Gergen Award winner ‘epitomizes what a lawyer should aspire to be’

Her ability throughout law school to balance several roles - student, mentor, prosecutorial intern, mother - earned Samantha Hepler L’23 the highest honor bestowed on a member of each graduating class from Elon University School of Law.

Samantha Hepler will tell you that her road to the legal profession likely started in kindergarten when she spotted her father tossing a Mountain Dew bottle out the car window.

“‘Look at the damage you’re doing!’” Hepler fussed at him one Sunday morning. Nowadays? “He definitely doesn’t litter anymore,” she says with a grin. “He stopped!”

Michael Hardy took note of his young daughter’s advocacy. The two were soon watching presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore as they researched jobs where people “can make a difference.” Her father would be the first person Hepler called when she learned she’d been accepted to law school.

Samantha Hepler L’23

Two decades, three degrees, and four children later, Hepler is now on the cusp of starting a legal career with the Guilford County District Attorney’s office having earned the highest honor bestowed on a member of each graduating class from Elon University School of Law.

Hepler, a first-generation college student born and raised in rural North Carolina, received the David Gergen Award for Leadership & Professionalism at December’s Commencement for Elon Law’s Class of 2023. In announcing the selection, Associate Dean Wendy Scott described Hepler as “the very model of a modern multitasker” who “has dedicated every moment of her free time to making our community a better place.”

Elon Law students are nominated for the award by their peers, professors, or staff. Honorees are chosen by a faculty and staff committee based on law school activities that represent the twin principles of leadership and professionalism.

The award is named in honor of David Gergen, a former adviser to four United States presidents and founding director of the Center for Public Leadership and at the Harvard Kennedy School. Gergen is one of the country’s preeminent political commentators and has chaired Elon Law’s Board of Advisors since the law school opened.

Among Hepler’s service activities and achievements at Elon Law:

  • Co-director of the Pro Bono Board
  • Co-director of the Parents Attending Law School student group
  • Academic Fellow
  • Teaching Assistant
  • Research Assistant
  • Elon Law Mentor
  • Member of the Innocence Project and the Criminal Law Society
  • Member of the Elon Law Academic Environment Group

Classmates who nominated Hepler for the award praised the generosity of her time and the impact she has made on the law school community. Excerpts from nearly a dozen separate nominations include:

  • “Sam made my experience at Elon so meaningful, and I know there are so many people who can say the same.”
  • “Through her work with the Pro Bono Board she clearly embodies how a lawyer is here to serve and better the lives of others. She leads her peers by encouraging them through tough times and championing them during good.”
  • “She seems to be a face of the school and has made me and many others feel very welcome … to know that she is on our team is comforting.”
  • “Anyone would be lucky to have Sam as their attorney, friend, or mentor. Sam exemplifies everything Elon hopes their students will be and more.”

Hepler’s academic adviser, Professor Tom Molony, praised her for the values she embraces and the personality she brought to the classroom. Molony volunteered for a May 2022 “Pie Your Professor” fundraiser for Elon Law’s Pro Bono Board because of Hepler’s persistence.

“Sam is a really dedicated person and really driven to help people,” Molony said. “She’s a real joy to have in class, and she’s committed to service and to her family. To juggle all the things she had going on is remarkable, and she’d do it with a smile. I’m proud of Sam. She deserves this award.”

Hepler next sits for the North Carolina Bar Exam in February and begins work afterward as a prosecutor in Greensboro. Over the past year, she completed a residency-in-practice, springtime internship, and paid summer placement with the Guilford County District Attorney’s Office, facilitating plea agreements and taking part in multiple trials where she’d often help secure guilty verdicts.

It made sense this fall to pursue a career opportunity in an office where she’s already established trust with future colleagues.

Of course, for many of those who nominated her for the award, what stood out was Hepler’s ability to balance the demands of coursework with the needs of four children she and her husband are raising. Their youngest was born just weeks before Hepler started law classes.

How’d she do it?

“I will say this until I’m blue in the face: a mother’s mindset is ‘you have to do it, so you just do it,’” Hepler reflects. “There are things you have to get done, that you have to make it happen, so if you want something bad enough, you push yourself until you get what you want.”

Samantha Hepler’s family celebrates her recognition as the 2023 recipient of Elon Law’s David Gergen Award for Leadership & Professionalism.