PUBLISHED:July 02, 2019

Reeves retires; longtime prosecutor brought vast practical experience and caring mentorship to students at Duke Law

First-year students taking Legal Analysis, Research and Writing from Clinical Professor Diane Appleton Reeves T ’74 learned more than how to craft a brief or legal argument. Recalling experiences from her long career as a litigator, Reeves also instilled ethics, professionalism, and courtroom discipline.

“Perhaps more than any other professor I had at Duke, Professor Reeves showed a deep commitment to making sure that my classmates and I understood the great responsibility that comes with being a lawyer,” says Michael Dale ’19.

“She implored us to use our skills to give back to causes that are meaningful to us. She went out of her way to weave lessons on legal ethics into her classes. And she empowered us to be the type of lawyer who never compromises on what we feel is right.”

Reeves, who retired from Duke Law School in June 2019, says she aimed to teach students not only to do things right, but to do the right thing – and to give students the grounding in professional skills and judgment that she had to learn on the job.

"I preach a lot about ethics because all of that means a lot to me,” Reeves says. “And one of the reasons I wanted to teach at the end of my career is that when I went to law school in the late 1970s, nobody told you about the real world.

“There were some hard lessons and it was often very frightening and lonely figuring things out for yourself. And so it seems really important to me that we make an effort to teach students what we know from practical experience.”

Reeves brought a wealth of it to the classroom, having spent 10 years in civil litigation and

16 as a prosecutor. She attended Wake Forest University School of Law and “fell in love” with criminal law and the courtroom during an internship at the Winston-Salem police attorney’s office, but entered law at a time when she was usually the only woman lawyer in court and faced constant questions about her qualifications and legitimacy.

“Women who wanted to be in the courtroom had a really tough time convincing anybody that they belonged there when I first started,” she recalls. “It was really hard to even get hired for a job in litigation. And even if you had the trappings of a job and a title and a firm, there were constant barbs, snide comments, and all kinds of inappropriate, crude things being said to you. It was shocking to me that people would talk like that to another professional.”

Reeves says sheer determination kept her going. She was driven to be a prosecutor by the desire to “figure out evil” – something she traces back to age nine, when she read The Diary of Anne Frank and learned that the aspiring young writer had died in a Nazi concentration camp.

"I was so bewildered by how human beings could do that to another human being,” she recalls. “Sadly, I still don't understand why or how people can do the terrible things they do, but I know a lot more about real evil and I have a lot of horror stories in my head.”

Those stories both haunted and inspired Reeves as her career took her from serving as an assistant district attorney in the Career Criminal Unit in Charlotte to representing the State of North Carolina in state and federal trial, appellate, and post-convictions proceedings, taking off three years along the way as her three daughters were born. Before coming to Duke she spent 12 years with the North Carolina Department of Justice as an assistant and then special deputy attorney general in the Criminal Division, Capital Litigation/Federal Habeas Section.

“You go to work every day knowing what your job is,” Reeves says of the satisfaction of pursuing justice for victims. “It may not matter to anyone except that particular victim and their family, but it’s very important to some people and consequently you have a mission every day.”

In 2011 Reeves traded the courtroom for the classroom. It was a deliberate move: Early in her career, she had taught law for two years at Loyola University in New Orleans, and she decided she would end her career the same way. Her reasons were both practical – to use the knowledge and experience she had accumulated over her career to benefit the next generation of practicing lawyers – and personal.

“I really enjoyed that relationship between teacher and student where they teach you as much as you teach them, and those wonderful conversations about the meaning of life and the purpose of living and being a citizen of the world,” she says.

At Duke, Reeves taught with a candor and warmth that made her a favorite among students, who recalled her reaching out to provide one-on-one guidance and support throughout the year.

“Professor Reeves stood out as a teacher and a mentor because she was so clearly devoted to helping all of us grow as law students and as people,” says Peyton Coleman ’21.

“During a particularly new and challenging period of our educations and lives, it was both empowering and comforting to know that someone was invested in our success. Professor Reeves made us laugh, helped us see the bigger picture, and left us with many unforgettable life lessons. We all loved her class and she will definitely be missed.”

Adds Dale: “She was one of those special teachers who strikes the perfect balance between holding her students to a high standard and treating them with the utmost empathy and respect. I will never forget the impact she had on me as a person.”

Reeves was especially close to Richard Lin ’16, who praised her in his graduation speech for convincing him not to quit law school when he hit a low point. Lin died in a traffic accident in May 2017.

“We had talked about how the best life – and the best career in the law – is probably not being a star,” Reeves says of her conversations with Lin. “It’s being an ordinary person who shows up for work every day, works hard, doesn’t hurt anybody, helps and looks out for other people, and believes in doing the right thing. I think that clicked with Rich because that’s the kind of person he was already.”

Reeves says she will miss the camaraderie and easy relationships between students and faculty at Duke Law, calling it “a remarkably happy place.” She contrasts it to her own memories of law school as a pressure cooker where professors were remote and inaccessible to students.

“My father had a motto: ‘Always leave while they still want you to stay,’” Reeves says.

“It dawned on me that if I retired this spring, I would have graduated from law school and started in law exactly 40 years ago this month. So I chose exactly the moment I wanted and I love the symmetry of that circle. It feels good.”

- Jeannie Naujeck