Interim Dean Suzanne Reynolds (’77) first woman to lead Wake Forest Law

Photo of Wake Forest University School of Law Dean Suzanne Reynolds (JD '77)

Dean Suzanne Reynolds ('77)

She fell in love with the law at church. A small Methodist Church in Davidson County, N.C., to be precise, which found itself smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. “When I was 11 years old, our preacher preached every sermon on civil rights issues. It made perfect sense to me. In fact, living in the segregated South, I couldn’t understand why every person of faith wasn’t speaking out about civil rights.”

The preacher was ahead of his congregation, though, and he didn’t last very long.

“His leaving threw me, but I began to think of law as a way of fighting that fight. Not too long after that, we had a guest teacher for a series of Sunday School classes –Walter Foil Brinkley, who was later president of the North Carolina Bar Association. I loved the way he thought, and taught.  I asked my parents what he did, and they said, ‘Why, he’s a lawyer.’ Walter Foil had planted the seed.”

Wake Forest Law’s Interim Dean Suzanne Reynolds (’77) almost didn’t choose the law as a profession.

“I was going to be a college English professor and entered a Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina after graduation from Meredith College. Sometime later, I decided that English would be my avocation instead of my life’s work and returned to the passion that witnessing racial injustice had stirred. I took the full scholarship that Wake Forest Law offered me, and I discovered that studying law and writing about it was like writing about Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  Reading a statute or a well-written opinion is like reading one of the poems of the Belle of Amherst. Every word counts.”

In fact, Reynolds kept thinking about Emily Dickinson, at least some of the time, while she was in law school.  During the summers after her first and second years of law school, she finished writing her master’s thesis – on Emily Dickinson’s poetry – while she held down other positions, like a research assistant for Professor Charley Rose and as a summer associate in the law firm of Smith Moore Smith Schell & Hunter. She received her master’s degree the year before she received her law degree.

Reynolds thought when she left the law school that she would be back. “Pasco Bowman was dean. He called me into his office one day during my third year and said, ‘Go practice for a few years and then come back. I want you to teach for us.’ I loved practice, but then Professor Charley Rose called me and said that now was the time.”

Reynolds practiced securities and real property litigation at Smith Moore before returning to Wake Forest Law as a professor. She started teaching the same year that Professors Wilson Parker and David Logan and several other people joined the faculty. “It was a lot for this law school to handle,” she said with a laugh. “The law school decided that it would never again hire five new faculty members in one year.”

Family Law becomes her passion

Regarded as one of leading family law experts in North Carolina, it may be surprising to learn she never took a family law course. “I took family law cases on a pro bono basis while I was in practice, where I saw how unfair family law was to women. I wanted to teach the law, write about it, and lobby for changes.  Family law gave me the forum.”

Gender issues had been an especially hot topic when Reynolds was studying law at Wake Forest. During those years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a lawyer arguing gender discrimination cases before the United States Supreme Court – and winning them.  Little did Reynolds know that through Wake Forest, one day she would count the U.S. Supreme Court Justice among her friends.

Eventually, Reynolds took over the writing of the three-volume treatise, North Carolina Family Law, from retired Professor Robert E. Lee and from Professor Rhoda Billings. “I completely re-wrote the treatise into what Lexis published as the fifth edition,” she said. “I am delighted that it is cited in district courts around the state – sometimes by lawyers on both sides of the issues – and by the North Carolina appellate courts.”

Her teaching and scholarship has given her the forum she wanted. Reynolds was a principal drafter of statutes that modernized alimony and adoption laws, and she co-founded a domestic violence program nationally recognized by the American Bar Association for providing legal assistance to the poor.  For this and other work, Reynolds received the Gwyneth B. Davis Award for Public Service presented by N.C. Association of Women Attorneys in 1996 and a Distinguished Woman of the Year award presented by Gov. Jim Hunt in 1998.  In 2006, she received a Woman of Wisdom award from the N.C. Association of Women Attorneys, and in 2009, a Woman of Achievement award from the Women’s Clubs of North Carolina.  Meredith College named her its Distinguished Alumna in 2011.

As Associate Dean of Administration and Students Ann Gibbs puts it, “There are few people connected to Wake Forest Law who don’t know Suzanne either as a classmate, a fellow alumna, a professor, the academic dean and now the interim dean.”

Reynolds is the first woman to lead Wake Forest Law as dean. Serving as executive academic dean for the past four year prepared her well to step in to the role.

“I would shrink from this role as interim dean, but I think there is a real role for a long-timer like me in a period of transition,” she told Associate Dean for Information Services and Technology Chris Knott during an Inside the Author’s Studio interview with the Professional Center Library staff over the summer.

“Everyone here knows me, and we all like and trust each other. Because people love Blake Morant so much, it caught them off guard when he announced his departure. But then a trusted colleague steps up to fill the breach. I think that’s how the law school community feels about my being in this position. This year is going to be fun. We’ll share our hopes and dreams for the law school as we search for a permanent replacement.”

Foray into politics leads to Uniform Laws Conference

Reynolds is no stranger to the world of politics either. “I stepped way out of my comfort zone when I decided to run for the N.C. Supreme Court,” Reynolds said. “I was alarmed by how few opinions the North Carolina Supreme Court was writing, especially about family law, and I decided that I shouldn’t just complain about it:  I should try to fix it.”

One thing led to another, and she found herself in her first political contest, running against an incumbent for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

“Talk about unexpected places,” Reynolds said. “I traveled across the state doing what candidates do. I left my law professor’s office and found myself on the back of a convertible waving to people crowding the streets of Conover, N.C., for the Old Soldiers Parade. At the Duplin County Candidate Cake Auction, I sold a carrot cake to a raucous crowd of Democrats. And in Hertford County, I yelled into a screeching microphone so the crowd could hear what I was running for after the local firefighters’ finished singing ‘Heartaches by the Number.’  What a ride!“

She narrowly lost the race and returned to Wake Forest. “I decided that I would throw myself into a new course, one that I had always thought we should offer the students.”  The result was a course that eventually turned into the Child Advocacy Clinic, which seeks to protect children in a family where there is domestic violence.

Her performance in the Supreme Court race, almost unseating an incumbent, drew the attention of Gov. Beverly Perdue, who appointed Reynolds as one of the 10 commissioners from North Carolina on Uniform State Laws.

“I love the work of the Uniform Law Conference,” she adds. “The Conference deserves much of the credit for legislation that makes child support easier to collect, an important topic to me.”

For the past year, Reynolds has served as the reporter for a uniform act that would enforce the domestic violence orders entered in another country.

She credits Wake Forest also for nurturing her friendship with Justice Ginsburg. “I interviewed Justice Ginsburg in 2005 in Wait Chapel for ‘A Conversation with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.’ Though over a thousand people crowded Wait Chapel, it felt as it we were by ourselves talking to each other in one of our homes.  At the end of the conversation, we spontaneously stood up and hugged each other.”

Two years later, Reynolds interviewed Justice Ginsburg again before a capacity crowd in Asheville, N.C., for the North Carolina Bar.

Association, and a few months later, they were together again in Venice for one of the law school’s summer abroad programs. “I’d spend the morning doing what the students did – hanging on her every word. She’s a wonderful teacher.  In the afternoon, we’d explore Venice together.  What a gift.”

A self-described “nerd” as a child, Reynolds is more comfortable talking about her parents, her husband, and her three children, than she is talking about herself.  She inherited her father’s love of academics – he was second in his class at Clemson University– and her mother’s caring nature.

“My father was a great example of the greatest generation,” she says. “A fighter pilot in the Pacific during WWII, we all recognized him for the hero he was.  My mother, holding her own at 93, has spent most of her life trying to make other people happy.”

Reynolds’ husband, Hoppy Elliot (’77), is a trial lawyer who practices employment law and other civil litigation. He has won numerous awards for this work and for his pro bono work. The N.C. Civil Liberties Union recently presented him with its prestigious Frank Porter Graham award. Michael Elliot, their son, practices with Hoppy in the Charlotte office of Elliot Morgan Parsonage. Caroline Elliot, also a lawyer, handles felonies as a public defender in Wake County, N.C.  Their youngest, Lillie Elliot, is a photographer in Denver, Colo.

“As you see in my office, Lillie is a fantastic photographer. I’m glad she had no interest in being a lawyer.”

While a national search to find a permanent dean for the law school began in September, Provost Rogan Kersh says: “We have great confidence in our law leadership team, under the experienced guidance of Suzanne, and look forward to working with the team to successfully navigate the shifting winds of legal education.”