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Moritz Alumna Successful on All Sides of Employment Law

October 7, 2010 | Alumni

When Valerie Sharpe ’97 first thought she wanted to become a lawyer, she was under some unusual circumstances. Sharpe and 200 other protestors who she had helped organize had just been arrested for protesting the Gulf War in Santa Barbara, Calif. She was pursuing undergraduate studies in English and women’s studies at the University of California Santa Barbara.

“It turned into a huge legal battle because the prosecutor wasn’t satisfied with giving everyone a trespassing violation; he wanted to give everyone probation as well,” Sharpe said. “One of the probation requirements was that we couldn’t participate in any further protests, which we felt was an attempt to stifle our First Amendment rights.”

Because of the drawn-out nature of the case, Sharpe spent a year in Santa Barbara after graduation trying to decide whether to pursue a Ph.D. in women’s studies or to earn a law degree.

Sharpe worked as a legal clerk for a law firm in Santa Barbara and ultimately decided to get a master’s degree in women’s studies. It was that decision that brought the Del Mar, Calif., native to Columbus.

“At the time there were not many programs where you could get a master’s degree just in women’s studies,” Sharpe said. “Ohio State was one of three programs that would give me the degree I wanted, and it happened to be the most established program and the one that offered me the best situation financially.”

So Sharpe moved to Columbus and began her master’s degree. However, shortly into the two-year program she realized although she enjoyed teaching, she wanted to do something with more social action.

“I realized that I was more of a doer, as opposed to someone satisfied with just talking about intellectual issues” Sharpe said. “I wanted to feel like I was doing something, so I decided not to continue with academia after the program, but to go to law school.”

Once again Sharpe applied to schools around the country, but The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law came out on top because of the quality of the school and the fact that the women’s studies department and the law school allowed her to continue teaching at the University.

During her first year of law school Sharpe took a great interest in child welfare law because of the involvement she had with an organization in Clintonville called the United Methodist Children’s Home.

“I worked part-time at a group home on Como Avenue that was for teen moms and their kids,” Sharpe said. “They took on teenage moms who were in the foster care system and taught them parenting skills and gave them a place to be with their babies.”

Sharpe established a strong relationship with one of the moms and was asked to be the godmother to her two boys.

“I was actually just in Columbus last June for my godson’s 18th birthday,” Sharpe said.

But after a child welfare law fellowship and an internship at a labor union, Sharpe decided to shift her focus to employment law and, at the beginning of her second year, she accepted an associate position at Littler Mendelson, a labor and employment law firm, in San Francisco.

While at Littler, Sharpe was able to maintain her passion for activism and child welfare through positions on the Board of Directors for the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault and a San Francisco organization called Legal Services for Children.

“I wanted to do some pro bono work and advocacy for children and sexual assault victims was something important to me and something that I already had experience working with,” said Sharpe, who taught rape prevention at the Women’s Place at Ohio State.

“I was very grateful to work with organizations that were consistent with my activist ideals,” Sharpe said. “But it became too time consuming as I was trying to build my career at Littler.”

Sharpe spent nine years with Littler Mendelson and she says that the most challenging, and yet most rewarding decision of her career, was when she decided to leave the firm and to not pursue a position as shareholder at Littler.

“The hardest thing was trying to find work-life balance,” Sharpe said. “I am most proud of the fact that I was able to leave a large firm and then through my own means, maintain a career.”

Sharpe left the firm in 2006 just over a year after she and her husband, who is also an employment attorney, had their first child. Sharpe joined the former managing partner of the San Francisco Littler office to practice plaintiff employee litigation, which had always been something she wanted to try.

However, after she welcomed her second daughter, Sharpe was offered work practicing employment litigation and labor arbitrations for PG&E, the main utilities company in Northern California. She formally opened the Law Offices of Valerie L. Sharpe and became outside counsel for PG&E.

At PG&E, Sharpe has found the balance she was looking for: the rewards of a competitive work environment and the freedom to put family first.

“I am not guaranteed work so I still have to hustle and make people happy so they keep giving me work,” Sharpe said. “It’s work that I like to do, it’s on my own terms, and I still make a decent salary working only 60 percent of the time that I did previously. I was true to myself and the desire that I had to find a work-life balance.”

The balance is most rewarding when she is able to spend time with her daughters, she said. She recently spent a Tuesday morning helping her daughter, who is entering first grade, paint stools for the art room at her new school.

“That really makes it all worth it for me,” Sharpe said.