Prioritize people and network. Open yourself to trying new things. Ways of giving back are plentiful. Embrace the journey. Reputation management is important.
Gerald L. Walden Jr. G’14 believes the best lawyers are those who establish these habits and values early in their legal studies – and that means the time is now for Elon University School of Law’s newest students to commit themselves to healthier habits of mind and using their “POWER”
The president-elect of the Greensboro Bar Association delivered a Convocation address on August 5, 2022, to Elon Law’s Class of 2024, the second-largest and one of the most diverse in program history.
Walden serves as vice president/deputy general counsel and head of diversity for The Fresh Market, Inc., a specialty grocery store retailer with its corporate office headquartered in North Carolina. His remarks from him drew upon his two decades of professional experience handling most major litigation facing the company and all its labor and employment law matters.
“You are about to embark upon one of the most rigorous and I hope one of the most rewarding experiences of your life,” he said. “Becoming a lawyer.”
Walden noted how some students arrive at law school with a clear idea of the type of law they wish to practice. That’s perfectly fine, he said. Just don’t ignore opportunities that present themselves, even in practice areas you’d never before considered.
“Whenever I’m asked what makes a great intern or a new attorney, it is simply someone willing to learn,” Walden said. “Granted, being someone who is intelligent and a strong writer and researcher is a given. Beyond that, I want someone willing to work in an area of law that they had no prior knowledge about or even thought they’d like and tackle it as if they are born to do it.”
Then find ways to give back. Walden said there are many community attorneys can help resolve with the knowledge they possess.
“Law students and lawyers are uniquely positioned to help address the legal issues facing individuals, groups, and organizations to further the public good,” he said. “This may be easier for some than others based on the type of law you practice… but as a lawyer, even a law student, there are always opportunities to give your time and your talents.”
Finally, Walden said, never forget that an attorney’s reputation is critically important to his or her success.
“A brand and your reputation is important in many professions, especially those where you’re trying to attract and retain clients,” he said. “Lawyers are already the butt of many jokes and some negative stereotypes, so why feed that any further acting unprofessionally, disrespectfully, without honor or integrity?”
And protect your online reputation and how you present yourself to others. “Lock down your social media accounts as soon as possible,” Walden said. “Remove questionable pictures that could put you in a bad light. Google yourself and see what comes up. If you see anything questionable that you’re not happy with, do something to change that.”
Walden joined The Fresh Market in 2004 following two judicial clerkships at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. He is a 1996 summa cum laude graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He received his Juris Doctor with honors in 2001 from North Carolina Central University School of Law and a Master of Business Administration in 2014 from Elon University.
Walden serves on NC A&T’s Board of Visitors, NCCU Law’s Board of Visitors, Elon Law School’s Advisory Board, the Greensboro Bar Association’s Board of Directors, the National Employment Law Council’s Board of Directors and the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce’s Member Engagement Advisory Board.
In recent years, I have served as president of the Guilford County Association of Black Lawyers, a member of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Board of Governors, and as chair of the NCBA’s Minorities in the Profession Committee.
The ceremony in Alumni Gym on Elon’s main campus in Alamance County included an introduction of each member of the class who signed a copy of the Elon Law Honor Code prior to crossing a stage to shake hands with Elon University Interim Provost Raghu Tadepalli and Elon Law Interim Dean Alan Woodlief.
Convocation featured remarks by Tadepalli and Faisal Sulman L’22, president of the Student Bar Association who, coincidentally, completed his Elon Law residency-in-practice under Walden’s supervision at The Fresh Market.
Both welcomed the Class of 2024 to Elon Law: Tadepalli on behalf of the Elon faculty and administration, and Sulman on behalf of Elon Law’s student body.
Tadepalli described how Elon Law faculty enjoy teaching students both in and out of the classroom and how they are noted for their accessibility and responsiveness to students. He told the class to embrace the opportunity to work with “this community of outstanding thinkers.”
“Active scholarship is the engine that keeps faculty intellectually curious and stimulated, and research influences and improves the ideas they share with you in the classroom,” Tadepalli said. “I hope you will ask your faculty about their scholarly interests and about how they are advancing their disciplines.”
Sulman encouraged his new classmates to utilize resources at the law school as they begin a program that will challenge them in ways unlike their undergraduate studies.
“Each one of you sitting across from me has access to a phenomenal support system of faculty, staff, and experienced students willing to go above and beyond to help you. None of you are alone in this process,” Sulman said. “Law school is going to be challenging. However, it’s called law school for a reason. You’re here to learn. You won’t get everything right from the get go and that’s OK.
“Take a deep breath, reset, and try again. And if you still can’t get it, ask for help from faculty and staff and students.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Woodlief shared the symbolism of the acorn each received after signing the Honor Code poster. Their education at Elon – the Hebrew word for “oak” – will transform them over the next 2.5 years, Woodlief explained.
Upon graduation, another gift will symbolize that growth. Until then, he said, focusing on the tenets of the Honor Code will help students develop an important attribute for any lawyer.
“By embracing the values of honesty, integrity, responsibility and respect, you demonstrate your desire to serve the public good while abiding by the high standards of a noble profession,” Woodlief said. “An attorney’s reputation is the attorney’s most valuable asset.
“While earning good grades is nice, your reputation will depend less on your grades and more on what others observe about you – your worthy ethics, your diligent preparation for class, your commitment to honesty and ethical behavior, and the civility and respect you show others in the classroom and out. Those same things will shape your reputation as a practicing attorney after law school as well.”
About Elon Law
Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina, is the preeminent school for engaged and experiential learning in law. With a focus on learning by doing and among the top quartile of American law schools for low levels of student loan debt at graduation, it integrates traditional classroom instruction with course-connected, full-time residencies-in-practice in a logically sequenced program of transformational professional preparation. Elon Law’s groundbreaking approach is accomplished in 2.5 years, which provides distinctive value by lowering tuition and permitting graduates early entry into their legal careers.