Minnesota Law

Summer 2022

After 17 Years as Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, Erin Keyes ’00 Prepares to Embark on a New Chapter

Heartfelt compassion and strident advocacy for students have been hallmarks of Keyes' storied tenure

Erin Keyes '00 is in the midst of wrapping up her 17-year tenure at Minnesota Law (photo: Tony Nelson)

Assistant Dean of Students Erin Keyes ’00 has long been one of the first people 1Ls meet when they arrive at Minnesota Law and one of the last to wish them well as they cross the stage at commencement. As students navigate the stresses of law school and life, Keyes has served as an essential support system throughout their time at the University.

After 17 years on the job, Keyes will depart Minnesota Law this for a much-needed break with her wife and young daughter, and to pursue a career shift toward direct counseling. She is handing off the baton to Jay Wong, who has been promoted from director of student affairs to assistant dean of student affairs. 

"For the last 17 years, Dean Keyes has shaped our Minnesota Law community through her engagement with students, faculty, other staff departments, and alumni on behalf of all students,” says Garry W. Jenkins, Dean & William S. Pattee Professor of Law. "Decades of Minnesota Law lawyers, many of whom are now leaders of the legal profession and beyond, have been affected by Erin, her support, and her outstanding leadership. She is a treasured colleague and a terrific assistant dean of student affairs."

Jenkins also lauds Keyes for infusing her work with enormous empathy and concern for students, and serving as a model of student-centered, inclusive community building  in Mondale Hall as well as for other law schools across the country.  "In particular, her advocacy in addressing the needs of LGBTQ+ students and her ongoing support for greater mental health resources at the Law School have led to countless changes at Minnesota Law," Jenkins says.   

"Decades of Minnesota Law lawyers, many of whom are now leaders of the legal profession and beyond, have been affected by Erin, her support, and her outstanding leadership."
Garry W. Jenkins, Dean & William S. Pattee Professor of Law

Keyes has been the embodiment of the Law School’s supportive community for students for the better part of two decades, says William McGeveran, Gray, Plant, Mooty, Mooty & Bennett professor of law who, as associate dean for academic affairs, worked closely with Keyes. 

“Erin has really been a champion of establishing support for our students, bringing deeper awareness to stress, mental health, and addiction struggles that law students and attorneys experience,” McGeveran says. “She has been at the forefront of thinking about what to do to change that culture without sacrificing the rigor that makes legal education special.”

A Longtime Interest in Students Affairs

Keyes started focusing on the personal and educational issues that affect students when she worked in student affairs as an undergraduate at Carleton College. After graduating from Minnesota Law in 2000, she wanted to be of service.  She took a position at Central Minnesota Legal Services, where she helped people with domestic violence cases, divorce, child custody matters, and more.

Keyes’ return to the Law School to take the assistant dean of students job four years after graduating might seem counterintuitive given that she did not particularly enjoy her time as a law student. As one of a few LGBTQ+ students and with her focus on public interest law, she did not find the environment easy. But this is exactly what motivated her; she wanted to help provide a better experience for others and to help them soar. “It felt like the dream job I never knew I wanted,” she says. 

It’s been a fulfilling career for Keyes. “No two years are ever the same, and no two students are ever the same. There is always some new, interesting problem or opportunity to tackle,” she says. “I wanted to help students be better equipped to handle challenging circumstances and be there to assist as issues came up. No one gets through law school or legal practice or life by themselves.”

Eminently empathetic

Many students, faculty, and staff benefitted from Keyes’ deep wells of compassion and empathy. Geordie Griffiths ’15 was about to start law school when he learned that his mother’s cancer had returned and that her prognosis wasn’t good. Griffiths met with Keyes several times during the first couple of weeks of classes as he grappled with what to do.

Keyes told Griffiths, “We’re going to help you press a pause button on law school.” Then she assisted him in petitioning the University for a deferral and to have all his tuition and fees reimbursed so he could start fresh as a 1L the following fall.

“I can’t say enough about how meaningful Erin’s advocacy was for me,” says Griffiths, who today is a trust and estate attorney at George Byron Griffiths Law in Minneapolis. “She was the one who said, ‘Law school can wait, but you can’t get your time with your mom back. Erin was very empathetic and a great listener and problem solver. She could take any situation and figure out the best way to get through it, and do it in a way that was meaningful, personal, and long-lasting.”

Griffiths also valued Keyes’ ability to convene people. He was a second career law student, and Keyes suggested that Griffiths help relaunch the student group Older and Wiser Law Students (OWLS). It became an important support system for Griffiths and other older students, providing a cohort and sense of camaraderie for them. 

Keyes regularly used her capacity and will to make things happen when she saw a need or a good idea. Ramsey County District Court Judge Nicole Starr ’03 casually proposed an idea on Facebook in 2020 to develop a class about whiteness and structural racism. Instead of just hitting the “like” button and moving on, Keyes got involved, connecting Starr with leaders at Minnesota Law. Starr, now an adjunct professor, has taught “Race and the Law: Systems, Structures, and Solutions” every semester since the fall of 2020. 

“Erin is the type of person who cares deeply about the people she serves, and she does her work with a level of personal integrity and humanity that few have.”
Ramsey County District Court Judge Nicole Starr ’03

 “Erin is the type of person who cares deeply about the people she serves, and she does her work with a level of personal integrity and humanity that few have,” Starr says. When Starr had the idea for her class but needed support in working out the details, Keyes “helped me make it happen. That’s the kind of person she is. She takes ideas and makes connections and watches the world change!”

 Keyes viewed a key part of her job as bolstering existing peer-to-peer supports by equipping student leaders and instructors with information and training each fall. For most of her tenure, Keyes co-directed the Structured Study Group (SSG) academic support program by hiring, training, and exchanging feedback with student instructors. She aimed to ensure that all students felt supported and had options to gain help from a diverse array of peers. Keyes also worked to create programming and services that support students with challenges, including mental health or being from an underrepresented group.

“Dean Keyes just really stands out from my law school experience as someone who is really bright and warm and caring. ... She definitely made a mark while she was there.”
Jenna Nand ’12

Jenna Nand ’12, an SSG instructor as a 2L and 3L, saw how dedicated Keyes was to students’ mental health and personal success. Her compassion and kindness shone through, coupled with a great sense of humor. “Dean Keyes just really stands out from my law school experience as someone who is really bright and warm and caring,” says Nand, a solo practitioner at Fortuna Law in Seattle. “She’s such an asset, it’s a loss for the Law School. She definitely made a mark while she was there.”

 A Resource for All

On top of being a resource for students, Keyes often played that role for faculty and staff, as well. McGeveran recalls a precarious time when a student came to his office distraught and in crisis; McGeveran called Keyes for help. She quickly got the student lined up with an appointment at Student Counseling Services and walked with the person across the bridge to the center. 

Holm Belsheim ’20, an attorney at Messerli Kramer in Minneapolis, appreciated Keyes’ pragmatism when he worked with her on Minnesota Law’s diversity, equity, and inclusion committee. Often committee members proposed big ideas for transformative change. Keyes would find ways to be realistic about what could be accomplished and help the group plan for achievable next steps. He also was impressed by how Keyes created ways for underrepresented law students to bring forward sensitive concerns in a discreet way. 

“Erin was optimistic without being unrealistic, and she knew how to work with the rest of the administration,” Belsheim says. “She was a nexus for a lot of students, faculty, and staff to come and make requests and complain to or to just be heard. She knew how to balance expectation management with encouragement and offers of help and resources.”

Keyes emphasized wellness for the Minnesota Law community in many ways. She advocated for the University to open a mental health clinic on the West Bank so students would have easier access to services. She helped develop a wellness room in Mondale Hall where people can unwind, do yoga, pray, or even participate in pet therapy. Keyes worked to make the school welcoming to all, McGeveran says, such as bringing awareness to issues related to gender identity and counseling professors on how to use students’ pronouns.

Keyes hopes her lasting impact is establishing a robust network of support for everyone at Minnesota Law. “The thing I love most about my job is the day-to-day interactions with students,” she says. “I’m proud of the times that I’m the last to know that a student is struggling because there are faculty and peers and friends that have already rushed in to help.” 

 Suzy Frisch is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.