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Discipline should focus more on clients’ freedom than cash

Q&A with NCAWA president Holly Bryan

By DIANA SMITH, Staff Writer

[email protected]


Holly Bryan is the president of the North Carolina Association of Women Attorneys and a career counselor for the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill. At UNC, she helps students and alumni with all aspects of job searching and career development, with a focus on examining government and alternative careers. She also has a special interest in issues that affect women in the legal world.

Before joining UNC in 2006, Bryan was legal affairs counsel for the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers, now the Advocates for Justice. She received her undergraduate degree from Duke University in 1997 and her J.D. from UNC Law School in 2001.  


NCLW: Who was your most influential professor in law school and why?

Bryan: It would have to be Professor Marion Crain. I was her research assistant beginning my first summer in law school all the way through to graduation. I took every class I possibly could that she was teaching, including every course I think the school offered that remotely included feminist legal theory!

I learned so much from her – not only in the classroom, but also just sitting in her office talking about any and every issue I was facing at the time, my concerns about my future career and what to do if I decided I wanted to have children (i.e., issues of work/life balance) and how I could find a job that I loved and for which I could use my legal education but at the same time not actually practice law. She was a true mentor, and I am convinced that her recommendation letter helped me get my first job out of law school.


NCLW: What is the most unusual thing on your desk or in your office?

Bryan: Probably the sumo wrestler figure, about 3 inches high, with a rather small head but very generous belly, arms and thighs (not to mention his backside!). He makes me smile every time I look at him. He was given to me by one of the first students I worked with in my current job as a career counselor at UNC Law School after the student spent the summer studying and interning in Japan. I absolutely treasure my little wrestler!


NCLW: What is the CLE you would most like to see offered? Feel free to be serious or fanciful.

Bryan: I would love to see a CLE about substance abuse among lawyers where the speaker is a woman and a CLE about mental health/depression among lawyers where the speaker is a man. This is something that was brought up to me by a member of the N.C. Association of Women Attorneys, and I hope that our organization could even be the first to present these offerings.

Let’s remove the taboos that prevent female lawyers from speaking about alcohol or drug issues and male lawyers from speaking about mental health issues. Looking at the offerings now, one would get the impression that male lawyers only have substance abuse problems (never mental health issues), and female lawyers only struggle with poor mental health (never drugs or alcohol). Clearly that is not true.


NCLW: How do you think we could improve the lawyer disciplinary system?

Bryan: I truly believe that the N.C. State Bar staff and the councilors who give so much of their time do an excellent job with the myriad of issues involved in regulation of the profession. However, I do wish that we placed more value on our clients’ lives and freedom than on their money. Why do we punish more severely the lawyer who co-mingles funds or has trouble with a trust account than the lawyer whose conduct, intentional or negligent, results in an innocent citizen being sent to prison for a crime they did not commit?


NCLW: What do you think is the most important attribute for a good attorney to have?

Bryan: The ability to see a client as a person, not just a file.


NCLW: Do the media do a good job of covering legal issues?

Bryan: Sadly, I pretty much only read legal publications anymore, so I am not sure I can really speak to the broader media coverage of legal issues. I do think that NPR – Nina Totenberg in particular – does a very good job of covering and explaining the legal issues arising from Supreme Court cases and legislative actions.


NCLW: Whose job in the legal field would you most like to have and why?

Bryan: Honestly, I would love to have Nina Totenberg’s job! I think it must be so amazing to be able to report on the most important legal issues (as deemed by the Supreme Court, at least) that are facing our country. I would also want her voice, though!


NCLW: Which job would you not want to have and why?

Bryan: Although I told everyone who would listen when I was growing up that I would be the first female Supreme Court justice in the United States (until Sandra Day O’Connor came along, anyway), I honestly would not want to be a Supreme Court justice. I believe I would have a difficult time not allowing my rather strong beliefs about certain issues to come into consideration when making a decision. I’d like to think I could fairly apply the law as it stands – but I think I’d be happier trying to make the law into what I think it should be!


Editor’s note: If you would like to participate in a Q&A interview, contact Diana Smith at [email protected]

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