Professor Wendy Parker: Inspiring Us to Be Better Lawyers and Better Humans

It is impossible to capture in a few pages the impact that Professor Wendy Parker has had on Wake Forest Law. In fact, when collecting quotes for this article from faculty, students, and alumni, there was a common refrain: “You should also ask [so-and-so]. Wendy has had a significant effect on them too.”

From teaching civil procedure, torts, and employment discrimination law to countless students, to leading the Pro Bono Project and being a champion for the Public Interest Law Organization (PILO), to volunteering in the Winston-Salem community, Professor Parker’s commitment to her students and colleagues—and to social justice—has never wavered. After 20 years of service to Wake Forest Law, Professor Parker is retiring. Although she has been appointed a research professor of law and will continue to be a part of the community (especially through her efforts with PILO), the effects of her taking a step back will be felt deeply among the community.

“Wendy exemplified everything that is best about Wake Forest Law,” says Professor John Knox. “She combined a clear-eyed intelligence with a full-hearted concern for everyone else in the community, from students to staff and faculty. We will miss her enormously, but her legacy will remain part of the Wake DNA.”

Professor Parker attended the University of Texas Law School with the idea that she “wanted to go save the world. I knew I wanted to do civil rights. I went to law school with the idea that I could help make Texas or our country a better place, and I thought the law would be an effective way to do that.” After graduating from law school, she served as a judicial law clerk for Judge Jerre S. Williams of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Later, she litigated school desegregation cases as a Skadden Arps Fellow and staff attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Eventually, Professor Parker embarked on a career in legal education. She came to Wake Forest Law in 2003 from the University of Cincinnati College of Law, where she won the Goldman Prize for Excellence in Teaching twice. Her commitment to teaching was recognized by everyone who had the pleasure of engaging with her. In 2006, she received the Joseph Branch Excellence in Teaching Award and went on to become the James A. Webster Professor of Public Law in 2012.

“Professor Parker was one of my favorite professors during my time at Wake Law. I had the pleasure of having her for three classes,” says Sarahan Moser (JD ’22). “She is incredibly bright and bubbly, and she plans everything out to a T to make sure her students are engaged and able to comprehend dense topics (she impersonated a railway worker when we studied the Erie Doctrine). I love how she explained the law—she made learning civil procedure fun, which is a tough task to accomplish!”

Professor Parker’s mentorship and guidance were also key hallmarks of her ability to connect with students. “Wendy Parker is one of the most influential mentors that I have been lucky enough to have as both a professor and the Pro Bono and PILO Faculty Director,” says Amanda Spriggs Reid (JD ’23). “She has taught me how to be a more thoughtful leader and passionate advocate for change.”

Admiration for Professor Parker has been a constant at the Law School. In a 2013 “Conversation With” series discussion, a group of her first-year law students wore matching “Wendy Parker Fan Club” shirts. “The thing I’ll remember Professor Parker for the most is her selflessness in her support for student initiatives at Wake Law, and how far she was willing to go to ensure that students have as many opportunities as possible to support our community,” says current Wake Forest Law student Daniel Wilkes. “Whether it was the Pro Bono Project or PILO, Professor Parker was always an active and reassuring presence, who gave students like myself the confidence we needed to help contribute to public service.”

Not only is Professor Parker beloved by her students, but highly respected (and beloved) by her colleagues. Says Professor Ron Wright of her: “Wendy found a way to connect our students to the world, in ways that allowed them to do work they care about. In the classroom, she made legal analysis come to life. In her scholarship, she showed us all how to spot patterns in litigation related to discrimination in education and employment. And as a community member, Wendy created for her students (and for her colleagues!) many ways to meet local community needs, both in the public schools and elsewhere.”

“Among her many stellar qualities as Associate Dean, one that stood out, especially during COVID, was Wendy’s mastery of writing thoughtful, engaging, clear, amusing, and compassionate emails to the law school community,” says her colleague Professor Mark Hall. “Despite the unwelcome news they sometimes contained, I read every one with admiration, and often with delight. And, in talking to my students about effective communication with clients, I would regularly point to Wendy’s latest missive as an exemplar.”

Professor Parker expressed similar feelings about her colleagues: “When I started at Wake Forest, I felt like everyone had my back,” she has said. “Everyone wanted me to succeed and it felt like a really special place to be.”

In addition to discovering and exploring the complexities of legal norms with her students and engaging in meaningful ways with her colleagues, Professor Parker has a strong desire to employ the law for social change. This desire has manifested in many ways, including through her leadership of PILO and the Pro Bono Project. “Professor Parker has been a steadfast voice for social justice at Wake Forest Law,” says Lindsey Arneson Fields, a current law student and executive director of the Pro Bono Project. “Her work ensuring that students, faculty, and staff remember that public service is vital in the legal profession has not gone unnoticed.”

When asked in a recent article what she loves most about her job, Professor Parker responded, “Law school is known for being a pressure cooker. Thankfully, pro bono is the opposite in many ways. With pro bono, students choose how to use their legal talents in ways that align with their values and provide much-needed help to the community. I would not argue with someone who claims pro bono is the best part of a law school community—a place where legal education aligns with helping others.”

In addition to her teaching and pro bono work, Professor Parker is a nationally recognized scholar. Her research focuses on identifying solutions for how the law has created—intentionally and unintentionally—inequalities in employment and education. Her work has been published by the Northwestern University Law Review, Texas Law Review, Notre Dame Law Review, North Carolina Law Review, Washington University Law Review, William & Mary Law Review, and Hastings Law Journal, among others. She has been quoted by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press.

Even though she is on the precipice of retirement, she has remained as active and engaged as ever in the Law School community. Her most recent email to the faculty listserv was to encourage her colleagues to take action on an important civil rights issue. As is her modus operandi, Professor Parker credited two of her former students with driving the advocacy efforts.

Professor Parker’s legacy will continue long after her formal departure from Wake Forest Law. Those who have had the opportunity to learn from her, work with her, and fight for change alongside her are the better for it.

Her dear friend Professor Margaret Taylor sums it up perfectly: “Wendy Parker’s impact on Wake Law is immeasurable. First and foremost, she is a beloved teacher who taught her students to think critically, to argue creatively, and to employ the law for social change—with warmth, good humor, and a Texas twang. Wendy is also a skilled administrator who shepherded the Law School through a global pandemic, and then created enthusiasm and stability for our public interest programs. And Wendy is a treasured colleague and friend. We will miss her wit and wisdom, and are grateful for the 20 years that Wendy inspired us to be better lawyers and better humans.”