I almost didn’t need to say anything because, well, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Not that everyone always agreed with his decisions, adds Sugin, referring, for one, to his efforts to enable first-year students to take classes in person as soon as possible. “But because everyone knew he was trying to deliver the best possible education to students, and that’s what students wanted, in the end, most everyone was willing to go along with him.”

Diller has expressed his gratitude to faculty administrators and student leaders who were critical in navigating the crisis: “I am proud and grateful for the way our community came together. So many went above and beyond what could be expected at a time when people or their loved ones were ill, when care for children or elderly relatives became impossibly difficult, and when everyone was anxious and dealing with uncertainty about the future.” He is particularly grateful to a core team that led the Law School’s response: Linda Sugin (then serving as associate dean of academic affairs), Kimathi Gordon-Somers, Assistant Dean for Administration Darin Neely, and Professor Clare Huntington, chair of the faculty COVID work group.

Matthew Diller giving a speech at a podium during orientation
Diller welcomes first-year students at orientation in 2021.
Matthew Diller talking to a group of students
Diller chats with students at the 2021 Diversity Reception.
2021 diploma ceremony held at the Rose Hill campus
Diller speaks at the 2021 diploma ceremony held at the Rose Hill campus.
Matthew Diller joined by alumni
Diller joined by alumni at the 2019 “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” event.
Matthew Diller speaking in a classroom
Diller speaks with evening division students at the 2019 orientation.

Reckoning with Racism

In the midst of all this, the murder of George Floyd brought a separate set of unexpected challenges. “The realization of racial injustice in our society ran deep, and people looked closely at Fordham Law School and found significant faults with us,” acknowledges Diller. Many of the criticisms, he recalls, struck home, exposing a general feeling that the Law School had not done enough to create a diverse and inclusive community.

Floyd’s murder rocked many students, faculty, and staff to their core—“not just politically but emotionally,” says Gordon-Somers. “I remember Matthew reaching out to me almost immediately as all this was unfolding to check in and ask if I was okay,” he recalls. “And when I mentioned that I wanted to host a listening session for our students of color to offer support, Matthew was immediately on board. I know he very much wanted to be there himself, but, being the thoughtful leader he is, he also realized that his presence might not be well received at that moment, and so he recommended other faculty for me to collaborate with.”

John D. Feerick headshot

John D. Feerick ’61

Norris Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus
“He keeps me energized.”
I came to Fordham Law in 1982, and now I’m the senior-most tenured faculty member here. And when you’re my age—87—it’s natural to start thinking about retiring. So at some point last year, I went to Dean Diller and talked to him about it. And I remember he told me, “There’s nothing about your work that tells me that you should take a phase-out retirement. It’s up to you, but from the standpoint of the school, that’s how I feel.” Well, I didn’t expect that answer, but frankly, what he said gave me energy to go at it again for another year. You make the commitment, and you do one year at a time, one day at a time, and that’s where I am now—and he energized me in what I do in the classroom and in the Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice.

Best Team in America

When Matthew came to the Law School as a professor in 1993, he was part of a team of professors who wanted to implement the agenda of a Fordham Law graduate named Louis Stein ’26, who felt that Fordham could be a leading law school in terms of ethics and public service. Lou Stein always said that beyond religion, there was a moral code of right and wrong, and if you could get different religions and faiths to come together, they’d have more in common than they realized. And he wanted to make Fordham a place where everyone came. Matthew was the youngest of the group of professors that included the late Mary Daly, as well as Bruce Green and Russell Pearce. That team was the best in America when it came to focusing on issues of legal ethics, social justice, and public service.

Carrying Forward the Jesuit Mission

For many years, I thought Matthew would be a good choice for dean of the Law School one day. I marveled at how someone who had graduated Harvard Law with high honors and clerked for a federal judge would then choose to have a life in the law in the service of others and become a lawyer for Legal Aid. When the search committee was looking for a new president of Fordham University, I remember someone asking how people would feel if we chose someone who was not a member of the Society of Jesus. Because, as you know, before President Tetlow, all 32 presidents going back 100 years had been priests and male. And I remember saying to the committee, “Well, Fordham Law has a dean of the Jewish faith who is carrying forward Jesuit values as strongly as anyone could. I’m talking about values like service and intellectual qualities of thinking and reasoning and a commitment to hard work.” I said that, and that’s what I felt. Years earlier, when it came time to choose a new dean of the Law School, I wasn’t surprised that I kept hearing his name come up. And I called him up and I let him know, and we started the conversation. And Matthew has done a wonderful and magnificent job. I’m sad that he’s leaving the deanship but happy that he will be on the faculty, and that I’ll now have a colleague actively teaching who was also a former dean of the Law School.

Afrika Owes ’24, president of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) from 2022 to 2023, took notice of Diller’s response and his focus on bringing students and faculty to the table to find practical solutions. “After George Floyd’s death, we had all these ideas on how to increase numbers of Black students and improve diversity, so we had one-on-ones with the dean, and the administration listened,” she says. “That’s something to take pride in.”

Diller’s actions during this challenging period paved the way for his mission and priorities moving forward. “He committed the Law School to becoming an anti-racist community and devoted resources and support to making that happen,” says Gordon-Somers.

I’m proud of what we’ve achievedfostering a more student-centered educational experience, expanding our degree programs, creating new centers that are shaping discourse on critical policy and legal issues, and building our strength in cutting-edge areas of law and technology, as well as adding faculty and new programming ….”
Dean Matthew Diller
Making this commitment required funding, and Fordham Law alumni were there to help. “Dave Tanen ’96 came through with a tremendous gift to support the new initiatives we needed, and Denis Cronin ’72 provided funds that helped us expand the staff to create more bandwidth to support students and improve the lines of communication,” says Diller. “Because it was clear that my understanding of their needs and perspectives was insufficient and that the students didn’t understand what we had been trying to do, we needed to create better lines of communication.”

First on the agenda was recruiting a greater diversity of students and hiring a more diverse faculty and staff. “As people of color, it’s important to find that community, to find people who look like you and who have had similar experiences,” says Ferrell Littlejohn ’24, vice president of BLSA from 2022 to 2023.

Preet Bharara with Matthew Diller for a fireside chat
Former United States Attorney Preet Bharara joins Diller for a fireside chat at the 2019 annual meeting of the New York State Bar Association.
Matthew Diller shaking the hand of Eric Holder
Diller presents former Attorney General Eric Holder with the 2015 Fordham-Stein Prize.
While diversity had been a priority for the Law School before, Diller says he was “determined to press harder on it.”

Gordon-Somers vividly recalls those difficult conversations between students and the administration, and how Diller responded: “I remember being in a meeting with Matthew and the leaders of BLSA, and despite their anger in the moment, they were thankful and appreciative of Matthew’s support, and that he made himself personally available to them,” he says. “Matthew’s approach was thoughtful and caring as he navigated this important moment in our history.”

Those dialogues were part of what led to the creation of new programs and initiatives, including the REAL Scholars program, which prepares incoming students from underrepresented groups for law school early on during a weeklong session that takes place before orientation. “I came in with the REAL program, so it felt as if I had a built- in family,” says Littlejohn. “It made it easy to find your group of people who will stick with you no matter what.”

Diller also created the Dean’s Advisory Council on Diversity, which provides a forum for a group of students to meet with him regularly and give feedback on how underserved and first-generation law students experience the School. “I came out of all this listening more deeply and being more sensitive to the fact that the experience of our Law School doesn’t always come across the way I want it to. I need to hear directly from students about how they perceive things,” he says. “The process requires continual work and investment.”

Matthew Diller with panelists and CBS News correspondent Scott Pelley
Diller with panelists and CBS News correspondent Scott Pelley, who moderated a discussion of mass incarceration reforms, in 2019.
former deans Michael M. Martin, John D. Feerick, and William M. Treanor with Matthew Diller
Former deans Michael M. Martin, John D. Feerick ’61, and William M. Treanor (second from left to right) join Diller (far left) for the unveiling of Martin’s official portrait in 2019.
Matthew Diller with others at Fordham’s first-ever Law Student Association Diversity Luncheon
Diller at Fordham’s first-ever Law Student Association Diversity Luncheon in 2020.
Matthew Diller next to a wall covered in colorful sticky notes
Diller shares what he’s thankful for on the Gratitude Wall, part of Fordham Law’s 2019 Wellness Week.

Building a Powerhouse Faculty

One development that helped in creating a more diverse Fordham Law community was that from 2015 to 2018, a number of senior faculty happened to retire. “There was a generational turnover, and that gave us the ability to do more hiring, with a tremendous focus not just on diversity but, really, on excellence in a broad variety of ways,” says Diller.

Those efforts have resulted in the addition of 17 full-time faculty members who, says Diller, “have invigorated our institution with their expertise, leadership, and dynamism. They are trailblazers in their fields, thought leaders, and sought-after national speakers.” Diller has also made important strides to ensure the faculty is more diverse, inclusive, and reflective of the student body and legal profession. Today, there are 13 Black professors on the Law School’s full-time faculty.

Linda Sugin headshot

Linda Sugin

Professor of Law; Faculty Director of the Office of Professionalism; and Associate Dean for Academics (2017–2021)
“For Matthew, being a lawyer is a calling.”
I came to Fordham Law in 1994, one year after Matthew, and he was a great peer mentor to me. My first summer there, when we were both trying to write our early articles, we made a pact that we would talk to each other every day to make sure that at least we were talking to someone while we were spending all those hours toiling in the library. There were 20 of us untenured faculty members then, and it was a tremendously smart, inspiring, and supportive community.

Focusing on the Student Perspective

In 2017, when I became associate dean, Matthew tasked me with figuring out how to make the Law School more student-centered. Since then, everything we’ve done in the Office of Professionalism has been about operationalizing that vision. Even before the American Bar Association started requiring that all law schools provide students with opportunities for professional identity formation, we were focused on connecting students with their path in the law based on what they care about and how they see themselves so they could find the kind of legal practice that meshed with what they wanted in life. And so, in 2018, I headed up the launch of the House System, as well as the upper-level peer mentorship program, along with a robust professionalism curriculum, a new January orientation, and an overhauled August orientation, all in the service of starting students on the journey of becoming the professionals they want to be. It comes down to the fact that Matthew wants our students to be happy that they’re lawyers. He feels that being a lawyer is not just a career but a calling.

Cultivating Humane Lawyers

When something happens in the world that affects students in a negative way, Matthew always leads with compassion—it’s the hallmark of who he is as a leader. That means putting himself in the mindset of whoever needs help, whether students, faculty, or a staff member. That’s unusual, and at Fordham Law, we also have a culture of community that is quite unusual. All the work we’ve done through the Office of Professionalism is about creating connections, and so, during times of challenge, our Fordham Law community is in a strong position to provide mutual support. That doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements, but what we have tried to cultivate is a respect for disagreement in the context of caring for the individual. That makes for a very humane law school. That goes back to Matthew’s compassion and how he himself models a very human way of approaching issues and caring for individuals. Matthew is very much “other”-focused. That drives everything he does.

For Diller, the influx of new professors brought to mind his own beginnings at Fordham Law. “I was part of a big group of junior faculty when I came on in 1993,” he recalls. “We helped each other on scholarship, gave each other teaching advice, and made Fordham a more supportive and exciting place. We felt like we were going to be the future of the School, and now we have a vibrant junior faculty who are the future of the School.”

Diller is also proud of the strength of both the junior and senior faculty’s legal scholarship, which he views as one of the ways law professors and lawyers can have an impact on the world and the way people think about the law. “One thing that’s always been important to me is that any lawyer has the ability to make law and change law through reasoned argument—that’s a supremely democratic aspect of what we do,” he explains. “And if you have a faculty engaged in scholarship and thinking about how law could better serve individuals and society, it is empowering. It communicates to students that their teachers are not simply handing down received wisdom but, rather, equipping them to envision what the law could and should be and nurturing skills to enable them to bring about change.”

Matthew Diller meeting incoming students
Diller meets incoming students at the 2022 J.D. orientation reception.
Matthew Diller and Tania Tetlow
Diller and Fordham University President Tania Tetlow in December 2022.
Circling the globe: Diller travels to Fordham Law Alumni Association Europe and Asia chapter receptions.
Matthew Diller in Israel
Israel (2016)
Matthew Diller in Japan
Japan (2017)
Matthew Diller in China
China (2017)
Matthew Diller in Germany
Germany (2018)
Matthew Diller in Spain
Spain (2022)
Matthew Diller in Israel
Israel (2016)
Matthew Diller in Japan
Japan (2017)
Matthew Diller in China
China (2017)
Matthew Diller in Germany
Germany (2018)
Matthew Diller in Spain
Spain (2022)
As far as Diller’s future, he is looking forward to getting back into the classroom to shape more generations of students into what he thinks of as “Fordham lawyers,” an ideal he was aware of when he joined the faculty 30 years ago this year. “I believe deeply in the DNA and ethos of the Law School and what it means to be a Fordham lawyer,” he says. In short: a lawyer skilled in legal analysis who also brings a distinct outlook related to the mission of the school and its motto—“In the Service of Others.” “I started my career as a Legal Aid lawyer working on public assistance and housing, and I had clients with huge needs,” Diller says. “And I was mentored by fantastic lawyers who went the extra distance for their clients.”

Diller acknowledges that isn’t always something you see in the legal profession. “My mission as a teacher, and as a dean, has been to imbue our students with the ideal of a lawyer who brings their full capacities to the job and leaves no stone unturned, because the stakes are often so high for clients.”

Matthew Diller and others at the 2022 Law School diploma ceremony
Diller at the 2022 Law School diploma ceremony, held at the Rose Hill campus, with Fordham University President Joseph M. McShane, S.J., during his final year as president.
That mission, says Diller, is what drew him to become dean of Fordham Law School in the first place. “I’m proud of what we’ve achieved—fostering a more student-centered educational experience, expanding our degree programs, creating new centers that are shaping discourse on critical policy and legal issues, and building our strength in cutting-edge areas of law and technology, as well as adding faculty and new programming for all the obvious reasons.”

But when asked specifically about his legacy, he goes back to those qualities he first noticed in John Feerick—those unique Fordham lawyer qualities. “My goal was never to transform the identity of the Law School,” says Diller. “I wanted to focus on the qualities that people prize us for—why they look to us and what brings people to Fordham Law. I wanted to figure out how to lean into those strengths so we could build on them and better produce outstanding lawyers who care about the institutions they are part of, who are trustworthy, act with integrity, and understand the human dimensions of law. If we can do this, we can increase the demand for our graduates and help them excel in the profession. Going further, our graduates can bring these values and skills with them, transforming the culture of the legal profession and changing people’s lives, the communities they are part of, and our world.”