Interview with Professor Brenda Gibson

Professor Brenda Gibson

Wake Forest Law Professor Brenda Gibson never set out to become a teacher—especially not a professor of legal writing. Although she is a natural writer, she struggled through her first semester of legal writing in law school. “Legal writing is this very technical, almost mathematic formula,” she says. “For the legal reader, every additional word is potential litigation. I thought it was so ugly.”

But she kept at it. Fast forward to 2024—Professor Gibson, who has served on the Wake Forest Law faculty since 2020, is now an expert in legal writing and research. Her own research focuses on the science of pedagogy and its intersections with social science, history, and the law. 

Now that she has tenure, she is interested in exploring ways to prepare students for the secondary trauma they are likely to experience as attorneys, starting by teaching a professional responsibility class focused on just that. “Although we know that secondary trauma is a big part of what lawyers encounter in practice, we have been pretty silent on that, whereas there are classes for social workers and doctors,” says Professor Gibson.

She also wants to educate students about diversity, equity, and inclusion—something she sees as critical for attorneys to be able to relate to their clients. “If you don’t know how to communicate with a client, that client will take their business elsewhere,” says Professor Gibson. 

Learn more about Professor Gibson in the interview below.

How did you decide to become a professor?

By sheer happenstance. I was on staff counsel at the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which is the permanent staff of attorneys. I loved the job. I loved the people. But I just couldn’t see myself retiring as a staff attorney. I got a call one day from someone who had been my first-year legal writing professor. At that time, she was the academic dean at North Carolina Central University School of Law, where I went to law school.

She said, “Hey, I think we have a job for you as a legal writing director.” Initially, I wasn’t really interested in the job. All I could think about was that I was going to have to drive to Durham every day. It’s a 45-minute commute. I had two young kids at the time. I would be North Carolina Central School of Law’s first legal writing director. At the time, it was an adjunct-based program, and I would be the only full-time person at that point. I didn’t really know what any of that meant. I knew nothing about the academy, knew nothing about tenure, knew nothing other than reading and writing the law, which I enjoyed. I initially struggled with legal writing in law school. But once I could get my head wrapped around the formula, I could do it. But my former professor remembered my unwillingness to give up. She said, “I think you would be the perfect person to teach our students and to direct this program because you went from struggling with legal writing to law clerk to now full-time staff attorney.” So that’s how I began to teach fresh out of the court of appeals.

What is one thing you wish you knew in law school?

I think I was a little laid back in law school, but not as much as I wished, because it all turns out. You get a job, and your first job is not going to be the job, maybe. For me, it happened to be the job that I needed. I was a law clerk to a really good guy who was instrumental in guiding my career and making sure that we knew that there’s life outside of the law—you need to take care of your family, you need to take care of yourself—all of this is still going to be here. As I tell my students now, the thing that you are obsessing over right now, in five years, it won’t even matter. And if you think about everything like that, you can settle down a little bit.

You are an expert on law teaching and legal writing and research. Are there any accepted truths about your areas of expertise that you disagree with? If so, what’s your viewpoint, and what evidence or experience supports it?

Oh God, “expert.” <laughs> For years and years in the law, the Socratic method has been used in doctrinal classes. Students hate it, and it’s been criticized as being antiquated and contraindicated for the students that we currently teach. Though we don’t use the Socratic method in the legal writing classroom where skills are being built, there are certain enduring mnemonics that we use to help in terms of legal analysis, be it Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion (IRAC) or Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Application, Conclusion (CREAC). Notably, I have colleagues who are writing in the area of rhetoric and looking at some of those frameworks as a part of the systemic racism and patriarchy, and the old guard, in terms of teaching. What I know to be true is that grammar is fluid, writing is fluid, and if that is the case, that means that legal writing needs to be fluid as well. I try to teach my students to use the mnemonics that we have to help them write, but not to hinder them, or feel like [they] can’t ever operate outside of that because things are changing and moving every day.

I always tell my students, “The mark of a good legal writer is you tell the reader what you’re going to write about, and you write about that—you take them through the document.” 

What is the future of your scholarship?

Right now, I’m working on an article that talks about trauma in the legal profession and the importance of building community and improving resilience. I write about the things that I’m passionate about. 

I am also interested in proposing a symposium at one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) law schools to explore law school admissions ever since the Fair Admissions case came down from the Supreme Court saying that race should not be considered in admissions—basically striking down affirmative action’s use in post-secondary admission, including law school. When that decision came down, I immediately thought, “We’re rolling the clock back to ‘separate but equal.’”

And then I have another piece that one of my research assistants is working on about the effect that voter registration has on jury selection.

I don’t have the pedigree that some of my colleagues have, but—for whatever reason—I’m here. And so I refuse to believe I don’t belong. [Sometimes] I feel like the odd person out. [But] I am not going to dim the light so that you’re not blinded by it. I’m not going to shrink to fit in the room. I have reached this age where I’ve just decided that we are just going to make it go.

What is the biggest challenge you are facing in your role and area of expertise and how are you tackling it?

You teach to everyone in the room. But there are going to be one or two who are just not getting it. You meet one-on-one with them. You deploy your teaching assistants and you just can’t get them where you want them to be. And that is a challenge for me. I want everyone—which sounds so hokey—to succeed. 

How do I tackle that? Not well <laughs>, because I don’t like to lose. But I’m not competitive with other people. I think I’m most competitive with my personal best, and I certainly don’t ever want to feel like I’ve failed a student. But I really do want them to get their money’s worth. I literally will sit there and try to figure out their breaking point. Was it me? Maybe it’s a thing where law school is just not for them, or maybe it hasn’t clicked quite yet. But I struggle with that because I want my classroom to be a space where everyone can learn. And the challenge is being okay with those one or two who just didn’t get it.

What is your “why”? 

My “why” is to make sure that the next generation of lawyers is prepared. My “why” is to make sure black and brown people, like me, and women, like me, know that they can do it, to know that you don’t have to have a pedigree to do this. The profession is still white-male-dominated. It has not been an easy road. But I think that with each step that I take, I’m leaving a footprint for others to come behind me. And that’s my “why.”

What is it that kept you going through the trials and setbacks?

I am too mean to quit. <laughs> I have a village of people who have supported me, who have seen things in me that I haven’t seen. So what’s the next thing? Because when you get good at one thing, then it’s, “Okay, what’s my next?” I left my former institution after 14.9 years. I had a seven-year presumptively renewable contract with the same language as tenure, but it wasn’t tenure. So, [I] was [like], “Let me see if this little Black girl from South Carolina can get tenure.” And that’s what I did this year. So now it’s, “What’s my ‘next’?”

What is your next?

I have the ability to bring diverse, clashing voices together to get work done. I don’t care how you vote, what your politics are, what your gender preference is—I don’t care about any of that. At the end of the day, in an academic setting, we need to get these students to the finish line. We need to prepare the next generation of lawyers. We need them to be healthy. We need them to be well-educated and decent people. 

I, by design, went to an HBCU for law school because I had never attended school at one before. I wanted to see what life is like on the other side. And then I went back to the court of appeals where my judge was one of maybe two people who hired people who were minorities. So after being there, the doors started opening. It was like they said, “Oh, okay. So Black people can write…so Black people can do such-and-such.”

This year I learned a lot from my students. They said that they feel like the “cancel culture” will keep them from making the mark that they’d like to make. I never even thought about that. That blew me away because here we are waiting for Gen Z to make it alright because they are so intolerant of social injustice and all of these things. And they are scared to death that if they say the wrong thing, they’ll be canceled. 

One day, I’d like to utilize my talents to bring diverse voices to one table to seriously discuss and deploy best practices in legal education, so that both administrators, professors, and students feel supported and heard. I’m not sure what that job title is just yet, though.  

What is a common myth about your job as a professor? As an attorney?

That it’s somehow easier than law school, that somehow we work less. No one tells you about the grading and how hard it is. I use a rubric to keep me honest. I am thankful for anonymous grading because I like all of my students and I want all of them to excel. So, when I just have a number on a paper and my rubric, I’m locked and loaded. Whereas if there was a name there and no rubric, it would be difficult. We need to be as objective as possible in grading, but everybody still hates it. <laughs> I read each paper probably three times. The first time, just reading it over, the second time to make sure that I saw what I thought I saw. And the ones that are not so great, they get a third go to see if I can find any more points. Because I tell my students I don’t get an ‘atta girl’ or a raise for failing everybody. I’ve got to make sure you can write. I have to get you to the finish line. I have to get you ready for your summer job as a 1L. I have to get you ready for your 2L job, for your career, for taking the bar. It’s not an easy job at all. For people who do this, you must be really clear about what your ‘why’ is and the ‘why’ is usually not the paycheck. It can’t be the paycheck, <laughs> not if you teach legal writing.

What does your morning routine look like?

I am what my friends would call “second shift.” So I fake it until 10:00 a.m. Usually, I get up if I’m into my exercise routine. That would be about 7:00-7:30 a.m. First, before I can get out of bed, I’ve got to hit my Joyce Meyer 15-minute morning devotional. And I have to talk to myself: “Brenda, you’re going to have to get up.” Then I’ll head over to my Bible app and do 15 more minutes. So after about 30 minutes of wrestling with myself, I will get up and either pull on my sweats and some sneakers and go for my morning mile and a half walk. Or if it’s an off day, I’ll just head into the bathroom and take a shower. But the first thing on my agenda every day is what I learned 30-something years ago at Franklin Covey, planning and solitude.

So I spend some time in prayer and wrestling with myself so that I can be fit for human consumption. And then I do intermittent fasting, so I don’t eat until noon, but I’m a green tea drinker, so a cup of kombucha, green tea, or some kind of herbal tea. I generally work on my scholarship from 10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. I have a virtual writing circle that I have been writing with since I got to Wake Forest Law. So we write and sometimes it’s the two of us. Sometimes it’s five, sometimes it’s 10. If it’s a teaching day, I try to write 30 minutes before I head to campus or after I get here. Once I get here, it’s all class prep and getting ready for my students. 

What’s your favorite self-help book?

The current one I’m reading is Worthy by Jamie Kern Lima. Jamie Kern Lima said, “There is a difference between self-confidence and feeling worthy.” I realized I had a lot of self-confidence, but I was still that little girl who didn’t feel worthy. To do the jobs we do, we have to be self-confident. But we start looking at what others are accomplishing—like my colleagues who have written books. I’ve written a little research book, but I, all of a sudden, feel like I’m not worthy. What is that about? Why is that? My favorite book of all time is Joyce Meyer’s The Battlefield of the Mind. That was like a reckoning for me to realize that if we got out of our heads, we would be in better shape.

You were adopted. Did you grow up knowing that?

It was a big thing in my family because my adopted mom was my grandparents’ only natural child. I don’t even know how many kids they fostered and there were four formally adopted. If there was someone in the community who was having a hard time or a particular kid wasn’t doing what they needed to do, my grandfather would say, “Okay, we got an extra bunk in the back bedroom,” and they’d come and they’d help my granddaddy on the farm. They also had to go to school and to church on Sunday. That’s just what they did. 

My parents are so responsible for who I am now. [My birth mom] was just recently diagnosed with cancer. The first time we met in person, it was really tough for her. I told her, “I need you to understand I have nothing but the highest regard for you because after carrying two boys, I don’t know what it is like not being able to care for a child and to reach out to people who I know who can do a better job.”

The love and the support and the village that surrounded me—I was cool. Of course, there were the mean kids at school who would tease me and say, “You’re adopted!” I didn’t want to be different. But I remember my dad saying, “Their parents didn’t get to pick, but we chose you.”

You feel strongly about encouraging and supporting students in establishing a healthy work/life balance. You also have a passion for encouraging minority students to become academics. Tell me more about that.

I feel really passionately about being well in this profession because I’ve seen so many people who are unwell. And I know that type-A people—we go until we hit a wall, and I’d like my students to know going into the profession that it’s hard and that they need to develop some positive coping skills. Because a lot of times, it’s almost like grammar. You start teaching them legal writing and they want to leave grammar at the door. I don’t want them to leave their wellness at the door because now they’re going to be these great big attorneys. So many great big attorneys have hit that wall and had to come back from that. 

I think students do better when there are people who look like them because we do have implicit biases. The brain feels more comfortable with a person who looks like them. We have students of all cultures in the seats. Therefore, we need to have professors of all cultures standing up in the classroom. It makes for better decision-making and science supports that. I think that all types of diversity is important in academia as well because increasingly, we have students who are neurodivergent. We need to know that’s a part of being diverse as well. It’s not just race or gender. Diversity should include all the things.