As a young law professor, Suzanne Reynolds was drawn to the field of family law because of the gender disparities she saw written into the state’s laws – antiquated notions she would work to change in a long career as a prominent expert in the field.
More than 30 years later, she made another stride for women. Last month, Reynolds was named the first female law school dean at Wake Forest University, where she earned her law degree and has worked as a professor and administrator since 1977.
Reynolds is part of a wave of female law school deans taking the helm of law schools this year, which she calls an “overdue correction.” In 2005, less than 20 percent of law school deans were women, compared with nearly half of the students. But 11 of the 28 new deans hired this summer are women, according to a National Jurist magazine article that highlighted Reynolds, bringing the total to 30 percent.
Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch was so sure Reynolds was the right person for the job, he asked her to take the position even though she had not formally applied. After a national search, the hiring committee agreed Reynolds was the best choice.
She is the author of the authoritative text on North Carolina family law matters, and co-founded the law school’s domestic violence program, which earned recognition from the American Bar Association for its work providing legal assistance to low-income abuse victims.
For the past five years, she has served as academic dean in the school. Hatch says Reynolds brings to the role a unique combination of high-level scholarship, administrative skill, commitment to community work and a natural ability to engage with students.
“She is a wonderful mentor and model for our law students, exemplifying the blend of research and practice that distinguishes the school,” Hatch says. “With her long history here and her commitment to the school, she was the best choice to move us forward in the right direction.”
Reynolds, 66, grew up in Lexington, where she developed an early interest in social justice causes. Her father served as the county chair of the Democratic Party, and worked particularly hard on the campaign of Gov. Terry Sanford. He also organized the county’s first baseball league and served as PTA president.
“I grew up understanding that if you had an ability to lead or to organize or get things accomplished, it was your responsibility to do it,” she says.
She led the Teen Democrats at her high school during the time when the first African-American students were allowed to attend schools alongside whites. She recalls being struck by the courage of the two black students who integrated her large high school.
“It was an overwhelming responsibility on their small shoulders,” she says.
She majored in English at Meredith College, and was in a Ph.D. program in English at UNC-Chapel Hill when she realized she wanted to switch gears for her future career. She says she chose law school in part because she saw the legal profession as a platform for social change.
She worked in private practice once she earned her law degree at Wake Forest, but she was eager to return to the classroom, in part because she felt that was a better vantage point to focus on the larger implications of the law.
“As a law professor, you have a podium where you can get right to the thick of things and the audience receives you, accurately, as objective,” she says. “You’re bringing information to the topic.”
At the time, she was particularly interested in gender discrimination.
When she earned her law degree, for instance, women were required to have a separate interview with a court official before they signed a separation agreement – an antiquated requirement meant to ensure they understood the proceedings.
“It’s so humiliating and patronizing,” she says.
Her work would eventually encompass the gamut of family law topics. She has written several editions of the three-volume book that details the statutes and court rulings pertaining to family law.
She has helped draft laws that modernize the practices of alimony and adoption, and has done extensive research on the outcomes of custody disputes.
As a nationally known expert, she has weighed in on everything from the role of income in custody disputes to civil suits for adultery and welfare reform, offering her interpretations of the law to policymakers and local and national media outlets.
One of the areas of law she felt most passionate about was domestic violence, and she spearheaded several initiatives to help victims. One is a free clinic for low-income victims, and another is a clinic that trains law students to provide judges with the information they need to make custody decisions in the wake of a domestic violence complaint.
While she notes that she seeks to offer objective information in her scholarly work, she has also delved into the political arena at times.
She was an ardent opponent of the constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in the state in 2012, joining other family law professors to film a video against it and even traveled the state to speak out.
Reynolds also tried her own hand at politics, running for the state Supreme Court in 2008. She was drawn into the race by the newly established rules that allowed public financing. She was narrowly defeated by the incumbent, Bob Edmunds.
Her role as dean may require her to rein in her advocacy as she focuses her energies on the future of the law school. A key task at hand is to respond to rapid changes in the legal profession and law education, which is recovering from a steep downturn in student interest in recent years.
But for now, Reynolds is still relishing her historic moment.
Last week, she spoke at a Charlotte event held by the League of Women Voters to commemorate Women’s Equality Day, the anniversary of women earning the right to vote.
Among her most gratifying moments so far was the impromptu cheering of the law school students when they announced that she would be the first female dean.
“I think we tend to celebrate firsts, and in this case, I’ve enjoyed the celebration,” she says.
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Born: July 1949, Lexington
Career: Dean, Wake Forest University School of Law
Awards: H. Brent McKnight Renaissance Lawyer Award, N.C. Bar Association, 2015; named Distinguished Woman of the Year by then-Gov. Jim Hunt, 1998; Gwyneth B. Davis Award for Public Service, N.C. Association of Women Attorneys, 1996; Joseph Branch Teaching Excellence Award, 1994;
Education: B.A. English, Meredith College; M.A. English, UNC-Chapel Hill; J.D. Wake Forest University
Family: Husband Robert, or “Hoppy;” children Michael, Caroline and Lillie; one grandchild
Notable: Reynolds says that she has always used her husband’s unusual nickname, “Hoppy,” in her class examples, as in, “Let’s say Hoppy doesn’t pay his alimony.” “Generations of people have all these bad associations with Hoppy, and he’s such a kind man. He didn’t do any of these things.”