Virtual reunion enables alumni to connect in midst of pandemic
The Law School’s first virtual reunion featured online social hours with classmates, programs featuring faculty and alumni authors and policymakers, and a town hall with Dean Kerry Abrams.
While the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of on-campus reunions last April, it did nothing to quell the desire to get together among members of Duke Law’s 2020 reunion classes — those whose graduation years ended in 0 or 5. They finally got their chance to do so during the Law School’s first virtual reunion, held Oct. 19 to 24, through online social hours with classmates, programs featuring faculty and alumni authors and policymakers, and a town hall with Dean Kerry Abrams, among other activities.
Eleven members of the Class of 2010 began their 10th reunion gathering on Oct. 19 with a workout — a 45-minute “body tone” class taught on Zoom by Emily Johnson ’10, reprising the Monday night classes she taught on campus throughout their time in law school.
After working up a sweat in their homes around the country, those alumni were joined online by a number of other classmates for a virtual happy hour in which they took turns offering updates on their lives and careers. It was different from their fifth reunion gathering on campus when they could catch up over drinks in Star Commons and North Carolina barbecue on the front lawn, but they still managed to connect meaningfully, said Johnson, a member of her class reunion committee.
“Some people there I hadn’t seen since graduation, some were dear friends, and some were friends with whom I’ve connected on social media, so I know a bit about what’s going on with their lives but haven’t talked to them in five years. It was great to visit with all of them.”
Reunion class volunteers and the Law School’s Alumni and Development staff both found that the virtual reunion exceeded expectations, said Associate Dean Kate Buchanan: “We were grateful that 367 alumni registered and made the most of the communal experience under the circumstances. We hope that the virtual reunion will help build class cohesiveness with an eye towards even more enthusiastic participation for future campus and reunion gatherings.”
Duke Law will host a virtual reunion for its 2021 reunion classes — those ending in 1s and 6s — from March 2 to 4.
Programming celebrates community, vibrant intellectual life
Abrams opened the virtual reunion with a community-wide town hall, moderated by Law Alumni Association Board President Brandon Neal ’08, in which she reviewed her priorities for Duke Law, shared insights gained through navigating the pandemic, and took questions from alumni. Other programs included a CLE course on fraud with Bernard M. Fishman Professor of Law Samuel Buell, a scholar of criminal law and regulation, and a conversation with Clinical Professor Jamie Lau ’09 and his Wrongful Convictions Clinic client, Ronnie Long, who had recently been exonerated after being wrongly incarcerated for 44 years for a rape he didn't commit.
Concurrent Saturday events presented as “Tales of Strength and Hope for this Unexpected Time,” were designed to be family-friendly. ESPN’s Jay Bilas ’92 examined the meaning of grit in sports and in life, the subject of his book, Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court. And Venus Liles ’10, the principal of Liles Law in Raleigh, presented her picture book, Luna Stays Home, which supports family conversations about the COVID-19 crisis.
The Class of 1985 brought together a panel of reunion-year alumni with vast and diverse experience in federal public service for an event titled “Duke Law Goes to Washington, D.C.” Hosted by Loren Weil ’85, who chaired his class reunion committee, and moderated by Douglas B. Maggs Professor of Law Walter Dellinger, a former acting solicitor general and assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice, the event featured Martina Bradford ’75, whose career includes serving as director of the U.S. Senate Democratic Diversity Committee and as deputy sergeant-at-arms of the Senate; Waverly Gordon ’10, deputy chief counsel for the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce; Rep. Mike Levin ’05, a Democrat representing California’s 49th District; Deanna Okun ’90, a longtime member and former chair of the International Trade Commission; and former Rep. David Trott ’85, who served Michigan’s 11th district as a Republican.
Format enables broad attendance, facilitates broad connections
As it is every year, the reunion highlight for most alumni was reuniting with peers and professors in their class gatherings, which in 2020 occurred either with all class attendees taking turns speaking in a single Zoom “room” or in randomized breakout rooms that allowed them to engage with several small groups of classmates in the course of the evening. The Class of 1995 invited two favorite professors to join their gathering — Doriane Coleman and Jim Coleman — and reminisced about the hospitality the couple extended to them as students. Abrams visited with Class of 1970 alumni who celebrated their 50th reunion. Some groups forged surprising connections: After one 1990 graduate shared his quarantine weight-loss and fitness journey through Peloton workouts, more than a half dozen aficionados made plans to cycle together.
“People in our class really liked the small, random groups and talking to people with whom they might not otherwise have spoken,” said Weil, a partner and financial services specialist at Holland & Knight in Chicago. With most of his classmates now in their early 60s, “we’ve lived a lot of life — a lot of our professional lives in particular. People have really interesting stories to tell about what they’re doing, what they’ve done, and where they are. We’d move from person to person and then people would have follow-up questions. The conversation was very comfortable and organic, and not at all forced. In fact, most of the time people felt that the individual sessions were too short.”
Lei Mei ’05, who served as his reunion committee co-chair, agreed. “At my fifth reunion, I found myself talking with friends, which was great,” he said. “But the Zoom chat rooms allowed us to talk to different classmates. And when you’re in a group with just three or four people, you get to know each other a bit better.
“One lesson we learned from this first online reunion is that while nothing compares to meeting in-person, the Zoom format can be really enjoyable.” Mei, a founder of Mei & Mark, an intellectual property boutique firm in Washington, D.C., noted that the online format also made attendance possible for far-flung classmates, including one of his in Japan. “In a normal reunion cycle it’s rare to get classmates from out of country.” The LLM Class of 2015 also proved that to be true, with 15 attendees logging into their class gathering from India, Belgium, Turkey, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Germany, as well as the United States.
Said Weil: “I think there’s something to getting people involved and together in a way that doesn’t require them to fly to Durham and doesn’t feel like such a big time commitment, but just allows them to ‘dip in’ and make a commitment of a couple of hours, not three days.” And the online format allows the conversations started at reunion to keep going: Not only does Weil now have regular Zoom get-togethers with a group of law school friends who served on the reunion class committee, but they are hoping to organize another online class gathering early in 2021.
Alumni volunteers admit that in planning the first virtual reunion they were challenged to find ways to “make this something that people want to do,” said Johnson, a partner in the Restructuring and Finance Department at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York. “When you see people in Star Commons you can have a one-off conversation and laugh about the old times. How do you recreate that virtually when everybody is sick of Zoom?”
She recommends finding a “hook.” Her workout class offered a memory of campus for her classmates who were former regulars and brought in a number of “brave souls,” who took part online for the first time. “We had a great time,” she said. “It allowed us to have share an experience with our classmates.”
Other aspects of reunion programming featuring her classmates also helped draw attendance, such as Liles’ child-friendly event and Gordon’s participation in the Duke Law Goes to Washington, D.C. event.
“I think having different members of our class involved in reunion programs helped other folks in the class say, ‘I know this person. I’ll go to that event,’” said Johnson. “It was important to have events that allow people to show themselves, and pieces of their lives.”