Aisha Gayle ’08: Boxes be darned

November 5, 2007Duke Law News

Aisha Gayle credits her parents with raising her to appreciate what she has ― and always strive for more. “They didn’t set boundaries, but encouraged me to go bigger, dream bigger, do more things,” says Gayle.

She has taken their encouragement to heart. Since graduating from Yale in 2002 with a degree in American studies, she has incorporated her diverse interests in creative writing, education, and law into her activities and career goals.

After spending a year as a news associate for NBC, where she worked on Today, the Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, and Dateline, Gayle enrolled in Columbia’s School of the Arts, where she completed a novel and earned a master’s degree in creative writing in 2005.

While in graduate school, she taught at a Brooklyn foster home for boys and a Bronx charter school. “About 10 boys would show up each week and churn out heart-wrenching poetry. They put their guard down for a little while and there was respect and art and creativity and sharing,” Gayle says. Their stories of chaotic schools, made Gayle realize how desperately minority communities need advocates for change in the public school system ― and helped spark her interest in law, she says.

“With law you can directly [and] tangibly affect people’s lives,” Gayle says. “However grandiose or small, I think a lot of students go into the law with the simple desire to be of service to their families and their communities, and that’s certainly true of me.”

Duke Law School has encouraged her continued intellectual growth, Gayle says. Doing in-depth research into a criminal case for a wrongful convictions class “was an amazing and rewarding experience” that she says reminded her why she came to law school. Intellectual property and entertainment law classes with Professor David Lange have introduced her to an area of law that plays to her creative side.

“In one paper I explored under what circumstances people become joint authors. It addressed musicals like “Rent” or plays about ‘Moms’ Mably. There was such a mesh between what I was interested in at Columbia and what I got to do in [Professor Lange’s] class ― it just felt like it was the perfect fit.” Gayle has also explored the practical side of intellectual property law as a summer associate with Kirkland & Ellis and Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

One pro bono project with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts has allowed Gayle to combine her passions for creative writing and law as she helped a client in her efforts to get a movie produced. “[In the course of doing legal work,] I had to read through her screenplay and, because it was second nature to me, I ended up taking notes and making suggestions. After that she would contact me to ask for my thoughts about different scenes. Again, it was a great mix of my interests,” says Gayle.

Gayle is involved with the Sports & Entertainment Law Society and the Black Law Students Association (BLSA). As BLSA’s vice president, she helped organize a mentoring program that pairs Duke students with local high school students to help guide them through the college application process. She was also instrumental in organizing a roundtable discussion to address the high attrition rate of women of color from law firms.

“The issues the panel raised and that came out of that discussion ― mentorship opportunities, affinity groups, flex time ― are things that I will use to assess which firm I want to be at long term,” she says.

Gayle is currently mulling offers while studying intellectual property law ― and improving her Spanish ― during a semester at Austral University in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She hopes to launch her career at a firm that will help her develop into an “incredible advocate,” she says. After that?

“I would love to be involved with educational policy, perhaps working for the government on a regional level. There are still books to be written. An IP lawyer? A teacher? I know that one day there will be the perfect way for me to combine my interests,” Gayle says. “But I have gone from wanting to be a trauma surgeon at age 6 to wanting to be a writer somewhere in the teenage angst years to wanting to be a lawyer. I have no doubt there will be more goals before I grow up for good.

“That’s part of the reason why I love Duke Law,” she says. “There are so many different people with so many different backgrounds. I feel like I attend a school that ‘gets it.’ I can be an attorney and a writer and a teacher and whatever else I want to be. Boxes be darned.”
“However grandiose or small, I think a lot of students go into the law with the simple desire to be of service to their families and their communities, and that’s certainly true of me.” Aisha Gayle '08