Nicole De Brigard ’23

Nicole De Brigard was surprised when Dean Kerry Abrams opened the first meeting of her Dean’s Advisory Council in April 2022 by asking each of the group’s student members to name two things they’d like to see at Duke Law School. As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, an institution with an enrollment of 61,000, De Brigard wasn’t used to administrators soliciting her opinion so directly.

But if she was caught off guard, De Brigard, a first-generation American who grew up in South Florida, had a ready answer: improving diversity. She had been pleased with the Law School’s efforts during her first year, but she hoped for still more investment in making the community welcoming to all. The question from the dean and the discussions that followed made her feel that her involvement was valued. “And where your involvement is valued, you can really make a difference,” she says.

De Brigard has worked hard to make that difference happen. In addition to serving on the Dean’s Advisory Council, she is a student representative on Duke University’s Racial Equity Action Council and the Law School’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee this year. She also worked on two initiatives to increase the pipeline of law students of color nationally, as a teaching assistant for Duke’s PreLaw Fellowship Program during her 1L summer and a law school prep coach for a deferral program sponsored by the AccessLex Institute since August. And as vice president of external affairs for the Latin American Law Students Association (LALSA) during her 2L year, she led the group’s outreach to admitted applicants last spring, helping the Admissions Office recruit the highest percentage of Latinx students in the school’s history.

“The school has made a lot of efforts towards diversity, and being able to be hands-on in that and in genuine and practical rather than performative ways — has been so rewarding,” she says.

As a kid, De Brigard gave little thought to diversity. Her parents, Colombian immigrants, spoke Spanish at home and took her and her siblings to South America nearly every summer. Home was a two-acre farm outside the Everglades where she and her three siblings cared for chickens and livestock they took in from other farmers. She says she never planned on leaving the Latinx “cultural bubble,” which extended to college, where she majored in political science and criminology, served as junior class president, and was a member of the student conduct committee; at UF 21% of the student body identifies as Hispanic or Latino.

“I am very passionate about leaving Duke Law in a better place than I found it because I know students and alums above me did the same.”

Her path to law school was set early on, though, as she watched her parents go through a protracted divorce that took 15 years to resolve and involved matters of family law, immigration law, and the family’s finances — all while her mother fought breast cancer. “I was fascinated from a young age to see how my mother’s lawyer was such an advocate and played an advisory role for my mom, who was so unfamiliar with a legal system that was just not hers,” she says. She applied as a college senior, and when she was accepted to Duke in early 2020, she pushed past her fear of culture shock and her plans to stay put in Florida.

As it turned out, though, a bigger worry soon arrived: In July, in response to COVID-19, the Law School announced it would begin the fall semester with no in-person events and mostly remote instruction. An extrovert, De Brigard now worried she was going to miss out on the thing that had made her choose Duke in the first place — the community. She moved to Durham anyway and during a virtual LEAD Week, began to get to know her classmates through their Zoom screens.

“I didn’t know them in person or how tall they were, but to this day I can describe what their bedrooms look like and what’s on their walls and what their cats look like,” she says.

She appreciated the extra efforts made by her professors to get to know her class, the first in Law School history to take their 1L courses online. Her legal writing instructor, Clinical Professor Jeremy Mullem, invited her section to weekly “walking office hours” on the Al Buehler Trail, during which they could talk to him about anything except legal writing. A similar rule applied in weekly coffee chats hosted by Charles L. B. Lowndes Professor of Law Sara Beale, who taught De Brigard Criminal Law.

LALSA, which had grown rapidly in recent years and won the 2022 D.O.N.E. Award for Greatest Role in Building Relationships, was another critical source of support. The group had connected De Brigard with its president, Arturo Nava ’21, through its outreach to admitted applicants the previous spring, and also hosted Zoom sessions focused on housing and other issues. Early in the fall semester, the group assigned her a mentor, Erodita Herrera ’22, who would help her through her first-year courses and summer job search, and she was selected to be a 1L representative. Frequent online events included opportunities to network with Latinx alumni. Like the conversations with her professors, the interactions gave her a well-rounded 1L experience, she says.

“It was very easy to get caught up in thinking my whole life is law school, especially when I was doing it all in my room,” she says. “Having these professors and upperclassmen and student organizations pull you out of that and be like, ‘No, at the end of the day, you are a person and you’re at Duke because you are valued as an individual, not just a student,’ that was a big thing.”

The next year, De Brigard returned the favor. She served as a LEAD Fellow, advising new students and giving them tours of the Law School building — despite having just become acquainted with it herself during a “Welcome to Duke 2.0” orientation for 2Ls.

She also spearheaded the LALSA outreach program that had played a part in recruiting her to Duke as a college senior. Through the program, group members are paired with admitted applicants with a similar background or interest to answer questions and offer advice as they make their law school decision. Its effectiveness is reflected in the record diversity of the current first-year class — 44% of 1Ls are students of color — and the record Latinx enrollment.

As a 3L, De Brigard has served as a student member of the search committee recruiting the Law School’s first associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Being trusted as a student to contribute to these tangible diversity efforts has been really meaningful,” she says.

De Brigard marvels at her and her classmates’ growth both in and out of the classroom since starting law school in the middle of a pandemic. Despite tearful meetings with Mullem as she struggled to write memos, he would go on to help her secure a federal clerkship.

“Legal writing was very hard for me, and he wrote my letter of recommendation knowing that it was hard for me and showing how I progressed and had grown in that course,” she says. “He always believed in me. I did not believe in myself, but I wouldn’t have cared about that class if he didn’t care about me succeeding in it.”

Says Mullem: “When a student is smart and hardworking and engaged — as Nicole certainly was and is — it’s easy to have more faith in them than they may have in themselves.”

After graduation in May, De Brigard will go to a large law firm in New York for a year and then clerk for a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida starting in 2024. She hopes to practice cybersecurity and privacy law and, inspired by a 1L summer internship in the FBI’s National Security and Cyberlaw Branch, eventually work in the federal government. But, she says, she plans to stay connected to her alma mater.

“My positive experience has been built up by students and alums before me,” she says. “I am very passionate about leaving Duke Law in a better place than I found it because I know students and alums above me did the same.”

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Spring 2023
Volume 42 No. 1