I recently had an opportunity to talk with John Korzen, a board certified specialist in appellate practice. John is the director of the Appellate Advocacy Clinic and an associate professor of legal writing at Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem. John has been chair of the North Carolina General Statutes Commission since 2019. He has argued appeals in the Supreme Court of the United States, the Fourth Circuit, the Eleventh Circuit, the Supreme Court of North Carolina, and the North Carolina Court of Appeals. He has supervised the work of third year law students in all those appellate courts and others. Before joining the faculty in 2003, Professor Korzen practiced law for a total of 11 years with Smith Helms Mulliss & Moore in Greensboro, NC, and Anderson, Korzen & Associates in Kernersville, NC. He previously served as a law clerk for the late Sam J. Ervin III, then chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and as a summer law clerk to the late James B. McMillan, judge for the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. John and his wife Catherine have three children and live in Kernersville, NC.
Q: Tell us about yourself?
My four grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe who all entered the United States through Ellis Island and settled in Newark, New Jersey. My parents met there while students at West Side High School. They married in 1954, shortly after my dad finished serving three years in the army during the Korean War. My older brother Greg was born in 1955, and I was born in 1960. Our last name was “Korzenewich” (pronounced Core-zinn-YEV-ich) until my parents shortened it a few months after I was born. My dad worked in manufacturing for American Can Company, Campbell Soup Company, and Continental Can Company. My brother and I were “corporate brats,” because my dad’s employers kept transferring him every two years or so. In addition to multiple towns in New Jersey, we lived in Paris, Texas when I was four; outside Chicago, Illinois (twice); and in Winston-Salem.
My favorite of all the places we lived was Winston-Salem, where I spent seventh and eighth grade, and I later applied to only one school, Wake Forest University. My college years at Wake were bookended by family tragedy, as my brother died of cancer during my freshman fall, and my dad died of cancer during my senior spring. In the summer after my junior year, however, I met my future wife, Catherine, while I was working for the first of three summers at Falling Creek Camp in Tuxedo, North Carolina. She lived in nearby Hendersonville. She was a year behind me at Wake, and a couple of mutual friends (one was later best man at our wedding) said we should meet. We have been married for 38 years and have three children.
Q: What led you to become a lawyer and a law professor?
During college, my work as a camp counselor and a widely publicized report, A Nation at Risk, helped me decide to be a teacher. After college I taught for six years in the Winston-Salem public schools, in grades four through seven. While teaching I chose to become a lawyer because I had always liked reading, writing, and public policy. In fact, when I applied to law school, I was a precinct chair for a political party. In addition, one of my wife’s sisters was enjoying law school at Wake. She told us all about it when she did laundry at our house. As with college, I applied to only one law school, Wake Forest.
My path to becoming a law professor was a little unusual. After law school I clerked for Sam J. Ervin III, then chief judge of the Fourth Circuit, and practiced at two law firms for a total of 11 years: first at the Greensboro office of Smith Helms Mulliss & Moore (now Fox Rothschild) for seven years, and then for four years at Anderson Korzen & Associates, a three-attorney firm started by Joseph Anderson. During the 1990s I was also an adjunct law professor at Wake Forest for five fall semesters. In 2003, a friend and former colleague at Smith Helms, Chris Coughlin, told me there was an opening to teach legal writing at Wake Forest, where she had become the director of the Legal Writing Program. Based on my years of public school and adjunct teaching, I was very interested in teaching again. I applied, was hired, and started teaching various legal writing courses, including legal writing I and II, appellate advocacy, and business drafting. In 2006 I added the Appellate Advocacy Clinic, which I have directed ever since, while continuing to teach legal writing and, occasionally, other courses. I am lucky to have the best of both worlds—teaching in a law school and maintaining an appellate practice.
Q: Why did you pursue becoming a board certified specialist in appellate practice?
When I became a board certified specialist in 2011, I had long been interested in appellate practice. After law school I had the extreme good fortune of clerking for Chief Judge Ervin. He was a wonderful mentor, and I gained invaluable practical appellate experience that year. I saw scores of oral arguments, and I researched and drafted 55 bench memos, 23 majority opinions, and one dissent. Next, while at Smith Helms in the mid-1990s, I was in the firm’s appellate practice group, which was headed by former Chief Justice Jim Exum. He and I had offices next door to each other and worked on several appeals together. He was another great mentor. We discussed the possibility of an appellate practice specialization in North Carolina back then. I researched other states and found that two, Florida and Texas, had an appellate specialization at the time. I left Smith Helms in 1999 and continued an appellate practice during my four years with Joseph Anderson and after I joined the Wake Forest faculty.
I was excited when North Carolina began to recognize the appellate specialty in 2011. Back when I had taken the bar exam in 1991, like many new lawyers, I vowed to never take another exam. But after 20 years, and with my longtime interest in appellate practice, I broke my vow and took the appellate specialization exam the first time it was offered. I later served on the State Bar Appellate Specialization Committee for several years, including two years as chair. Being a board certified specialist has helped me keep up with developments in appellate law and meet many outstanding appellate lawyers. I encourage other lawyers to seek specialization in their fields of practice.
Q: What aspect of the daily job of being a professor interests you the most?
It’s hard to pick one thing, because much of being a law professor at Wake Forest is interesting. My colleagues are brilliant. I enjoy hearing about the research they are doing and sharing ideas. Our administrative staff members, from Dean Aiken on down, are extremely dedicated and make what we do possible. Our students are very supportive of each other and public spirited. I also find class preparation interesting, because often there is a new court decision or other breaking legal news that ties in nicely with an upcoming topic. I’m the faculty advisor to our Moot Court Program and coach two or three teams each year, so many of my days include something related to moot court. I love working with teams and helping them reach their potential. A team I coached won the national championship in the National Moot Court Competition sponsored by the City Bar of New York in 2017, out of more than 180 teams. Another reached the semi-finals in 2015, and several others have made it to the sweet sixteen.
Q: What career accomplishment makes you most proud?
I am most proud of the Appellate Advocacy Clinic that I direct. So far under my supervision, 48 3Ls have made oral arguments in a variety of courts. Most have argued in the Fourth Circuit. Others have argued in the Seventh Circuit, the Eleventh Circuit, the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the North Carolina Industrial Commission, and the North Carolina Superior Court. Many have said it was their best experience in law school. I’m proud that 29 of the 48 students who have argued have been female, especially in light of a recent ABA study of Seventh Circuit arguments, which found that the vast majority of oral arguments in 2009 and again in 2019 were made by male attorneys.
One of our clinic cases was heard in the Supreme Court of the United States. I argued, with nine then-current and two former students (who had worked on the case in the circuit below) in the courtroom. After the argument Erin Brockovich joined us for lunch. It was an environmental contamination case, and she had led a rally outside the courthouse that morning in support of our side.
In recent years I have added amicus curiae representation to our case mix, which gives students policy-writing experience in cases pending at the Supreme Court of the United States and other appellate courts.
Working closely on real cases with talented and dedicated 3Ls has been the highlight of my 30 year legal career.
Q: Who is your hero and what makes them your choice?
I’d like to answer that question in two parts, as we sometimes say at oral argument. First, for somebody I’ve known, I choose my dad. As a 22-year-old army vet, he married, started college, had a child, and worked a full-time third-shift manufacturing job to support my mom and older brother. Despite those responsibilities, he graduated from Rutgers in five years. (I came along about a year later, apparently a graduation present.) My dad was also very brave, saving two lives. In his early 30s he saved a co-worker’s life when he pushed him out of the way of a falling stack of tin sheets at the factory where they worked. Some of the metal fell on my dad and severely injured his right foot. His big toe would never bend again. In his mid-40s he saved someone who had slit his wrists to attempt suicide by breaking down a locked door to get him emergency care in time. My dad also had a sense of humor and made time for my brother and me. I so wish he had not passed away during my senior year of college.
Second, for a hero I never met, my choice is Abraham Lincoln. I’m an amateur Lincoln historian, with multiple shelves of books about him. I have gone to his house, his law office, and other historic sites in Springfield, Illinois, three times in the past decade. Before being elected president, Lincoln was an outstanding lawyer with wide interests. For example, he is the only president who ever obtained a patent. He began his presidency with a short-term goal, saving the Union, and a long-term goal, eliminating slavery. He accomplished both, while leaving us timeless speeches that help to define America. And he maintained a sense of humor, despite numerous personal tragedies. He was not perfect by any means, but to me his life is endlessly fascinating and inspiring.