From the University of Utah to the national stage — one lawyer’s journey to the Federal Trade Commission

Melissa Holyoak, Federal Trade Commission commissioner, poses for a portrait at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 3, 2024.
Melissa Holyoak, Federal Trade Commission commissioner, poses for a portrait at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 3, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Melissa Holyoak was sitting so close to the Supreme Court justices she could see every twitch of a smile or furrow of an eyebrow. It was Halloween day in 2018 and she joined her colleague Theodore H. Frank for oral arguments in the Frank v. Gaos case.

Holyoak and Frank sat in front of the bench at the mahogany counsel table in the ivory marble-walled courthouse. Over the justices’ heads, the neoclassical architecture of the building’s exterior spills into the interior in the form of a frieze replete with Roman imagery. Two men, one representing the majesty of the law and the other the power of government, are engulfed by the wings of a bald eagle. Roman numerals I to X on the frieze symbolize the Bill of Rights. Gold-leafed plaster rosettes dot the entirety of the ceiling and something about the air in the place seems rarefied.

As oral arguments stretched on, she remembers picking up her pen and scribbling down questions on her yellow legal pad, only to hear Justice Brett Kavanaugh ask the same questions verbatim. The case arose after Google agreed to pay $8.5 million settlement in a class action lawsuit that alleged the tech company violated privacy laws. Frank and Holyoak objected to the settlement in part because it did not dole out money to absent class members.

Holyoak didn’t think she’d ever end up here — it wasn’t remotely in her mind when she was studying law at the University of Utah years before. She spoke of this moment when she visited the Deseret News offices to share the story of how she ended up securing a coveted spot on the Federal Trade Commission. Family, friends and flexible work were key to her success.

When Holyoak was serving as Utah solicitor general, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put her name forward as a potential Republican nominee and President Joe Biden made the nomination official. She was confirmed earlier this spring.

The date was March 26 and Holyoak, along with her husband and four children, made their way into the Gold Room at the Utah Capitol. Sunshine poured into the room, illuminating the gold-leafing throughout the room, which is furnished with pieces imported from Europe. Her friend and mentor Sen. Mike Lee read her the Oath of Office while family, friends and mentors looked on. To Holyoak, it was the “perfect moment.”

“It was just the pinnacle of a career coming together,” said Holyoak.

“I’m really excited that she has been appointed to the FTC,” one of Holyoak’s friends, Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill, told the Deseret News by phone. “She’s got good common sense, she’s got a great legal mind and she’s going to be fantastic.”

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes told the Deseret News in an email that losing Holyoak was “a big loss for Utah, but a huge win for America.”

“I admired her ability to raise a family, contribute to her community and church, interact with many citizens at the grassroots level, help me lead the office and be hands-on writing briefs, arguing motions and supervising some of the most important legal and policy cases in America,” said Reyes. “She did it all so effectively and at the highest level of excellence.”

Here’s her story.

The beginning

Holyoak came to a crossroads after she served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her religious mission took her to France from 1997 to 1999 and she fell in love with the language. But she also enjoyed her part-time job as a legal secretary for a small Utah law firm.

She applied to both French graduate school programs and law school as she finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Utah. She ended up staying there for law school, where she said she built strong friendships, especially with “women that wanted to balance being a mother and a wife with an interesting, strong legal career.”

One of those lifelong friends is Kari Tuft, who said Holyoak was “super bubbly and outgoing” while the two were friends in law school. Tuft remembers studying with her and said Holyoak would sometimes suddenly stand up to jet off to a ballet class. “She would always take random dance classes,” said Tuft.

It’s common for law students to find themselves wrangled in competition for the best grades, but Tuft said Holyoak wasn’t like that. When Tuft had a baby during her third year of law school, she returned to class with a midterm looming and found herself overwhelmed. She called Holyoak in tears and expressed she didn’t know how she would be able to take the test.

Holyoak grabbed all her notes and outlines and came over to Tuft’s house. Tuft remembers her mother rocking her baby in the next room over while Holyoak helped her learn the exam material. “I definitely wouldn’t have passed it without her,” said Tuft. With Holyoak, it was “if I can raise you up with me, we’re coming, we’re going along together.”

Tuft said receiving help from Holyoak wasn’t a one-off experience. “Because she was just so bubbly and fun and was helping everyone, you didn’t realize that she was in the top 10% of our class and killing it the whole time.”

As Holyoak began to prepare for her 2003 graduation, her “path of love,” as she put it, started. Holyoak’s husband Josh was applying for medical school and the couple were working together to find a place where he would attend school and she could land a job. He was accepted to school in Baltimore and she took a D.C. job at O’Melveny & Myers, where she dealt with legal issues involving mergers, class action defense and consumer issues.

“I didn’t have any idea in law school what I wanted to do,” said Holyoak. “I wanted to do good legal work.”

The five years she spent at the firm formed her interest in consumer issues, and even though she worked long hours, she didn’t mind it. “My husband was very busy in medical school and I really loved the cases I was working on with some of the best people I know,” said Holyoak. The family moved to Colorado, where she started telecommuting — “way before it was cool.”

“I think it works very well in law — you are involved in lots of conference calls, reading, researching and briefs,” Holyoak said. The family soon moved to Missouri, where her husband did his residency. She left law firm practice as the couple grew the family.

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Natalie Boren, Utah Opioid Task Force director, hugs Melissa Holyoak, Federal Trade Commission commissioner, as they run into each other in the attorney general’s office while looking for places to shoot a portrait of Holyoak at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 3, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The search for interesting part-time work

Holyoak scoured around looking for interesting part-time legal work. She ended up as a part-time prosecutor and doing some consulting work. But it was difficult to find.

“It was even more difficult to find flexible types of arrangements that provided me that flexible experience for my life, amazing career opportunities and novel issues in the law,” said Holyoak, adding that these opportunities allowed her to continue her career progress.

“Decades ago, women felt like they had to make a choice between career and raising a large family,” she said. But with interesting part-time work, there’s added flexibility.

Holyoak said she wanted to emphasize that the decision to stay at home or pursue a career is a personal one and every woman’s path will look different.

By 2012, Holyoak joined Frank — who also worked at O’Melveny & Myers — at the Center for Class Action Fairness, which he founded.

The two of them “would go and investigate class action settlements and go after attorneys who are structuring the settlements to benefit the attorneys at the expense of the class,” Frank said.

Frank said he was happy to offer Holyoak and others flexible working hours — his experience working in big law motivated him to cultivate this kind of environment at the center.

“We’re really proud of the fact that she used our organization to relaunch her career.” Holyoak had small children living at home and Missouri does have some interesting opportunities, but not as many as in a big city like Washington, D.C., or San Francisco.

“She had all of this talent and we were happy to just moneyball the process,” he said. The center was grateful for the hours that she could give and he said “she has a very strong sense about the separation of powers and the importance of regulatory agencies not exceeding their authority.”

As Frank and Holyoak worked together, they decided they wanted to continue their class action work and broaden out. So, they created the public interest law organization known as Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute. The culture of flexibility continued.

Anna St. John, now the president and general counsel of the institute, said she’s benefited from that flexibility. She first met Holyoak during the hiring process when she applied to the Center for Class Action Fairness, which has since merged with Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute.

“She is one of my favorite people I’ve ever worked with,” said St. John. “She is such a great leader. She really is very relatable, but also has high standards. She’s someone who really brings out the best in those around her.”

St. John said a highlight of working with Holyoak was on a securities class action case where the court ended up giving almost $100 million more to shareholders than expected. “That case involved some novel issues that were unique to that case and she really drilled into those issues.”

Holyoak’s time at Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute came to an end when Reyes hired her as solicitor general in 2020.

Holyoak’s days as solicitor general

As solicitor general, Holyoak said she was in charge of overseeing civil appeals, criminal appeals, constitutional defense and antitrust (not all states’ solicitor generals have antitrust placed under them). Since the office was and is still involved in multistate cases dealing with federal overreach, it was a natural fit.

Those multistate lawsuits connected her with Murrill, who described Holyoak as dynamic, smart, fun, kind and adventurous. Utah and Louisiana worked together on multiple lawsuits. “I could not even begin to give you the comprehensive list,” Murrill said.

“She’s a conservative who values the state’s role in a system that shares sovereignty with the federal government, so like me, she has defended Utah’s right and obligation to make its own decisions,” said Murrill.

Reyes said that Holyoak was “the best solicitor general in America.”

“She has argued in more federal circuit courts by herself than whole law firms in Utah have done with dozens of lawyers,” said Reyes. He said Holyoak “successfully advised state agency clients, litigated and tried cases, drafted and argued civil and criminal appeals, brought constitutional challenges, defended laws from legal attack and pursued administrative remedies — all at the highest levels of state and federal court.”

One of the cases Holyoak enjoyed working on the most was Utah v. TikTok.

The state of Utah sued TikTok, alleging the social media company designed the algorithm and other features to get children addicted to the app. In turn, Utah claimed children had worse mental health outcomes.

Margaret Busse, executive director of Utah Department of Commerce, and Katie Hass, director of the Utah Consumer Protection Division, both worked with Holyoak on Utah v. TikTok. They spoke to the Deseret News individually on video calls about what it was like to work with Holyoak on the case and in other matters.

Hass said Holyoak was critical in both the investigation before the complaint was filed and when the state had to appear in court. “Not only is Commissioner Holyoak an incredibly bright legal mind, she’s an active listener. She really wants to understand the issue, she wants to understand the nuance of this and then she wants to methodically take the right approach.”

When Holyoak started working on the TikTok case, Hass said social media was a really novel issue and there’s a lot to the issue including data privacy. “Commissioner Holyoak is diving in deep and quickly to protect people, and it’s been really remarkable work.”

Busse noted that Holyoak was also the trial lawyer for the case.

“She was able to be so competent and represent Utah incredibly well. Being quick on her feet, being well-prepared and having the ability to get her head around these very difficult issues was incredibly impressive and helpful for Utah,” said Busse.

“Watching her argue the TikTok cases made me proud we had such a persuasive advocate for Utah defending the children of our state,” said Reyes. Holyoak said Reyes sat alongside her in court and “was in the heart of all this litigation.”

In addition to the TikTok case, Hass said Holyoak has a “hawkish watch” for any time the federal government tried to encroach on Utah’s sovereignty. “She was always dedicating time and her resources to monitoring that in a way that I think went above and beyond her role as solicitor, but she was passionate about that,” said Hass.

Redge Johnson, executive director at the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, echoed what Hass said about Holyoak standing up to federal overreach. Johnson worked with Holyoak on challenging Biden administration rules hindering affordable energy in the state and litigated public lands issues.

They also worked together on challenging the Antiquities Act.

Holyoak was critical in helping the office, said Johnson. “There was not a project that we ever took to the solicitor general that she didn’t support when she saw how it impacted everyday Utahns.”

In a state that has counties that are 96% to 98% public lands, Holyoak’s work matters a lot to rural communities. Holyoak said she would visit rural communities along with Reyes and speak to ranchers and farmers about the challenges they faced.

Johnson said these rural communities rely heavily on public lands, tourism and natural resource industries (think grazing or energy production). “All those things keep those local small communities alive and Melissa Holyoak’s work to protect these local communities was crucial, especially in those rural communities.”

“Not only does she protect our public land, she loves to go out and use our public land as well,” quipped Johnson, referencing Holyoak’s love of skiing.

Brian Tarbet, chief civil deputy in the Utah Attorney General’s Office, told the Deseret News that Holyoak was effective at forming a bond with the legislature as the state tackled public lands issues.

“She’s fearless, she’s bright and she’s committed,” said Tarbet, noting how her work would span multiple states. As an example, he referenced a case involving federal overreach on oil and gas. Tarbet said she was able to successfully push back on that overreach. She was out in front on other issues like forest management.

“She has great respect for the Constitution, how agencies fit in and under the Constitution, she’ll put the citizens first,” said Tarbet.

Busse mentioned another case Holyoak was involved in during her time in office — it dealt with insulin manufacturers. While the case still needs to be fully adjudicated, Busse said, “we’re already seeing that pressure has contributed to insulin manufacturers lowering their prices.”

Both Busse and Hass said having Holyoak on the FTC will be a win both for the country and for Utah.

Busse said Holyoak will bring a sense of Utah’s discernment to the FTC — balancing thriving businesses along with ensuring that businesses don’t harm consumers. “Because of her role in the social media cases, she will be able to bring that sensibility that will benefit everyday Utahns.”

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Melissa Holyoak, Federal Trade Commission commissioner, answers interview questions at the Deseret News office in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 3, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The FTC, family and the future

As Holyoak reflects on how she got to the FTC, she’s thought about two key mentors and legal minds she admires: Sen. Mike Lee and his brother Tom Lee, a current BYU professor who served as a Utah Supreme Court justice.

Holyoak has worked with Sen. Lee in her capacity as solicitor general, but he’s also been a friend of hers for a couple decades. “On more than one occasion, I would go into his office and he would start grilling me like he was a justice.”

“He would make sure that I could hold my own,” Holyoak said.

It was on July 3, 2023, when Biden announced his intent to nominate Holyoak. Shortly after, three conservative groups, New York Young Republican Club, ACT! For America and the Bull Moose Project, wrote a letter requesting senators oppose her confirmation. The groups said Holyoak worked for organizations that supported Big Tech companies’ policy aims “to frustrate any attempts to put limits on their market power.”

The letter apparently failed to gain traction as she glided through the Senate committee a couple months later in September. At the time, Holyoak didn’t respond to media comment about the letter.

Lee introduced her at the committee meeting — “Melissa is an exceptionally talented lawyer who is committed to constitutionally limited government.” She sailed through the nomination process and received bipartisan support when the Senate confirmed her nomination.

“She’s going to be a fantastic FTC commissioner and the country’s lucky to have her in that role,” St. John, Holyoak’s former colleague, said. “She’s both charming and intelligent and that’s a unique, rare combination that I think makes her a really exceptional leader because you do want to follow her both because you know she’s thought through thinks, you know she’s going to work hard and she makes people feel comfortable.”

Tuft said it’s invaluable for her to have a friend like Holyoak — another professional woman with children who she can talk to about the pressures of being a lawyer and what it’s like to raise kids. Sometimes the two call each other when they only have four or five minutes to talk, Tuft said, just to have another friend to talk to.

When Tuft talks to her daughter, she will point to both her own and Holyoak’s unconventional paths to show that “we’ve both found happiness and success in our careers as well as in our families.”

Not only does Tuft’s friendship with Holyoak span decades, but they also sit across the political aisle from one another. She sometimes calls Holyoak when she wants to understand how a smart person on the right thinks about a particular issue.

“We have very different ideologies,” Tuft said. “And yet, we respect each other. We respect our mutual values that we hold dear. And I think we’re coming from the same place in terms of what we value and what we care about.”

Murrill also praised Holyoak. “In particular, she’s a great role model as someone who has successfully navigated both being a dedicated family person — for moms especially — but also someone who’s been able to navigate having a very successful legal career.”

As for Holyoak herself, if she could give advice to women who want to have strong families and strong careers, she said it’s important to redefine what having it all means. “You can make whatever balance you want.” Holyoak said on a number of occasions she has been the only woman in the room during a meeting. “I would love to encourage women to seek out those leadership positions,” she said. “You can make it work.”

About her confirmation to the FTC, she said, “I don’t know where this job is going to lead. It’s an excellent opportunity and I’ll see where life goes.” If there’s one thing Holyoak said she can expect, it’s that her life will continue to follow an unconventional path.