Fifteen miles east of Asheville, you’ll find a charming town called Black Mountain. A small town that is nationally recognized for arts, crafts, furniture, and music—it’s home to over 200 businesses. Known as the “front porch” of western North Carolina, you could also describe the town as “the picture of determination and hard work.” Those are the words Lawyers Weekly used to describe Black Mountain native, Anna Stearns, when she was honored with the NC Lawyers Weekly Rising Star Award.
Anna Stearns serves as General Counsel and Chief of Staff to NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. She has spent her career working to improve the lives of impoverished North Carolinians by advocating for changes to public policy and improvements in our legal system. We had a chance to chat with Anna and learn more about the rising star from the “Little Town that Rocks.”
LM: Please tell us about your journey to your current role?
AS: I was 17 when I started my first legal job. A guidance counselor connected me with a local attorney who needed an intern. At the time, I had never even considered a career in law, but the schedule allowed me to work in the afternoons so that I could be home with my son in the evenings. I discovered pretty quickly that I had a knack for the work and really enjoyed it.
My youngest son was born a few years later and I withdrew from college so that I could work full-time at the firm. The attorney I worked for, Ron Sneed, never stopped encouraging me to go back to school. So, when Daniel started kindergarten, I enrolled at the local community college and started taking classes at night. At the time, I certainly didn’t have a JD in mind, I just wanted to complete a degree. Ron continued to encourage me, and I eventually decided to enroll in law school. He hoped to retire in a few years, and I was going to come back to buy his practice. It was a win-win for both of us and that was my plan.
My son started high school here in Raleigh when I started my 2L year at Campbell. I was floored by how many more resources Broughton had than our high school back home in Swannanoa. I pretty quickly determined that pulling him out to go back home after I graduated was going to limit his future opportunities, and that meant I had to change my plan. I had not followed a typical law student track – I hadn’t done internships or summer clerkships. I had worked. I worked as a legislative assistant for Representative Brian Turner during my 2L and 3L years. That job helped me understand the current political climate and the legislative process, but it didn’t really set me up for a career in a local law firm. The Career Center at Campbell encouraged me to apply for a clerkship. I applied for and was offered a clerkship in the chambers of then-Associate Justice Beasley and was fortunate to be working for her when she assumed her new role as Chief Justice.
One of the hardest things I have ever done was to approach her to ask to serve as her Chief of Staff. I truly believed that my skills and my passions would allow me to serve her in a meaningful way and to help her improve the way our courts in North Carolina serve the public. But, putting myself forward as a candidate for a position of this caliber seemed like hubris. I think women, in particular, are prone to that kind of thinking and it can often hold us back from advancing in our careers in the same way that men do. I did a lot of praying and sought counsel from friends and mentors and ultimately decided to put myself forward. That was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I am so very honored to have been offered the position.
LM: Was there a person or an event that influenced your decision to pursue a career in the legal field?
AS: I can’t stress enough how much my former boss, Ron Sneed, changed the course of my life. I had my first child at 15 and my second at 19 and there were an awful lot of nay-sayers in those first few years of parenthood. Ron was not one of them. He saw something in me that I couldn’t. He was such an incredible and patient mentor. He taught me to think like a lawyer and to work like a lawyer, and he and his wife Patty encouraged and supported me every step of the way. They helped me to see a career as an attorney as a possibility, something that I don’t think I ever would have seen for myself without their encouragement.
LM: You previously worked as a paralegal. Has that allowed you to bring a unique perspective to your current role?
AS: I said to a friend recently that I had gotten this job because I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. She responded by quoting a roman philosopher who said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” And I think she is right. Without knowing it, I have spent my life preparing for this role.
My work as a paralegal taught me to think like a project manager, to recognize the particular role that each person played, what their expectations were, what their strengths and skills were. It taught me to anticipate problems and prepare to work around them. Those skills have been tremendously helpful in assisting the Chief Justice with her transition into a role that requires her to lead 6,500 employees and elected officials.
It has also been helpful that I see the workings of the Judicial Branch and our local courts through the lens of someone who has been part of that daily grind. The computer systems we use have been largely the same since the 1980s. I’ve seen the inefficiencies of those systems and experienced the frustrations working them. So, I’m excited to be in this role at a time when we are overseeing a complete overhaul to bring modern technologies into the courts and hopefully ease the administrative burden on our courthouse employees and on paralegals and attorneys who rely on those systems to work for their clients.
LM: What do you enjoy most about your work?
AS: Chief Justice Beasley’s leadership style is very hands-on. Keeping her informed about the various needs of the branch and the exciting initiatives that are underway all over the state means that I need to stay informed about them, and that has been so exciting. I have had so much fun in these first few months traveling the state and meeting with judges, district attorneys, clerks of superior court, and magistrates to talk to them about the ways they are meeting the needs of their local communities. We have truly incredible people working in our courts and I am excited about lifting them up and celebrating their work.
LM: Cheri Beasley is North Carolina’s first African American woman to serve as Chief Justice. Her appointment is indicative of progress as it relates to inclusion and women in the legal field. What changes have you noticed for women in the industry?
AS: We are certainly starting to see changes in law firm culture that make it more acceptable to maintain some work-life balance and I think a lot of that progress is attributable to the growing number of women in the profession. The North Carolina Bar Association’s theme for this year’s annual convention was all about wellness, which requires that employees be given time to think about their own personal needs outside of their dedication to their firm. That’s a change that benefits everyone, but particularly working moms who are more likely to be responsible for taking a child to a doctor’s appointment or attend a school function.
We are also seeing changes in the way women are treated in the workplace. I’m very proud of the younger generation of women who are demanding not only to be given the opportunity to be in the room—something women have been working towards for decades—but also to be treated with dignity and respect in those spaces as integral members of a leadership team.
LM: Can you tell us a little about your volunteer work or passion projects?
AS: I grew up as the child of a single parent whose income largely stayed below the poverty line and who suffered from both persistent addiction and mental health disorder. I know how hard it is to navigate the path to prosperity when you are facing those kinds of obstacles. So, my passion has always been in encouraging others to do that and in trying to make that path a little less challenging. When I was younger, I did that by starting a mentoring program at my high school for teen moms and by coaching a youth softball team. For the last few years, I have done that largely through political volunteerism with candidates who prioritize public policy that is compassionate and designed to supply struggling families with the tools they need to be successful. I’m very excited about bringing that passion to my role as Chief of Staff for Chief Justice Beasley.
LM: What is one thing you know now that you wish you would have known in law school?
AS: I wish that I had spent more one-on-one time with my professors. I missed out on the opportunity for more meaningful mentorship because I told myself they were too busy and shouldn’t be bothered. I think I apologized every single time I walked into a professor’s office to ask a question. What I know now is that they would have gladly spent more time with me, and I could have learned so much more beyond the classroom curriculum.
LM: Our theme this year is “Change is here.” What are some of the changes you’ve noticed in the legal community and what changes do you see happening in the future of law?
AS: Technological change will be one of the most significant. Artificial Intelligence is already cropping up in apps being developed in other countries. While I don’t think we’re quite there yet in North Carolina, we are going to see an awful lot of change over the next five to ten years. All of our courts will migrate to e-filing. Video conferencing both in court and out will become more common. Young lawyers will seek more opportunities to work remotely. Social media will continue to proliferate and affect both law firm advertising and client advocacy. Those changes will each have ripple effects throughout the legal community and attorneys are going to be required to have an ever-increasing understanding of technology in order to keep client information secure and be the best advocates they can.
We are also seeing very important changes in our criminal justice system. One out of every four adults in North Carolina has a criminal charge on their record that could prevent them from getting a good-paying job or a safe, secure place to live. More than 1 million North Carolinians have had their driver’s license revoked as a result of an interaction with the criminal justice system, usually an inability to pay a court fee. We are reaching an apex where folks all across the political spectrum see the historical focus on the quantity of convictions as a hinderance to our prosperity as a state. Changing that is going to require that we think differently about how to utilize our resources to keep communities safe and help our residents lead more prosperous lives.
LM: What advice do you have for any law school students or new lawyers who are considering an alternative legal career?
AS: The field of law is far more expansive than many law students believe. Many law students focus on a series of similar choices. Do I want to go in-house or to a firm? Do I want to go to a big firm or a small firm? What field of practice do I want to focus on? But there are so many opportunities to shape the law and interact with the law outside of those choices.
So, I think my advice wouldn’t be just to those who are already considering an alternative legal career, it would be equally applicable to any law student or new lawyer. Find the place where your passion lies. What is the thing that you can get lost doing for hours and hours and not even realize the time has gone by? What is the thing that gets you so impassioned that you would write an op-ed about it? Figure out what those passions are and then set about finding a place where those passions intersect with the law. I guarantee you there are opportunities for you there.
Anna grew up in Black Mountain, North Carolina, where she worked as a paralegal for fifteen years handling a variety of legal matters including real estate, estate planning and administration, municipal law, and general litigation. She attended both Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and the University of North Carolina at Asheville while working and raising her two children, Dylan and Daniel.
After obtaining her Bachelor’s in Political Science, she moved to Raleigh where she attended Campbell University School of Law and worked as both a Legislative Assistant for State House Representative Brian Turner and political campaign consultant. She served as a law clerk to then-Associate Justice Cheri Beasley before stepping into her new role as General Counsel and Chief of Staff to the Chief Justice.
Anna is a member of the North Carolina Bar Association and the North Carolina Association of Women Attorneys. She lives in Raleigh with her two sons, six chickens, two ducks, and the family cat, Atticus.