Leslee Sharp, A Picture of Vitality in the Profession

“For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much I have seen and known . . .”

The word “vitality” brings to mind Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.” The epic hero, who narrates the poem, speaks of his years gone by, recalling his zest for life as he journeyed across seas and lands unknown before arriving home.

Casting a backward glance at his former days gives him a new energy in the moment. We see his vibrancy not waning in the poem but becoming even brighter until it culminates in the poem’s final three lines. There, Ulysses describes his internal strength, a resolve to never stop discovering what it means to be alive.

What an approach to strive for!

In thinking about what it means to live a vital professional life, it can be helpful to view a snapshot of this value in action. One person who exhibits enthusiasm both for and in the profession of law can illuminate what “professional vitality” means.

Leslee Sharp, a white woman with light brown hair, wears a navy shirt with red and white flowers, a navy sweater, and a gold kangaroo pin on her sweater.Leslee Sharp is one such person.

She looks toward the future of her practice and of the profession with optimism. Through her past experiences and present endeavors, she champions connecting to others and serving for the good of the profession.

And she will be the first to tell you how the people she has met throughout her career journey have made all the difference.

Sharp, a member of the Professional Vitality Committee since its inception in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, has experienced many adventures during her career. She has navigated through various waters and traversed terrains by shifting her area of focus, adapting to changes in the field of law, and founding a solo firm.

And, now, she has recounted some of her experiences as an attorney in a forthcoming NCBarBlog post titled “When I’m 64.”* In it, Sharp explores what it might look like to retire from the practice of law at some point in the not-too-far future – and begin the transition to a slower pace. She wrote the blog post to create dialogue about closing one’s practice and all that it brings up, and to open up opportunities for others to talk about their futures, too.

When I spoke with Sharp in her office, the small gold pin she was wearing immediately caught my eye as a representation of the word “vitality.” After I looked closer, I saw that the pin portrayed a kangaroo with a small joey in its pouch – an animal known for its abounding energy. After I remarked on the bright object, Sharp moved the foot of the kangaroo ever so slightly to show how the joey moves forward with only a touch.

In this small gesture, Sharp showed me another quality of vitality. It shines forth in small, meaningful actions.

Like the kangaroo pin, Sharp’s career is marked with moments of movements, both small and large. Some were intentional, and some happened as the result of different circumstances. But all of them have led her to engage even more fully in the profession that she loves.

One of her first moves was geographical and set her on a new course. After practicing in California for almost eight years, Sharp relocated to North Carolina in 1992, where she began practicing real estate law with a small firm. Some years later, after working as an in-house attorney with a title company, she started to think about what she wanted to do next in her career. She had practiced commercial real estate for over ten years until 2006 when she made the leap to another practice area.

She did not plan to make this change – it just happened out of the blue.

“My transition from commercial real estate to guardianship work really was kind of a fluke. A colleague of mine, who happened to be clerk of court at that time, called me up and said, I’d like to appoint you as guardian of an estate for a gentleman, because I really don’t think his family is doing quite right monetarily for him.

“I said, I don’t even know what that means. I have no idea what a guardian of an estate does, or what that’s all about. She said, you’re bright. You’ll pick it up. I had no idea.

“Well, my friend was pretty persuasive, so the next thing I knew, I found myself down at the courthouse getting sworn in as a guardian of an estate. This is what we do as lawyers, learning new concepts like what a guardian of an estate does, how to do it, and reaching out to other attorneys who do that type of work for pointers and support.”

Sharp narrates that these events occurred in a short time. Given that things turned out the way they did, it is no surprise that she is a fan of the Beatles.

As they sing, “Life is what happens to you / while you’re busy making other plans.”

Reflecting on her turn to estate administration law, she is glad she made this move. But as she looks back, she does not regret beginning her career in a different area.

In her own words, real estate law was fascinating. She details what it was like to witness real estate development in Raleigh in the early ’90s, remarking on how much it was growing at the time. But she says that overall, she was less involved with people when she practiced real estate law.

“With elder law, you need to understand these are real people. You’re touching their lives, their livelihood and their future. And as I’m talking, it’s occurring to me, I think the biggest thing you need to realize is, in either case, neither one of the types of clients are just about the money, and neither area of law is easy.”

Because attorneys can experience challenges within any area of focus, connecting with other attorneys is important for embarking on a life of vitality. By talking with others in the profession about their experiences, attorneys can share concerns they might not be able to voice otherwise.

Attorneys are used to solving others’ problems but not problems of their own, says Sharp. In her words, to be an attorney is to help someone. And, she shares, just as clients need support, attorneys can benefit from asking for help, too.

It is rewarding to have other attorneys who will offer advice and encouragement as one sails the seas of the legal profession.

If, in its simplest form, being an attorney means providing support to clients, it makes sense that helping people is what brings Sharp the most joy in her role. For her, to be an attorney is to act with the best interest of one’s client in mind.

“As a lawyer, as a counselor, that’s the real question – did you provide your client with the legal service they needed, or did you just create a bunch of legal documents that may or may not suit their needs?” she says.

For attorneys who may be thinking about moving from one focus area to another, as Sharp has done, she imparts some words of wisdom.

“My thought there is, keep an open mind. You just really never know when an area of the law that you never thought you would be interested in finds its way into your office, and you might eventually decide, hey, I like this. I could be good at this,” says Sharp.

“You might find this new area of the law has more in common with some of your skillset than you thought possible. You might find some of the techniques that you use in those areas of the law in which you feel comfortable are transferable.”

To a new attorney, or to one in any stage of their career who may be considering a change, it is worthwhile to step back and assess what is important.

“Look for clients who are people you really want to help. Look for a type of client who you feel is deserving. And then figure out that area of law that’s going to help you serve those clients. I think that might help you find a different area of law than what you’re doing.”

Making this kind of decision can have a direct impact on one’s vitality in the profession.

“Think about what you enjoy in life and look for areas of law akin to what you enjoy in life. Look for areas of the law that mimic activities that give you joy, and see if there might be areas of the law that make you happier or feel more rewarded,” she says.

“Because, as they say, if you enjoy your work, you’ll never work a day in your life. It’ll all be enjoyable.”

light brown hair, wears a navy shirt with red and white flowers, a navy sweater, and a gold kangaroo pin on her sweater. She stands outside her office, which is in a red brick building and has a gold sign with "Sharp Law Offices" outside the black door.

Sharp, pictured here in front of her solo firm, Sharp Law Offices.

Sharp knows what it is like to find joy in her role, and part of that is because of another turn in her journey. Eighteen years ago, she transitioned work environments from being in-house to launching her own solo firm.

Managing her schedule is a key benefit.

 “I’ve always said that I don’t do very well in the confines or the constructs of other people’s boxes, which makes solo practice really good for me. I define what my own day looks like, which kind of makes solo practice really appealing for me – also being able to pick and choose my own clients.

“On the other hand. Being in-house, you had one client. You knew what their hot buttons were. I really was able to develop a strategy that made me very good at doing the legal work. It required being very good at protecting their legal interests, whether I was litigating or drafting contracts because I had just one objective.”

Practicing on her own has generated new avenues for growth, and it also has presented some unforeseen hurdles. For example, she had to learn how to run a business while practicing law at the same time.

“You may have a day where you walk in the door, and you really want to get those pleadings drafted, but my gosh, it’s tax time and you have to pull financial figures together, or its time to get payroll together, or a staffing issue arises.”

Another difficulty for solo practitioners, she says, can be finding business, which is why she feels fortunate and thankful for her clients. And very thankful for the opportunity to serve as a public administrator/guardian of estate.

Too, working alone can be challenging at times. Being a solo practitioner prompted her to seek out ways to meet and talk with others, which have included joining the NCBA and the Professional Vitality Committee, as well as taking time to make personal connections wherever she can.

When asked how the profession has changed during her career, she says that advances in technology have altered some of the rhythms of her role. The shift to e-filing, she says, was one of those changes because it eliminated her need to go to the courthouse each week.

Before e-filing, she regularly visited the courthouse to file inventories and estate annual accountings with the clerk. She also filed pleadings in the estates and special proceedings divisions including opening decedents estates, guardianship matters, and real property sales.

Her visits to the courthouse provided her opportunities to converse in person with others and to learn information she says she would not have easily known.

“I would truck down to the courthouse with my accountings. And while I was down there, I was meeting with the clerk. We were talking, for instance, about issues that arise from those accountings. I would talk with lawyers.

“And then when we went to e-filing, you know, I rarely go to the courthouse, and it didn’t take me very many weeks to realize not only did I miss that social interaction, but how much information I had been gathering informally while speaking with those clerks and lawyers in the courthouse; we were talking about countless issues that were arising every week.”

The shift to e-filing reduced the personal interaction she had grown accustomed to, and as a result, these conversations vital to her work no longer took place each week.

These changes in technology have made her realize how important it is to initiate conversations with others in the field. It is important to build relationships with people by intentionally seeking out moments to connect.

“I think as colleagues, we sometimes hesitate to call up another law firm. We hesitate to call up our competition and ask a question for fear someone’s going to think badly of us. But to the contrary, I believe they’ll think more highly of us because we did reach out. And I think it will build a camaraderie within that area of the law if we know that we can reach out to get guidance and suggestions from each other,” she says.

The ABA Retirement Funds advertisement displays a large tree in front of a green meadow. The ad reads "Strength & Experience: Retirement and financial wellness planning for your employees. Contact us today!" The phone number is 800.826.8901 and the website is www.abaretirement.com.

She specifically mentions the NCBA member directory as a valuable resource, one that can be accessed through the online Communities page.

“Those directories of section members are there for a reason,” she says.

“That’s to encourage you to contact each other, and I would certainly say I use those. I call people, and my experience has certainly been when I reach out and call someone, they’re always very helpful. And I always try if someone reaches out to me to be helpful, just as helpful as I can be.”

Sharp has described e-filing as one technological advance that has impacted the profession. As she looks ahead, she expresses some trepidations about technology such as AI.

“I fear we attorneys as a whole are going to spend less time speaking with our client. We’re going to be filling in the blanks and ending up with documents that don’t necessarily suit their specific needs. And keep in mind I do wills, trusts, and estate planning. I don’t do a lot of litigation, so I don’t know how true that will be in the litigation field. But, certainly, I think in the estate planning and the contractual world, those things cause me concern.”

As technology moves forward, there are ways to continue prioritizing time with clients, even as new applications are created or introduced. Sharp has demonstrated how talking with others and joining together through volunteer work are important actions attorneys can take in any career stage.

When asked what advice she would give to new attorneys, she suggests that they meet with professors at law schools and in law school clinics because they are willing to talk with new attorneys and might be able to provide opportunities to be mentored.

Connecting with others can spark new ideas and friendships. That is, in part, why Sharp remained a member of the Professional Vitality Committee. Sharp started on the Transitioning Lawyers Commission in 2016. The TLC was a subgroup of the Professional Wellness Committee and transitioned to the Professional Vitality Committee in 2019.

She serves on the PVC Publications subcommittee. Since 2020, she has been a member of the editorial board for the Retire, Reset, Reinvent: Planning for the Next Stage of Your Law Practice publication and wrote the section titled “‘Of Counsel’: Considerations and Agreements.” The e-book was written for attorneys who are considering a professional transition and offers valuable resources, checklists and information to help them plan for the next phase in their career journey.

In addition to the PVC, Sharp has over the years since joining the NCBA been a part of the Elder & Special Needs Law Section, the Estate Planning & Fiduciary Law Section, and the Real Property Section, as well as a member of the Communications Committee.  She recently reached the magic age to become a member of the Senior Lawyers Division.

As Sharp looks back on her involvement, she expresses gratitude for her fellow committee members.

“The Professional Vitality Committee is just a really good group of people, all really upbeat, from various practice scenarios, in-house and various firm sizes and differing backgrounds. I think hearing these different perspectives is helpful in many ways.

“I think it’s been very helpful in moving the PVC forward with publishing blogs, articles, and the RRR publication; using these writings to help further the goal of promoting vitality within the profession and in the forefront of the minds of attorneys, who, unfortunately by our nature, are not always a happy bunch of well-adjusted people.”

She gives us a peek into where the PVC began and how it has grown. The committee’s initial conversations touched on vitality within the profession. As they continued meeting, they conversed about how attorneys could continue to reflect that vibrancy throughout various stages in their practices.

“We began to discuss what happens when attorneys are leaving or transitioning out of practice. That really was the focus of the TLC. But as the PVC came to life, we also thought, well, maybe we should start thinking about how to keep the mental health of attorneys vital while they’re still practicing.”

The former topic she mentions, retirement, involves some additional steps for solo attorneys such as Sharp than it might for practitioners who are in-house or who work for a larger firm.

Choosing to close a practice is one that, from her perspective, can bring up thoughts about the future, and an array of feelings as one goes through the process. Retiring is not a step she has taken yet, but it is one she has thought about and prepared for, in part because of her conversations with members of the committee.

“It’s kind of an emotional thing, as I said, and you kind of picked up on it in the blog post, I think. When I got into the law – it was a natural progression, I will say – I never thought of myself as one of those people who would one day lock the door, throw away the key and say I’m retired.

“But as I am getting older, I still don’t think it will be quite that abrupt, but I do think it will look a little more like a traditional retirement than I thought. I still will keep my toe in the water a little bit.”

As Sharp continues to voice her thoughts on what her next professional move might be, she shows how such a change signifies something beautiful.

She is defining her next chapter, and she will not be alone when she starts it.

“I think I’m better prepared for making a transition because of having worked with many of the people on the Professional Vitality Committee and because of the support of colleagues in the profession,” she says.

“As I’ve been on the committee, I’ve gotten closer to retirement age. When I started doing guardianship, there was this pretty significant gap between the elder population that I served and myself age wise. And as I’ve done this for 18 years, that gap between the elder population and myself, well, that’s pretty small now. I’m about the age of many of those people I serve.

“And likewise, now, I’m a senior lawyer. I think I’m still pretty vital. But I think it was really helpful to me to begin thinking earlier about what life was going to look like for me as mentally and physically I slowed down. Because much of that we cannot control, it’s a natural process we go through, so it was kind of good in the back of my mind that planning was taking place.”

When she does move to a different season, and it will not be for a while, she wants to remain engaged in the profession.

And because that can look like whatever she would like it to, this picture of retirement is also lovely. It may have a new rhythm when compared to her current schedule, but she can define it.

Sharp portrays vitality as abounding with openness, adapting to change and anticipating future adventures, both in and out of the office, with alacrity.

She also shows another important quality of vitality: like joy and laughter, it echoes the most when it is shared.

*Be on the lookout for Sharp’s blog post, which will be featured on the home page of NCBarBlog in June and announced in e-bar.

Jessica Junqueira is communications manager for the North Carolina Bar Association.