This article originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2016 issue of Carolina Law. Gibson is pictured here with Rosy Aleman and other 1L students from her Fall 2015 Civil Procedure course. Second row, from left: Emon Northe, Kristin Hendrickson, Jessica Stone-Erdman, Alex Murphy. Back row: Chris Deck, Natalia Zbonack.
Elizabeth Gibson ’76 shrugs off her career trajectory that sped from clerkships in a federal circuit court and the U.S. Supreme Court, and on to partnership in a Washington, D.C., litigation firm, before shifting toward time as a multi-award-winning professor and nationally known expert on bankruptcy, and culminating in an appointment by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court as the lawyer who researches and drafts federal bankruptcy rules.
“Like many things in life, it was happenstance, not carefully thought out in a five-year plan,” Gibson said. Then, as she is wont to do, she turned her attention to what that insight might teach lawyers-in-training.
“Students feel so much pressure to know what they want to do exactly and how they’re going to get there. My view is: Do the best you can at each stage, and try to keep as many doors open as possible, because you don’t know what opportunities you might be presented with.”
At the end of spring semester this year, Elizabeth Gibson, the Burton Craige Professor of Law, will retire from teaching, capping 33 years in the classroom. She developed her specialization in bankruptcy through one of those unexpected opportunities because Carolina’s law faculty needed someone with that expertise at the time, and she’d gained some experience when a co-defendant of one of her firm’s clients filed for bankruptcy.
Many students regard her as a harbor of humanity in the storm of their first year in law school. Since fall 1983, when she joined the faculty at Carolina Law, she has typically led a “small section” in Civil Procedure, setting nascent lawyers on the right track to succeed throughout their careers.
Alice Richey ’86, who was in Gibson’s very first small section, recalled walking to her Civil Procedure class, discouraged after reading a very complex case.
“I couldn’t imagine ever understanding it,” Richey said. “I thought I’d have to quit law school.”
But when she got to class, Gibson acknowledged the case was hard and walked the first-years through it.
“She could have grilled us,” Richey said. Instead, “she helped us manage the material and understand it.
“She was approachable, and she helped make the material approachable.”
Richey stayed in law school and now practices civil litigation, which has its foundation in Civil Procedure. Often in her practice she returns to that complex case that almost bested her, and every time, she tries to channel her former professor.
Gibson, who over the years has been an enthusiastic supporter of small sections, said they can be resource-intensive because three professors are assigned to teach the number of students that would otherwise be taught by one. Because of this, some questions have been raised from time to time about whether or not these resources should be allocated elsewhere. “I’ve always supported keeping them because I think they do a good job of assisting with the transition to law school,” said Gibson.
The Importance of Small Sections
Since at least the early 1970s, every first-year student at Carolina Law has been assigned to one substantive class that has a smaller enrollment than their others — usually in the range of 25-30 students. Currently, this small section consists of approximately one-eighth to one-ninth of the 1L class. Students have most of their other classes with the members of their small section, so this is the first group of law students each 1L gets to know well. The size of a small section provides several advantages. Students feel more comfortable speaking in class, and their small section professor usually gets to know them well. As a result, students will frequently go to their small section professor for advice and recommendations throughout law school and beyond.
According to Carolina Law Dean Martin H. Brinkley ’92, Gibson connects with her students on a personal level that influences them for decades into their careers. He was a student in Gibson’s Civil Procedure small section nearly a decade into her teaching role, and he attested to the impact she had on his career. Gibson encouraged him to apply for a clerkship under Judge Sam J. Ervin III on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and wrote his
“The clerkship was probably the most formative experience of my professional life,” Brinkley said.
As for having her former student come back as her dean, Gibson quipped: “Lesson to faculty: Be nice to your students; you never know when they will become your boss.”
Gibson’s sense of humor comes as a surprise to people until they get to know her. Quiet by nature, she uses humor in context, a light retort to take the edge off tension in a contentious meeting or as a nicely turned response to an inflammatory remark.
Her husband, Bob Mosteller, the J. Dickson Phillips Distinguished Professor of Law at UNC since 2008, said he appreciated her sense of humor since the time they met. (She succeeded him as clerk for Judge J. Braxton Craven Jr. of the Fourth Circuit.) Gibson, in turn, liked that he thought she was funny. When she reads her students’ teaching evaluations of her, she warms when someone writes, “She was really funny.” Because, she said, “sometimes it takes people a while to figure out I do have a sense of humor.”
People tend to notice first her keen intelligence, said J. Rich Leonard, dean of Campbell University’s law school and former judge in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Eastern District of North Carolina. He has known Gibson for decades. He remembered feeling smug that he had won a clerkship with Judge Frank Dupree in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of North Carolina, but then he learned he was the judge’s second choice. The post had been offered first to Gibson, who turned it down to accept the clerkship with Judge Craven.
“I knew there was this formidable person named Elizabeth Gibson out there,” Leonard said. Then he found out that she was the romantic interest of a friend he’d gone through UNC undergrad and Yale Law School with, Bob Mosteller. Later, Leonard hosted their wedding party in the backyard of his home in Raleigh’s Oakwood neighborhood.
Gibson and Leonard crossed paths professionally. For 15 years they starred in the video orientation for all new bankruptcy judges, and at one point they taught an upper-level corporate reorganization course together at Carolina.
“Elizabeth is one of the two or three most effective and respected people in the country when it comes to any issue of bankruptcy law,” Leonard said. “She is almost always the smartest person in the room, but she pretends not to notice.”
A former classmate, Carolyn McAllaster ’76, said Gibson was not one to wave her hand in class and ache to show off her knowledge, but when she was called on, she always was prepared. Gibson worked hard and exuded a quiet confidence.
“She’s not one to call attention to herself,” McAllaster said. “For a lawyer, that’s quite remarkable.”
Alice Richey also commented on Gibson’s lack of pretension.
“It doesn’t take long in a conversation with her to figure out how smart she is,” Richey said. “[But] she always seems honored when someone talks with her. Some really smart people assume you want to be in their orbit. She doesn’t have an orbit.”
In fact, when Richey was her student, Gibson showed humility, “a recognition that she was learning along with us, how to be a professor as we were learning how to be students.”
“There was a lot of grace and love that went back and forth,” Richey continued. “That was unexpected for all of us because you don’t consider law school to be a place with a lot of grace and love.”
And for years, law school wasn’t a place with a lot of women, either. Gibson’s class of ’76 (they celebrate their 40-year reunion this year) was the first law school class that had a noticeable number of women. Almost 1 in 5 students was female, a big jump from prior years. Gibson had one class with a female law professor, but female law school deans were unheard of then.
“I didn’t have a lot of female role models,” Gibson said, “but I was part of that generation of ‘We can do things differently.’ We had a duty to do things differently.”
Gibson grew up in Raleigh, expecting to be a teacher, though when her ninth-grade class explored careers, she chose lawyer, because other girls weren’t picking it. “I wanted something different,” she said.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Duke, she spent a year at the Justice Department in Washington as a research analyst working with lawyers in the civil rights division. She liked the work and thought, “With training, I could do what they’re doing.” She applied to law school and discovered she enjoyed law and was good at it.
After law school, she clerked first for Judge Craven, then for Justice Byron White of the U.S. Supreme Court, his first female law clerk. “I never got over the excitement that whole year of walking into the Supreme Court to go to work,” she said.
The following year, she joined a private law firm in D.C., where she was known by later associates as “Saint Elizabeth” because of the glowing comments partners made about her work. She made partner in a short time, a feat even more remarkable considering the recent birth of her first child.
When their son was 2, Gibson and Mosteller decided it was time to choose whether to settle in Washington, where Mosteller was chief trial lawyer in the Public Defender’s Office, or return home to North Carolina (Mosteller had grown up on a farm northwest of Charlotte) to academic posts that would be more compatible with raising a family. They applied to only two law schools — UNC and Duke. Carolina snapped up Gibson, and Duke hired Mosteller.
Almost at once Gibson began to garner respect and admiration, first from her students, then from her peers and top administrators. When she became pregnant with her second son, in 1986, she facilitated a new policy of stopping the tenure-track clock for a six-month unpaid maternity leave. She took her responsibilities as a mother as seriously as she did her career. She is surprised that, 30 years later, balancing family with a law career isn’t easier, that raising children is still considered a women’s issue. But from a practical standpoint, she understands why changes aren’t likely to happen soon.
“The nature of the law profession is one of being available and doing work for your clients quickly,” she said. With lawyers marrying lawyers, everybody would have an interest in accommodating families. “On the other hand, law firms are under pressure.
Clients don’t want to pay as much for lawyers and are looking for ways to reduce legal costs. It doesn’t lend itself to a time for figuring out how to make life better for associates.”
Gibson has been recognized with multiple teaching awards.
Students honored her twice with the McCall Award for Teaching Excellence, and in 2012, her colleagues selected her for the Robert G. Byrd Award for Excellence and Creativity in Teaching. At the university level, she received the Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010, and professionally, she received the Excellence in Education Award from the Endowment for Education of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges. Because of the respect she has earned, Gibson has served on dozens of selection committees, including the major selection committees for two chancellors and four law school deans. She has served as adviser to the Craven Moot Court Competition for nearly 30 years, which honors the memory of the distinguished judge for whom she clerked.
First-year Alex Murphy, who was in Gibson’s final small section last fall, said her teaching had even more authenticity because “she’d been involved in several of the cases we were reading in the course book, which was pretty cool to have that inside perspective.”
Gibson said the most satisfying part of her career has been her relationships with students, watching them grow not only over their three years in law school but also as they develop in their careers and make a difference in the world. Murphy was pleasantly surprised that after all these years, she still wanted to stay in touch with her students.
“She seemed invested in all of us and our futures,” he said.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton nominated Gibson to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, but he left office soon after, and the Senate adjourned without acting on the nomination.
Longtime faculty colleague Lissa Broome, director of the Center for Banking and Finance, called the nomination “the highest honor any attorney can have, for the president of the United States to nominate you for a judicial position at that level.”
In 2008, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts appointed Gibson reporter for the Bankruptcy Rules Advisory Committee; she’ll continue that work after she retires from teaching. In that role, she drafts the rules the committee wants to propose. She does the research and advises the committee on
issues that come up.
Gibson’s colleagues on the faculty consider her achievements well-deserved. Broome described her as “rock-solid, dependable.”
“Anytime I need to talk through an issue, Elizabeth is the first person I turn to, outside of my husband,” Broome said. “If you think about setting up a personal board of directors for your life, you’d want Elizabeth on it.”
Over a decade ago, Gibson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The degenerative disease has presented many challenges with diminished mobility and unavoidable fatigue; she likely would not be retiring from teaching if it weren’t for its toll. The grace, dignity and humor with which she has handled her illness have been enormously inspiring to those who know her.
“Like a great athlete,” Mosteller said, “she’s retiring at the top of her game.”
Gibson will retain an office at the law school, where she’ll continue her research for the Bankruptcy Rules committee and be available to colleagues and the dean. Brinkley said that the only condition under which he would accept her resignation was that “she would still be here to give me advice.”
She’ll continue to work hard and keep doors open, ready for the next opportunity to present itself. And maybe she’ll one day return to the excitement of walking into the Supreme Court to go to work.
-April 29, 2016