This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Carolina Law magazine.
Carolina Law started preparing Jessica Holmes ’09 for her legal career before she was even a law student. As a junior studying political science at Chapel Hill, she had a work-study placement at the UNC Center for Civil Rights. There she worked with faculty prominent in the field who became mentors. They included center founding director the late Julius Chambers ’62; Anita Earls, now a North Carolina Supreme Court justice; and former Carolina Law Dean Jack Boger ’74.
Before the work-study experience, most of what Holmes knew about lawyers’ work came from “Law & Order” and other TV shows.
Focusing on education inequities while at the center, she became familiar with the NAACP and the work of prominent civil rights attorneys. “It was a turning point in my understanding of what lawyers do and how they serve people,” Holmes says. “It changed the course of my life and gave me a direction. I’ve been on that course ever since,” advocating on issues related to education, voting rights, workers’ rights and poverty.
Working at the center not only affirmed her decision to be a lawyer but defined her focus on education policy making and labor and employment law. Describing her experience with mentors at the center says, “we were people with similar goals and visions for our state, coming together determined to change the world in spite of the limited resources available to us.”
Later, when she practiced law at the North Carolina Association of Educators, Holmes used her drive to change the world to achieve her biggest career accomplishment so far. She was on a litigation team that got career status — comparable to tenure — reinstated for certain educators by the state Supreme Court. The ruling overturned a state law that would have forced veteran educators to forfeit job protections they had earned.
“That passion for education equity, supporting educators and advocating for workers was very much homegrown in small offices at Carolina Law,” says Holmes, a board member of the North Carolina Foundation for Public School Children. She will receive the Outstanding Recent Graduate Award from the UNC Law Alumni Association this spring.
Re-elected in 2018 to the Wake County Board of Commissioners and to a second term as chairwoman, Holmes, of Cary, continues to work on issues of education and other challenges. “I’m able to implement policies that will hopefully address those issues for children,” she says.
Holmes hopes to implement policies at a statewide level. She is a candidate for state Commissioner of Labor in 2020. “My end goal is to help people regardless of what my title is,” she says.
UNC has influenced Holmes’ work in government as she represents more than a million constituents. “Carolina Law is very much ingrained in the fabric of who I am and how I present myself. I see it as a public-service institution, and I truly try to live by that,” she says.
In teaching a course on the legal aspects of social work at North Carolina State University, Holmes has her experiences with Carolina Law faculty and her real-world opportunities as a law student to draw on.
“My professors were patient and attentive with me whether I was dealing with personal challenges or having difficulty with a particular subject. I got the attention I needed,” she says. “They wanted you to thrive. I feel like I’ve done just that, and I want them to know their investment mattered.”
— Jessica Clarke
-May 3, 2019