Faculty Spotlight: Jessica Smith

Jessica Smith

Faculty member Jessie Smith recently talked about her choice of career, her work at the School of Government, and her respect for both her colleagues and the public officials she works with.



What drove you to study law? Did you consider any other profession?

Jessica Smith (JS): I considered lots of other professions. I considered going into art, but my parents were starving artists. I rejected that career because, well, I like to eat. I considered pre-med but rejected that when I first smelled whatever the preserving agent was that kept my shark suitable for dissection. I took a number of architecture courses in college, but I rejected that when my roommate’s dad (an architect) took me to lunch and explained that I’d be as poor as my starving artist parents had been (see above re: liking to eat). I worked on Wall Street doing money management for a couple of years before law school. I rejected that because I just couldn’t get all that excited about money. That short stint is what drove me to law school: I wanted to do something to make the world a better place.

How did you end up at the School of Government?

JS: I came here through a non-traditional route. I was poor as poor can be when I graduated law school. Actually I had a negative net worth, having put myself through undergrad and law school. My first job out of law school was with a great firm in Washington, DC. In addition to being a good training ground, the pay was generous, which helped me dig out from under my student loans. Looking for a lifestyle change, my husband Chris, also a lawyer, and I moved to North Carolina, and I embarked on about four years of federal clerkships, first in federal district court and then in the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

At the 4th Circuit I clerked for Judge J. Dickson Phillips Jr., who had been dean of UNC Law School and before that had clerked at what was then the Institute of Government. After he told me about the Institute’s work, I called Tom Thornburg and said, “I’m really interested in what you do. Can I take you to lunch to learn more?” Tom graciously agreed but at lunch told me that the Institute had no openings. He added that they’d keep me in mind if anything came up. I thought I had gotten the blow off and started looking at other things. But then I got a letter from the School telling me that there had been a retirement in the courts group, and that they were going to consider me as an applicant. It was all very lucky because my clerkship, which had been scheduled to end a few months earlier, was extended to help Judge Phillips wind up his outstanding cases before he retired. I guess the stars aligned.

What has surprised you in your work at the School?

JS: A few things. First, until I came here I’d never been around such a large group of people all dedicated—really dedicated—to public service. At the school I’m surrounded by colleagues all working toward the same goal: to make North Carolina even better.

Second, I continue to be impressed with the dedication of North Carolina’s public servants. Virtually all of the judicial officials I work with are striving to do what’s fair and right, in individual cases and for the system, often with incredibly limited resources.

And finally, I’m still surprised that people actually seek me out for my opinion. When I first arrived, I’d hear the phone constantly ringing in a senior colleague’s office and I’d think, “That will never be me.” But time goes by. And I’ve done things. And I’ve learned things. And I’ve built relationships. And people call. I’m grateful that they trust me. I’m also thankful for the opportunity they give me to do exactly what I had hoped to do when I started my legal career: improve the justice system.

What has felt substantial/inspiring about your work here?

JS: Everything is constantly changing. The US Supreme Court issues new decisions. The NC Supreme Court issues new decisions. The General Assembly passes new laws. Senior judges retire and new judges take their place. And on top of all of that, technology and science change the way criminal cases are investigated and tried. It’s never static, there is so much to do, and so much of it is important work.

Beyond your work at the School of Government, what other opportunities do you take advantage of?

JS: I have enjoyed participating in faculty governance. Currently, I serve on the University’s Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure Committee. I really enjoy that work, both because of the friendships I’ve made with colleagues in other schools and departments and because every month I get to learn about amazing research and discoveries by my UNC colleagues. I also get to serve the larger University, which is rewarding.

Funding from my professorship has given me opportunities to get outside of my box—to explore different things and be exposed to different ways of thinking. In Spring of 2015, for example, I lectured at law schools in Scotland. In the Fall, I returned to the UK to give talks at the University of Cambridge and King’s College London. My talks ranged from emerging issues in fourth amendment law to comparative homicide law. I’ve learned a lot from this, both by preparing for these talks and through interactions with the amazing, intelligent people that I’ve met. I’ve also made some great contacts, that have enabled me to do even more. With a bit help from folks I met in England, later this year I’ll be using my professorship funds for our first-ever international judicial educational opportunity. Fifteen North Carolina judges agreed to take vacation and pay their own way to come with me on an educational trip to London and Cambridge. The agenda is chocked full of events, including visiting the Old Bailey (Criminal Court), the Supreme Court of the UK, meeting with judges, a lecture on the Magna Carta, and more. We’re not using state funding for this trip. The judges are paying their own way and the judges’ association is matching my professorship funding contribution. Between us, we’ll cover the entire educational portion of the trip. I’m incredibly excited to offer this experience for my judges. They seem to be excited too—the course filled immediately!

What is your role with the NC Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice?

JS: Chief Justice Martin appointed me to serve as reporter for the Commission’s Criminal Committee. As reporter I’ve been working to facilitate the committee’s work in four areas: juvenile justice, indigent defense, pretrial release, and criminal case management. My work as reporter has been wide-ranging and intensive. It has involved things like preparing briefing papers to help folks understand the issues, drafting comprehensive committee reports, finding experts to speak to the committee, and fielding questions from the media. It’s been a while since North Carolina last took a comprehensive look at its court system. The commission is doing that. I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in what I hope will be a major catalyst for improving how justice is administered in our court system.

Jessica Smith joined the Institute (now School) of Government in 2000. Before that, she practiced law in Washington, DC, and clerked for Judge W. Earl Britt in the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina and for Judge J. Dickson Phillips Jr. in the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. At the School, Smith teaches and consults with judges and other public employees involved in the criminal justice system. In 2013, she was named a W. R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor by the UNC Chancellor. In 2015, Smith was appointed reporter for the Criminal Investigation and Adjudication Committee of Chief Justice Mark Martin’s NC Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, an independent, multidisciplinary commission that is undertaking a comprehensive evaluation of the NC judicial system and making recommendations for strengthening its courts. Smith earned a BA, cum laude, from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD, magna cum laude, Order of the Coif, from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was managing editor of the Law Review.


Published October 28, 2016