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Portrait of Dean Kerry Abrams
Kerry Abrams, James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean, School of Law. Photo by Chris Hildreth

Kerry Abrams

James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean, School of Law

By KERRY ABRAMS, James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean, School of Law

Community. That’s the word that Duke Law alumni invariably use when I ask them what makes Duke Law special. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they graduated 50 years ago or just received their diplomas. The reason they loved law school, and continue to love Duke, wasn’t the rigorous academic experience or the incredible professional opportunities they were offered – although those aspects of Duke Law are certainly worth celebrating! Instead, it is the friendships forged with classmates, the close relationships with faculty that last well after graduation, and the incredibly supportive alumni – in short, community – that is the most distinctive feature of the Duke Law experience.

Despite enormous change in legal education, the legal profession, and the law, this vibrant and supportive culture has endured for more than a century. When James B. Duke signed the Indenture of Trust that created Duke University in 1924, he identified law as one of four professions, along with preaching, teaching and medicine, that “by precept and example can do most to uplift mankind.” Mr. Duke recognized that being a lawyer is more than just a job. Lawyers are problem solvers. They are trained to see issues from multiple perspectives to help people resolve seemingly intractable conflicts. They uphold the “rule of law,” which enables individuals to coexist, businesses to flourish, victims to obtain compensation, and government to be held accountable. They protect the institutions that support our democracy – and seek to reform those institutions when they fail to live up to our collective ideals. Our students, faculty, and staff have always understood that the study and practice of law is not about individual achievement. Law is a community enterprise that contributes to the common good.

As we celebrate Duke’s centennial, it’s worth considering the many ways in which the Law School has grown and changed while maintaining the sense of community that has always been its hallmark. In the 1930s, we established the first law school clinic in the nation to provide free legal services to clients who could not otherwise afford a lawyer, and to provide hands-on, experiential education to students. In the 1950s and 1960s, a new dean barnstormed the country recruiting promising students, one of the first steps in transforming us from a regional to a national school. In the 1980s, we went from being a national school to a truly global one, by launching our first international programs and welcoming students from China for the first time. In the 1990s and 2000s, our faculty were pioneers in studying and teaching about the legal and ethical implications of the Internet and we became the national leader in embracing open access to legal scholarship through digitization. In the 2000s and 2010s, we expanded funding, mentorship and experiential opportunities for students aspiring to careers in public service.

Even as we celebrate the accomplishments of our community, we can also acknowledge that our concept of community has needed to expand – and must continue to do so. In 1927, we admitted our first woman student, Miriam Cox, but it would take nearly a century for women to reach parity in the student body, and they are still fighting for equity in the profession our students join upon graduation. We did not admit a Black student until 1961, when Walter Thaniel Johnson Jr. and David Robinson were two of the first three African Americans to enroll at Duke. The first Black women, Brenda Becton, Karen Bethea-Shields and Evelyn Cannon, were not admitted for another decade. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a significant increase in students who identify as LGBTQ, multiracial, disabled or neurodiverse. Our Duke Law community is coming closer to reflecting the diversity of perspectives and experiences of the clients our graduates serve.

As we move into our next century, Duke Law School is sure to grow and change in ways we cannot begin to imagine. Our faculty are exploring new scholarly terrain, confronting the opportunities and threats to privacy, liberty, justice and democracy presented by new technologies such as generative artificial intelligence. It’s my hope and aspiration that we will meet the challenge of the future with the same sense of common purpose and mutual respect that has served us so well in the past. I like to think that James B. Duke would be amazed and inspired by the Duke Law community we are today, and eager to find out all we will do to “uplift humankind” in the century ahead.